CLEVELAND—For the fourth game of the NBA Finals, the Golden State Warriors tried a new trick: showing up.
Oh, sure, the Warriors had been out there before, in uniform and everything, and they played OK at times, and they even won a game. But they were not the Warriors we had come to know and admire. They were tentative, off-kilter, even deferential. They saw it on tape of Game 3, which must have been as much fun as watching video of an ex-girlfriend’s wedding.
“They were just playing at a different level than we were, in terms of energy and effort,” Golden State forward Harrison Barnes said Thursday night, as he sat in a much happier locker room. “They were competing more than we were. And that’s embarrassing, to be in the Finals and lose based on effort.”
Starting Tuesday night, drifting into Wednesday, and through Thursday morning’s shootaround, you got the sense that the Warriors knew Game 4 would be different. They were done with this nonsense. They did not come this far to be extras in Matthew Dellavedova’s life story.
The Warriors are the better team, and they know it. Finally, they showed it in their 103–82 Game 4 whipping of the Cavaliers. The most obvious reason for the Warriors’ improvement was their new lineup—coach Steve Kerr went small, inserting Andre Iguodala for Andrew Bogut and igniting a faster pace. But the other reason is that they stopped worrying and started playing.
Stephen Curry looked like a superstar again. Draymond Green looked like a coveted future free agent again. The waves of talent and skill were back, the offense was as beautiful as it normally is, and the Warriors looked like the Warriors.
At some point in most NBA playoff series, the better team takes control. The upsets usually happen when the favorite battles injuries or a particularly challenging matchup.
The Warriors are the better team, and the Cavs are not a terribly tricky matchup, except for one guy. Perhaps you have heard of him.
Oh, enough already. LeBron James has to win this series by himself, and he has to do it by winning Game 5 or 7 in Oakland, Calif. He has been absolutely dominant in that critical advanced stat: Games When He Doesn’t Run Into a Camera and Gash His Head Open. Alas, in Game 4 he did run into a camera and gash his head open, and on top of that he seemed exhausted, probably from doing most of the Cavaliers’ scoring, passing and rebounding, but also from pretending his teammates are better than they are.
He should be used to this by now. James would have won a title in his first Cavaliers stint if the front office had surrounded him with better teammates. Instead, he dragged mediocre groups to extraordinary regular seasons, and then better overall teams in Orlando, Boston, Detroit and Miami made the Finals.
In Game 4, this Cavs team showed just how bad it can be. The Cavs shot 33% from the field. They made their first two three-pointers, then missed 23 of their next 25. This should not detract from Dellavedova’s potential knighthood, but it’s disconcerting heading into Game 5.
Long after Game 4 ended, I stood near Dellavedova’s locker-room stall with a cluster of other media folks, waiting for the world’s least quotable Australian to emerge and answer questions. He finally arrived, wearing only a towel, and a public-relations person asked, “Can we please make room for Delly to get through?”
I don’t know why she was worried. Dellavedova had already been exposed. He shot three for 14 with four assists and three turnovers. The Warriors dared him to dribble to his left and beat them, and he couldn’t. They dared him to be the hero, and he wasn’t.
Dellavedova went on to say the Cavs need to play better, and also play better and play better. A few feet away, James got dressed. He loves Dellavedova’s toughness, and who wouldn’t? I really, truly admire Dellavedova’s relentlessness, and I really, truly appreciate his belief in himself, and I mostly, generally think he is a solid NBA player. But the Cavs are relying way too much on a player of his limited talent to help them win an NBA title.
They don’t have a choice, with Irving out with a broken kneecap. But Dellavedova has scored 39 points on 41 shots in the Finals. His Grit Index is off the charts, but what will that get him when Steph Curry plays like Steph Curry?
Curry’s final numbers were nothing special, by his standards: eight for 17 from the field 22 points, six assists, four turnovers. But he looked like himself again. He made smart passes. He wasn’t rattled by physical play or traps. He wasn’t hesitant but he also didn’t force plays. His shots looked pure—if a couple of them had fallen instead of going halfway down, rattling around the rim and leaking out, the final stat line would look a lot better.
“He was back to himself,” Barnes said. “He wasn’t thinking about anything, he was moving the same, he was getting easy looks, he was able to get some energy going, and we feed off that. It’s always good in theory to say, ‘Even if we miss every shot we still bring good energy.’ But when your best player is going, everybody feeds off of that.”
I suppose we have reached the point in the column where I wonder why James could not turn J.R. Smith into Scottie Pippen. At this point, it would be nice if he could just turn J.R. Smith into J.R. Smith. The Cavs have to live with the knuckleheaded plays—Smith would commit three fouls if you asked him to guard the Venus de Milo—but they need the scoring bursts, too. Smith missed 10 of his 12 shots, including all eight of his three-pointers.
The Cavs need to win one game in Oakland, and they probably need a 15-point plus night from J.R. to do it. He is capable. Delly is capable of another good game like he had in Game 3. Timofey Mozgov showed Thursday that he can abuse Golden State’s small-ball lineup. For most of the series, Cavaliers coach David Blatt hasn't let Mozgov play against smaller lineups, but now maybe he will.
Mostly, though, the Cavs need LeBron to be the best version of himself. They need him to carry them to a championship.
Game 4 proved what we all thought: Golden State has the best team. But the Cavs still have the best player, and they need to find a way to win two of the final three games. Did I say they? I meant he.