It took five games, but finally Stephen Curry, the NBA's MVP, looked right at home and comfortable in the Finals.
The league's biggest stage has been something akin to the "LeBron James Invitational" the past five years, with the singular talents of James thoroughly dominating the diminished Eastern Conference, and his foreboding shadow has eclipsed the entire court for most of these Finals. As outstanding as he has been so far, he outdid himself yet again in Sunday's pivotal Game 5, saving nothing "for the swim back," as it were, and he finished with a simply stupid stat line of 40 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists, the kind of triple-double that hasn't been pulled off in the NBA Finals in over 30 years, since Jerry West pulled it off in 1969 which is fitting because... well we'll get to that. In fact, LeBron had 20-8-8 at half, which, uh
LeBron James: 1st player since he entered the league with at least 20 pts, 8 reb, 8 ast in a 1st half of any game (reg season or playoffs)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 15, 2015
After a blowout loss on their home floor in Game 4, the Cavs mixed up their tactics to counter Steve Kerr's "tiny-ball" maneuver, where Golden State started wing Andre Iguodala and effectively used 6'6 Draymond Green as their starting center in Andrew Bogut's stead. David Blatt's solution was to remove his center from the proceedings as well, despite Timofey Mozgov leading the Cavs with 28 points in the loss. The Cavs have a truncated bench as it is, using basically a seven man rotation in the wake of season-ending injuries to Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, and here was Blatt, shrinking them -- literally!-- even further, playing Mozgov just nine insignificant minutes in Game 5.
It's true that the hulking Russian had no prayer of guarding Iguodala in Game 4. The Warriors ripped the Cavs apart, especially late in that game, with "Iggy" canning wide open threes and the rest of his teammates making use of the space in the paint that Mozgov had vacated. And Blatt made sure to point out --repeatedly-- that his adjustment did seem to work for the lion's share of the game. Despite the deceptive final margin of victory, the game was a nip-and-tuck affair until the final minutes.
Curry, who had one of the worst games of his career in Game 2 and ignited just a hair too late to save Game 3, was good not great in Game 4, happy to trust his teammates off Cleveland's hard trapping. It was Iguodala and, to a lesser extent, Draymond Green, who drew all the rave reviews after the previous game, and there wouldn't be much argument at all that overall Iguodala had been the Warriors MVP this series.
The Cavs didn't gear their entire defense toward stopping him this time around and they couldn't, really, without a functional big man to hedge. Instead they relied on Matthew Dellavedova to make Curry work for everything he got, and shaded Curry with a second defender, similar to how the Warriors are guarding James. Curry didn't force much and picked his spots, scoring at least five points in each quarter to pace the Dubs with 20 going into a fourth quarter they led 73-67.
A spurt by James with Curry on the bench quickly tied it up however and they led 80-79 on a James three with 7:47 to go, with the number all too appropriate because he shot it practically from the San Francisco International Airport runway. Curry quickly answered with a 26-footer of his own and the Warriors never relinquished the lead from there. Iguodala and Klay Thompson drilled bombs soon after to open up some room, but some dodgy free throw work by Iggy kept the Cavs within hailing room. It was Curry who put them away, sandwiching a driving layup around two bombs, crossing up poor Dellavedova in the process both times. Four garbage time free throws conspired to give him 37 on the night.
Curry is back to looking like his usual, unguardable and plain unfair self and the Warriors, with two straight wins against the undermanned Cavs, are back in control of the series, with a chance to close it out in front of 20,000 despondent Clevelanders on Tuesday night. It would be Golden State's first championship in 40 years, which believe it or not, even predates the existence of the one big man who stood a chance of throwing a wrench into the works these playoffs.
Much of the discussion around these Finals now is about the relative merits of small ball versus traditional play. Moving Green to center at Bogut's expense was pegged as the key tactic to turn the series back in the Warriors favor, while Blatt made sure to explain that his response in kind was what kept the Cavs competitive in Game 5.
There's probably significant truth that going small has helped both teams but what has struck me is how dramatically the Warriors have dominated the last few minutes of games.
They outscored Cleveland 21-9 over the last 10 minutes (regulation and overtime) of Game 1, blitzed the Cavs 15-4 in the last 3:13 of regulation of Game 2 before petering out in overtime of Game 2, made a furious Curry-led ourth quarter run to almost tie Game 3 late despite staring the period down 72-55, and dominated the final period to the tune of 26-9 in Game 4 until garbage time. It was the same story in Game 5, the Warriors blowing open a one-point game with a 19-5 burst despite Iguodala's free-throw clankery.
Maybe the story of the series, even more than who's playing small and who's staying big, is just that James is brilliant enough to drag his teammates into competitive play for 42 minutes or so, but after that even he's not superhuman enough to not run out of gas.
James tried conserving some energy in the third quarter to save himself for the fourth, and it looked like it was working, but again he flagged in the final few minutes when Curry just continued to rain death from above.
The Cavs are so shorthanded that their only chance seems to be to lead by a healthy margin to give themselves some wiggle room for error in the end. As the saying goes, if they're even, then the Warriors are leavin,' or something like that.
Seriously though, James has been so spectacular, the media voters seriously have to give him the Finals MVP, even if the Cavs lose in six. He's been far and away the best player in this series, and singlehandedly kept it from being a crushing bore. That the Cavs have won two games and been close in two others is a borderline miracle.
The only other Finals MVP in a losing cause? Of course it was West, in 1969.
Gotta think Blatt will try hack-a-Iggy in the meat of the next game, especially if the Cavs find themselves trailing early. Iguodala bricks a few more freebies, it might move Kerr to sub him out, and that would be a gigantic win for Cleveland. Not only is Iguodala by far the Warriors best defender on James, but he's been a huge asset offensively too as a secondary playmaker to Curry, a scorer in transition and a semi-threat from deep. At this point, what does Blatt have to lose?
It'd be too cruel to suggest that J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert have turned back into pumpkins in this series. It would also be factually incorrect.
They simply turned back into Knicks.