OAKLAND, Calif.—With the stage now set to his preference and with his chief rival bidding, again and again, to steal the show, Stephen Curry finally made his grand entrance to these Finals, and his timing proved impeccable.
The first four games of this series have pitted LeBron James versus everything the Warriors could muster to stop him, with an emphasis on the whole rather than any individual part. Game 5 on Sunday, though, saw Curry answer James play-for-play down the stretch, finally finding true comfort in his shot and just enough space against an attentive Cavaliers defense to squeeze it off. Golden State, in turn, claimed a 104–91 home victory on Sunday to take a 3-2 series lead and pull within one win of its first championship in 40 years.
Curry's brand of shot-making is practiced, rhythmic, conscience-free and ruthless. The reigning MVP hadn't been able to assemble that full package prior to Game 5, shooting just 41.3% through the first four games. At times, he rushed. At times, he leaned. At times, he hesitated. At times, he overthought. At times, his shoulders slumped. Curry hadn't been awful—he managed 27 points in a Game 1 win and showed flashes late in a Game 3 loss—but he hadn't been himself, and his shooting hadn't set the terms of a series that was regularly being dominated by James.
But Game 4 saw Warriors coach Steve Kerr go small by removing starting center Andrew Bogut in favor of forward Andre Iguodala, and Cavaliers coach David Blatt countered in Game 5 by slicing center Timofey Mozgov's minutes in favor of smaller lineups that could match up more favorably. Now, Curry had all the space he could want to dance on the ball. Now, he faced perimeter defenders who had to worry about their uncovered backsides. Now, he had a resilient opponent adjusting to his liking.
James, in the midst of another historic triple double, drained a three-pointer to give Cleveland a one-point lead with just under eight minutes remaining in regulation. Golden State received fine performances in Game 5 from the likes of Iguodala, Leandro Barbosa and Draymond Green, but the force of James's relentless push, in this swing game with the series tied at two, demanded an answer from the Warriors' centerpiece, not their supporting actors.
And so Curry began dancing, side-stepping help from Mike Miller, losing the ever-pesky Matthew Dellavedova with an inside-out dribble, crossover, step-back combination that should be illegal in 42 states. Freed, Curry pulled up and nailed the three, answering James, reclaiming the lead.
The Warriors never trailed again, as the Curry show continued. With little more than three minutes left, he split a high double team, coasted through a wide open paint, and hit a lefty layup past Tristan Thompson while going spread eagle with his legs.
On the very next possession, in his top sequence of these Finals, Curry left Dellavedova hugging ghosts. He stopped short, shook left, came back right, took a lunging step backward at a diagonal and buried another three to give Golden State a 10-point lead.
"[Curry] hit him with the bop bop," Iguodala said. "His guy left his feet but he was also trying to slide on defense. [Dellavedova] almost falls back, and Steph had that rhythm about him when he shot it. You know it's going in as soon as it's leaving his hands."
The shot was pure Curry, blending all the necessary elements together: the hours of practice honing his craft, the rhythm to step into the shot, no reservations about breaking out a playground sequence in the middle of the biggest game of his life, and the ruthlessness to leave defenders flailing in his wake.
"Signature moments only come for players who are holding the trophy at the end of the day," Curry said. "I can sit here and talk about what a great play it was and what a turning moment it might have been, but we have to be able to back it up and finish the job. It helped us win this game, and hopefully after our next win we can talk about all the great moments in the series."
As Green thought back on Curry's shot, a wide smile broke across his face, and he began whistling into his microphone, as if providing the soundtrack for Curry's blow-by moves. Phewww, Green whistled, and Dellavedova went jumping one way. Phewwww, Green whistled, as Dellavedova went jumping the other. Phewwww, Green whistled, as Curry pulled up and buried the shot over the Australian guard who received significant attention for limiting Curry's effectiveness in Games 2 and 3.
"I'm taking Steph in any matchup," Green said. "So [Dellavedova] was hounding and physical, dirty, it's a fine line, whatever you want to call it. [Dellavedova] did what he does, but I was going with Steph no matter what. And I'm still rolling with Steph no matter what. ... It was an incredible play, and I enjoyed watching it from my front row seat."
Curry's shot was the dagger—a worn down James wasn't able to mount a response—but Curry made sure the win stayed sealed by scoring Golden State's final seven points. He finished with 37 points (on 13-of-23 shooting), seven rebounds and four assists. He had 17 of his points in the final period.
"That was just Steph taking over the game," Kerr said. "It was a different game because they decided to go smaller, and so the floor was more open. I thought from the very beginning when they went small ... this is Steph's night. This is going to be a big one for him because he has all that room. He took over the game down the stretch and was fantastic."
It took Curry's best to overcome another mammoth performance from James, who finished with 40 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists in a night that, even in defeat, bolstered his case for Finals MVP. Not only did James register his third triple double of this postseason, but his 40/14/11 numbers are an unprecedented combination in the last 40 years. No player has posted a 35/11/11 line in the postseason over the last 30 years besides James, who has now done it five times during his career and three times this postseason.
By halftime, James had already posted 20/8/8, a line that had only been matched in an entire Finals game by five other players (Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan, Jason Kidd and Russell Westbrook) in the last 15 years. By halftime! In the first half, James scored or assisted on 15 of Cleveland's 16 baskets. At the end of the night, he had scored or assists 26 of Cleveland's 32 baskets.
After playing 45 minutes, after scoring 40 for the third time in this series, and after falling to within one loss of a 2-4 career record in the Finals, James was left mulling a long list of laments. He hadn't boxed out a few times, he committed a few regrettable turnovers, and his Cavaliers had given up too many fast-break and second-chance points. There had been too many mistakes, whether fatigue-driven or otherwise, to expect a win with Curry gunning at full volume.
"He was great," James said of Curry. "You tip your hat to a guy who makes shots like that, and he's the guy that can do it in our league. He's the best shooter in our league."
Blatt, meanwhile, was left fending off a series of questions about whether he should have stuck with Mozgov, rather than going small. Agitated by the inquiries, the first-year coach pointed out that Cleveland had kept the final margin closer in Game 5 than it did in Game 4. Blatt seems damned if he does go small and damned it he doesn't: he must choose between nonstop Mozgov-Iguodala mismatches if he stays big and Curry's open court mastery if he goes small. Given the threadbare state of his rotation, there's really no way for him to split the difference.
So the Warriors and Cavaliers head back to Cleveland for Tuesday's Game 6, with Golden State aiming to finish its dream season and Cleveland looking to live another day. The only thing standing between the reeling Cavaliers and the end of their season, and the only thing standing between the rolling Warriors and their first title since 1975, is James, who succeeded in putting a real scare into the Oracle Arena crowd before Curry's reassuring fourth-quarter arrival.
"I feel confident because I'm the best player in the world," James declared.
That message—a rallying cry and a challenge all in one, considering the circumstances—required no interpretation. Curry, Iguodala, Green and the rest of the Warriors must take down James one more time, they must battle him to exhaustion one more time, they must withstand his all-encompassing mastery one more time, and they must overwhelm and outmaneuver his Cavaliers teammates one more time. All roads to the championship lead through James.
While Curry might not be able to match James, stat for stat and number for number, he proved again Sunday that he can be devastating in his own way, that his style can shatter ankles and defensive coverages alike. The Curry everyone had been waiting for is here now, far better late than never, and with him comes the unveiling of the Warriors' full might.
One more win, and Curry will claim a label that he and James have chased all year, one that dwarfs even the one James bestowed upon himself after Game 5. That label? The best player on the best team in the world.