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2018 NBA Playoffs

Stephen Curry: ‘I keep saying the same thing. I feel good.’

Warriors star has struggled on both ends of court against Rockets, but he said his knee is not to blame

HOUSTON — Two years ago, Stephen Curry huddled in a prayer led by pastor John Gray after suffering a knee injury in the playoffs against the Houston Rockets. On Wednesday night, the Golden State Warriors guard and the reality television star were reunited at the Toyota Center after another playoff game against the Rockets, but this time there was joy and laughter.

“I texted Steph that link so he can watch our first service” at Relentless Church in Greenville, South Carolina, Gray said.

“And I texted him back to tell him I already watched it,” Curry said.

While Curry said his knee is not an issue as he struggles on both ends of the floor in the 2018 Western Conference finals, perhaps it wouldn’t have been a bad idea for Gray to say another word of prayer before they parted ways.

The two-time NBA MVP missed the final 10 regular-season games and six playoff games after suffering a left MCL sprain. He also missed 19 regular-season games because of a sprained right ankle. He played four games of the second-round series against the New Orleans Pelicans, averaging 24.5 points, 5.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2 steals in 37.5 minutes per game while shooting 44.1 percent from 3-point range.

Curry was expected to be his explosive-scoring self in the Western Conference finals, especially after five days of rest. But so far against Houston, the five-time NBA All-Star has struggled offensively and has been exploited defensively. Curry declined to use his knee injury as an excuse.

“I feel good. I feel good,” Curry told The Undefeated. “It’s something that you can’t shake off because of how recent the injury was. But I’m out there. I feel great, and I’m not worried about anything with my knee. I keep saying the same thing. I feel good.”

Curry scored 18 points while missing four of five 3-pointers and took only two free throws in the Warriors’ 119-106 victory against the Rockets in Game 1. Warriors coach Steve Kerr said the nine-year veteran had a better game than he was given credit for because of his 8 assists, 6 rebounds and 2 steals. In the Rockets’ 127-105 blowout win in Game 2 on Wednesday night, Curry had 16 points after missing seven of eight 3-point attempts, 7 rebounds and 7 assists in 34 minutes. He averaged 23.3 points, 5.7 assists and 5 rebounds in three regular-season games against Houston.

Curry found success using ball screens in the regular season but has used 10 fewer per game against Houston, taking only four shots off screens, according to Second Spectrum. Perhaps going forward, the two-time NBA champion will go back to his past success by using screens from teammates Draymond Green and Kevin Durant. The 6-foot-3, 190-pounder also made 41 percent of his pull-up 3-pointers during the regular season, but he has missed all six so far in this series, according to ESPN Stats & Information. To Curry’s credit, he has abused Houston on layups.

“It’s a long series. They are trying to play a certain kind of way to keep me off the line. I’ve probably gotten into the paint more than I have all season,” Curry told The Undefeated. “I have to use that to my advantage, being decisive and selective trying to get those 3s off. At the end of the day, that is not really the issue why we lost tonight.

“I only made one the first game and we won by double digits. So it’s all the little stuff, us being connected as a unit and getting good shots. We’ll figure it out.”

The Warriors have four notable defenders in their “Hamptons Five” starting lineup used in both games against Houston: Durant, Green, Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala. Curry doesn’t have a defensive reputation despite having success with steals.

Houston has taken advantage of Curry’s deficiencies defensively by making him the primary defender on 43 plays in the half court the first two games, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That is 14 more than any other Warriors player. Curry was involved in at least 20 defensive plays just once in 51 regular-season games. But that’s been the case twice already in this series, including 23 in Game 2.

Curry joked by saying, “Surprise, surprise” when asked about the Rockets testing him defensively. Durant added that every player on their team has to hold his own defensively.

“It’s obviously one of our things we like to do,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “I thought Steph guarded pretty well tonight. He got some steals. But our whole thing was our force.”

Curry has set the bar high for expectations with his elite play while leading the Warriors to two NBA championships during three straight Finals appearances. He is confident he will play better soon.

“The [high] bar that I’ve set, that is my expectation as well,” Curry said. “If I don’t live up to that, that’s fine. It’s a long series. I will make impactful plays on both ends. We’ll be in good shape.”

There were a lot of friends and family members waiting to say hello to the Rockets and Warriors players in a waiting area not far from the Warriors’ visitors locker room after Game 2. After speaking to the media, Curry went straight to Gray and the pastor’s wife, Aventer, to say hello and catch up.

Gray became a familiar face in the Christian world as associate pastor under Joel Osteen at Lakewood Church in Houston. Gray became more familiar nationally when his family, which includes two kids, became the subject of a reality show on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN television network. Early in 2016, Gray said he and Curry became friends through a mutual connection, and the latter eventually attended a religious service in Houston during a Warriors road trip.

With Gray in attendance, there was fear that Curry suffered a major right knee injury in Game 4 of a first-round series against the Rockets in 2016. As Curry departed in street clothes long after the game, the pastor and some other friends huddled around the Warriors star for a long and emotional prayer. The prayers were answered, as the injury wasn’t as bad as feared as Curry suffered a grade 1 sprain.

“I’m an organic relationship guy. I don’t force anything with relationships with people that I walk with,” Gray said of his friendship with Curry. “When he hurt his knee here a couple of years ago, we prayed. That was a serious thing. He, of course, came back and blew everybody away. Moments like that kind of solidified our brotherhood.

“I’m there for you whether it’s good, you’re doing well, or whether it’s not doing well. I think that is what real brotherhood and real friendship is. I love him. I’m proud of him. And I’m more proud of the man he is away from basketball than he is on that court.”

Curry said of Gray, “I got relentless love for him.”

The Warriors returned to the 2016 NBA Finals with Curry back from the knee injury, but they lost the title to the Cleveland Cavaliers in a deciding Game 7. Gray was on hand as Curry walked off the floor holding the championship trophy after winning the 2017 NBA title over Cleveland.

And when the two talk, it’s more about the King James version of the Bible and family than LeBron “King James” of the Cavaliers.

“My thing for Steph is that I always try to give him practical application and spiritual encouragement,” Gray said. “I would like to think I am one of the voices that encourages him. I think the one thing that makes our friendship and encourages him and our brotherhood is that we rarely talk about the sports side. It’s more about the husband and father and the man because that is going to last.

“To the public, what he does on the court will last. But to me, what is important is his wife, his girls, his baby on the way. That he is available to them, that he is building the type of relationship and credibility that he needs to see them as an MVP at home. We got enough stars in sports that are great on the court in whatever capacity but aren’t that successful at home. They end up shipwrecking. I want that for him. When we talk, we talk about those things and his spiritual development and maturity.”

Curry and the Warriors will return home for Game 3 on Sunday with home court and the best of seven series tied 1-1. While Curry would never turn down any prayers from Gray or others, he isn’t concerned about his West finals struggles.

“I feel really blessed about where I am right now,” Curry said. “No matter what is going on this year, the focus is on now. I would have loved to have been playing the last six weeks and have the momentum. But that is not the case. Now, I’ve got to just do my job and play better. We are three wins away from being back where we want to be.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.