No matter what happens in the NBA Finals over the next two or more games, the Golden State Warriors can always savor their regular-season performance.
But it will leave a bitter aftertaste unless they find the right ingredients to neutralize Cleveland.
More Curry would be a great place to start.
A couple of weeks ago, the Warriors were in the conversation on all-time great NBA teams based on their body of work. The way they rolled through the competition was more impressive because they reside in the rugged Western Conference. Their franchise-record 67 victories included a plus-minus of 10.1 points – the only team this season with a double-digit average margin of victory – and no other squad scored more than its 110 points per game.
The Warriors seemed to have it all. They could shoot the lights out, play great defense and move the ball. They enjoyed good health, especially relative to the crippled Cavs and other hobbled playoff teams. At home the Warriors were virtually unbeatable, 39-2 during the regular season and 7-1 in the playoffs entering the Finals. They had the MVP in Steph Curry, the Defensive Player of the Year runner-up in Draymond Green and several other dangerous, multifaceted players.
Now all they have is a puzzling 2-1 deficit and a slew of questions that have perplexed the public.
How can this team twice be held to less than 60 points through three quarters? Where is the spectular offensive firepower? What happened to Curry and who is Matthew Dellavedova to stop him?
If you were looking for the same pyrotechnic attack that the Splash Brothers & Co. made routine, you might have to wait until October.
“This isn’t going to be a series where we’re going to get out and run and score 125 points,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr told reporters in a postgame news conference. “The Finals rarely are played that way. But we still feel like we can get out, push it and force the tempo, and we’ve got to try to do a better job of that.”
The Warriors’ impressive season was accompanied by a nagging concern from old-school hoops observers, who wondered if the team was too soft and too reliant on jump shots. They also wanted to know how well the Warriors could take a punch, which hardly was necessary as they breezed through the schedule.
Cleveland isn’t manhandling Golden State as badly as, say, Chuck Daly’s Pistons or Pat Riley’s Knicks once mauled their opponents. But the Cavaliers’ physical, in-your-chest defense is taking a toll, evidenced by the Warriors’ sagging body language in Game 3 before a furious comeback fell short.
Curry in particular came to life in the final quarter, nailing eight of his last 11 shots after a dreadful 2-for-9 start. He brought the Warriors from down-17 after three quarters to a one-point deficit with 2:45 left in the game.
During his spurt, the slumped shoulders and frowns of frustration disappeared, replaced by raised arms and sneers of satisfaction.
“Whether I’m making shots or not, I’ve got to stay – I’ll use the word ‘vibrant’ – just kind of having fun out there,” Curry said in a postgame news conference. “Because the team definitely feeds off of my energy and joy for the game. So if it’s not going our way, or not going my way, specifically, I’ve got to find different ways to get us going.”
He can’t help noticing the way LeBron James gets the Cavs going. Perhaps going against Curry is the secret, “other motivation” that James says is driving him in this series. “I hope we win so I can tell y’all what it is,” he told reporters.
Here’s one theory: He wants to prove that he’s still the league’s most valuable player, regardless of the voting.
In his four games against Golden State this year (including one in the regular season), James is averaging 41.2 points, 11.8 rebounds and 7.5 assists. His dominance with the ball in isolated situations, slowing the pace and making plays for himself or teammates, is also a prime factor in the Warriors’ offensive woes.
“He’s playing and we’re playing the way we want to play,” Cavs coach David Blatt said in a postgame news conference. “… I thought he controlled the game and helped his team play the way we want to play.”
Attributing the turn of events to a bruising Midwestern team bullying a stylish West Coast team is too easy. But that’s what we seem to have, the Cavs imposing their will and the Warriors wilting under the pressure.
The regular season was nothing like this.