- Golden State stood 48 minutes from the first 16-0 postseason run and Steph Curry dropped the ball.
CLEVELAND – On this wild night, everything got away from the Warriors – their defensive togetherness, their offensive precision, their self-control, and their perfect postseason. There’s one man who must restore order for Golden State: Stephen Curry.
The Cavaliers shocked the Warriors 137-116 at Quicken Loans Arena on Friday, forcing a Game 5 in a series that seemed over and dealing the Warriors their first loss in 61 days. Game 4 was nothing short of a barnburner, with the Cavaliers setting new NBA Finals records for points in a quarter (49 in the first) and three-pointers (24) on their way to scoring the most points in a Finals game in three decades and short-circuiting the Warriors’ bid for a 16-0 run through the playoffs.
Much like in Golden State’s dramatic Game 3 victory, the superstars drove the action. LeBron James posted 31 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists, surpassing Magic Johnson to set an NBA record with his ninth career Finals triple-double. Kyrie Irving was sensational again, hitting seven three-pointers and dumping in a game-high 40 points. With 35 points, Kevin Durant provided plenty of answers for the Warriors, just not enough to help his team dig out of a 24-point hole.
The notable exception was Curry, who started slow and whimpered to the finish. While his stellar play through this series’ first three games was unfairly overshadowed by the hype surrounding Durant’s spectacular entry into this rivalry, his no-show in Game 4 can’t be overlooked. As Cleveland set the tone with picture-perfect offense out of the gate, Curry reverted to his worst habit of tossing away possession with bad passes and mental lapses. As Irving continued to dazzle in a marathon game that was interrupted by an endless string of questionable calls, physical altercations, technical fouls and dozens of free throws, Curry disappeared during a scoreless fourth quarter.
Curry’s final box score line was unsightly: 14 points (his fewest since Feb. 15), 4-13 shooting (his fewest buckets of the postseason), and a game-high four turnovers. The NBA’s plus-minus savant even posted a minus-25 in 38 minutes, his worst mark since a blowout loss to the Thunder in Game 3 of last year’s Western Conference finals.
“Just one of those games,” Curry said. “Not going to overreact to one. Obviously, I can play better and want to play better and will play better.”
But Curry and his rabid fans know this isn’t just about one game. Not when Curry was passed over as Finals MVP in 2015 because Cleveland was able to contain him at times in that series. Not when the NBA’s first unanimous MVP had his masterpiece 73-win season ruined by apparent health issues and an unprecedented 2016 Finals comeback driven by James. Not when Durant’s arrival required Curry to share the limelight this season and led to his strong work in the first three games missing out on the major headlines.
And not when Warriors coach Steve Kerr, in the immediate aftermath of Game 3, had to catch himself halfway through praising Durant’s clutch shot-making.
“I think [Durant] senses this is his time, his moment, his team,” Kerr said, before carefully clarifying. “When I say his team, I mean it's not literally just his team. We got a group around him that can help him and create space for him with the shooting and the play-making.”
This was a necessary catch. Those who view Durant as the best player in this series – and even those who are ready to crown him as the best player in the world – must still acknowledge that the Warriors remain Curry’s team, built in his image, reliant upon his shot-making, decision-making and leadership by example. Durant’s late-season injury and the Warriors’ strong play in his absence served as a reminder that Golden State goes as Curry goes. There may eventually be a peaceful transfer of power – a la Dwyane Wade to James in Miami – but it hasn’t happened yet.
Over the last three seasons, Curry has largely avoided criticism and he has, in turn, kept things close to his vest. There hasn’t been much to complain about: Golden State reeled off 67 wins, then 73, then 67, and it’s still just one win away from its second title. Lame dad shoes. Too many celebrations. A surprisingly quiet end to last year’s Finals. A supposed tendency to shrink when games turn physical. Those have been the main lines of attack against Curry, who would rather sing Disney soundtracks with his family than make headlines exchanging trash talk with lesser players.
And yet, for all the winning and his impeccable behavior, Curry’s reputation hasn’t landed at a fully satisfying place. He’s the game’s best point guard, but Russell Westbrook had more hype this season and Irving has garnered more attention during the Finals. Curry shared the credit for beating James in 2015, he lost to James last year, and he might get bypassed by Durant for first crack at the credit this year. With the cameras rolling, Curry would surely say that none of this bothers him, but he’s human and he’s as competitive as James or Durant or anyone else.
After his poor showing in Game 4, Curry’s frustration came through on multiple occasions. First, he snapped at a reporter who asked him about his so-called squatting celebration (“That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard”). Then, he became animated when informed that the Cavaliers had drawn motivation from “chatter” from Draymond Green about wanting to win the title in Quicken Loans Arena like they did two years ago.
“We are in the NBA Finals,” Curry said. “No matter what you need to inspire you, whatever you need to grab ahold of, chalkboard material, whatever. It's so hard to win a championship.
“We’ve got to find our edge next game. There's no secret. This is how big the stage is right now. We would love to have celebrated tonight and finished off the job. Didn't happen, got another opportunity on Monday. We’ve got to find our edge and respond.”
Indeed, Game 5 represents a major opportunity for both Curry and the Warriors. It’s a chance to prove that all 3-1 leads aren’t created equal. It’s a chance to prove that Golden State did learn its lessons about composure and focus from last year. It’s a chance for Curry to prove that Game 4 was an anomaly, that he can splash his jumpers despite intense defensive pressure, and that he can properly value possessions in a closeout game.
On Friday, Curry played down to the worst stereotypes and misrepresentations of his game. On Monday, he must seize his chance to take Golden State over the top again.