Into the doubts that swirled around him this week, Steph Curry shot Friday night. His wayward shooting has been a topic for much of these playoffs due to injuries and weariness, but in Game 4 of the NBA Finals the league's reigning MVP looked very much like his old self again. And the Golden State Warriors are one victory from their second straight championship.
Curry hit seven of 13 three-point shots on his way to 36 points in the Warriors' 108-97 victory over Cleveland, which gave them a 3-1 series lead. Golden State can officially win the title at home in Monday's Game 5. But the championship might well have been won on Friday with Curry's shooting, 25 points from Klay Thompson, and a weak defensive effort from the Cavaliers, who made just 15 of 26 free throws.
“He was sure with the ball tonight, and just made the right decisions and let the game come to him,” Thompson said of Curry. “He had an amazing game.”
Cleveland's ineptitude was surprising given the way they trampled the Warriors in this building in Wednesday's Game 3. With a boisterous crowd filling the arena, it seemed the Cavs had an excellent chance of tying the series. They were unable to contain the Warriors guards, however. They also lacked the depth of Golden State, and wore down as Curry, Thompson and Andre Iguodala hit jumper after jumper.
Late in the game, as their frustration mounted in a rugged game where they went cold in the fourth quarter, the Cavs players grew chippy. LeBron James, who struggled for much of the game before picking up some late baskets, tangled with Golden State's Draymond Green and then Curry in separate incidents.
Given the way they blew a brilliant opportunity to make the finals a competitive series, the Cavs’ anger could be understood. In addition to James’s sluggish performance, most of the rest of the Cavaliers played poorly in the defeat. Were it not for Kyrie Irving, who had 34 points, the score wouldn’t have been as close as it was.
The talk going into Game 4 mostly centered around Curry, who looked listless in Golden State's Game 3 loss, and on Kevin Love, who was not cleared until minutes before the game started. Warriors coach Steve Kerr said he did not worry much about Curry, figuring his shot would eventually return, but no one around Cleveland knew what they would get from Love.
Both players answered questions quickly. Curry did not fight the Cavs’ double teams early, passing the ball to teammates for wide open jumpers. He also had a few excellent defensive stands against James. Finally, with 3:15 left in the first quarter, he hit a three-pointer, and soon he was looking like the Curry from this regular season.
He drove the lane, throwing up lay-ups. He drove inside before bouncing back to hit open jumpers and he hit his usual long, outside shots. Perhaps his most impressive was a falling-away three deep in the corner near the end of the Warriors bench that dropped through the rim, putting Golden State up 37-33 midway through the second quarter.
“When I had the ball in my hands, I had to be more assertive and decisive with what I was doing,” Curry said, when asked about the difference between Friday night and his listless performance in Game 3. “I was in between in Game 3. We got the ball moving from side to side so I got some better looks off the ball as well.”
But even with Curry shooting well and the Warriors moving the ball like they did in the first two games of this series, Cleveland played inspired, for a time, because Love returned from his concussion and was effective. He entered the game with 5:13 left in the first quarter and hit two quick baskets. It was his defense, however, that helped the Cavs. Several times he altered shots on drives to the basket and had a key block of Green’s driving layup late in the half.
Golden State kept hitting shots, in the second half, and with Curry and Thompson both on, the Warriors kept their pressure on the Cavs. With just under 5:00 left in the third quarter, Golden State struck in a flurry of threes. Iguodala hit one, andimmediately after, he led a three-on-two fast break, passing to Thompson in the middle of the lane, who dished a no-look pass to Curry for an open three-pointer that he hit. A 69-66 Cleveland lead had turned into a 72-69 deficit.
The Cavs’ bench has been a problem all series, and as Friday’s game wore on this deficiency emerged again. The Cavaliers looked tired in what had become a physical game. On one possession late in the third quarter, Golden State had three shots at the basket that missed, but were rebounded by the Warriors extending the possession to nearly a minute.
Love, back from a concussion that kept him out of Game 3, finished with 11 points and five rebounds in 25:00, but the rest of Cleveland’s bench scored just four points. There was too much pressure on Irving and James to carry the Cavs, and James was not playing well enough to do that.
James played 45 minutes and seemed to wear down. Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said: “Well when its tie to win and you’re in the NBA Finals you’ve got to play as many minutes as you need to. If you’ve got to play 96 minutes you’ve got to play 96 minutes. We’re trying to win. We’re in the finals.”
“We felt pretty good,” Kerr said. “We always feel comfortable that if we are competing and defending over 48 minutes, we’re going to break loose at some point offensively.”
As the game grew late, Cleveland came up empty in several drives to the basket. The once-roaring crowd slowly filed out of the stands, and the Cavs appeared headed to another disappointing end to the season.