After a series’ worth of struggles, Stephen Curry finally found his way toward some open space. Barely.
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The NBA’s MVP nailed seven three-pointers on his way toward 37 points as his Golden State Warriors worked toward a pivotal Game 5 win, downing the Cleveland Cavaliers 104-91. Curry managed 17 fourth-quarter points in the conquest, taking a 3-2 series lead as his W’s could take in the franchise’s first NBA championship in 40 years in Tuesday’s Game 6 in Cleveland.
"We're not getting ahead of ourselves," Curry said postgame before needing to be treated for dehydration. "In the locker room, if you walked in there was the exact same after a regular-season win. But we know the sense of urgency of the moment. It's a good feeling to get a win in Cleveland and understand we can get it done and how we need to get it done."
After struggling to find consistent rhythm throughout the series, Curry went against Golden State orthodoxy in relying on a litany of one-on-one fakes against fading Cavalier point man Matthew Dellavedova down the stretch. Needing just a scintilla of distance against the upstart Cavs guard, Curry rose up for seven three-pointers in 13 attempts, overcoming LeBron James’ second triple-double of these Finals. James finished with 40 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists in the loss.
Golden State continued its two-game tradition of going small, once again replacing 7-foot center Andrew Bogut in the starting lineup with jack of all trades Andre Iguodala. And, once again, Iguodala responded with a gem of a game, contributing 14 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and three steals alongside zero turnovers and it’s-as-best-as-I-can-do defense on James. “Center” Draymond Green, meanwhile, did yeoman’s work in acting as a brute all-around force, adding 16 points, nine rebounds and five assists.
Just one game after the highest-scoring game of his NBA career, Cavs center Timofey Mozgov found himself sitting to start the second half. Mozgov, who acted as Cleveland’s second-best option in a tough Game 4 loss with 28 points, played only spot minutes as both sides eschewed tradition and ran with their best five players regardless of position and size.
"I thought I was pretty clear I thought that was our best chance to win the game," Cavs coach David Blatt said about his Mozgov move. "And we were definitely in the game with a chance to win. So that's the way we played it."
Cleveland had its chances. For a while at least.
The Cavs overcame a strong Golden State start, replete with great spacing and ball movement, to take a first quarter lead and remain competitive throughout. Game 5 was a two-point game as late as the 4:24 mark of the fourth quarter, with a potentially game-tying James jump hook from 7 feet away from the goal going long. J.R. Smith showed a confident stroke in the first half, establishing a series high with 14 points, while Tristan Thompson once again crashed the offensive glass with five caroms on that end alongside five defensive rebounds on his way to a 19 and 10 night in the loss.
The Cavaliers just could not keep up.
Dellavedova, charged with chasing Curry while attempting to set up Cleveland’s minimalist offense, was dragging even coming out of timeouts in the fourth quarter, and Curry took notice. The W’s guard entered the fourth quarter with 20 points, hardly a failing effort, but his team was nursing just a six-point lead heading into the final frame despite tactical changes and James’ skinflint support.
With Golden State’s ball movement lacking, and after already establishing himself as just an accurate passer and/or decoy as he was a scorer, Curry danced around Dellavedova to the tune of three fourth-quarter three-pointers, matching James’ mark from behind the arc. LeBron’s 16 fourth-quarter points and an expected move from Cleveland to intentionally foul Iguodala (who missed nine of 11 free throws) were not enough to prevent GSW from pulling out to a 31-24 fourth-quarter advantage.
"You know, we needed our best defensive quarter tonight in the fourth quarter, and we didn't get it," James said. "We gave up 31 points in the fourth. Some of them were free throws, but a lot of them were them just breaking us down."
It was a desperate turn for all involved.
Golden State may have entered Game 5 with the home-court advantage and seeming momentum in what is now a best-of three series, but the team still had to work its way around a star in James that often times left the Warriors at the mercy of whether or not he was able to hit short post-up shots at the rim. James bullied Harrison Barnes, Klay Thompson and Iguodala in the post all evening, while matching Curry’s three-pointers shot for shot to begin the fourth period.
LeBron also missed several chippies down the stretch, while his teammates also faded. After a strong start, J.R. Smith ended up missing 10 of 15 looks, too often asked to contribute in isolation sets he’s clearly not suited for. Tristan Thompson was just as unprepared for a starring role in the low post, despite his double-double, and Dellavedova and backcourt mate Iman Shumpert combined to miss 13 of 18 shots from the field.
Mozgov – whose Golden State center counterpart Andrew Bogut received a Did Not Play, Coach’s Decision in the win – worked just five minutes in the first half and four in the second. Deep reserves Mike Miller (who hit one three-pointer) and James Jones were once again asked to work as seventh and eighth men, and a wearied James even sat out the game’s final minute with Golden State’s double-digit advantage in place.
Golden State wasn’t exactly running its deepest rotation, only two reserves notched double-figure minutes, but the team has the advantage in the fourth quarters of this series. The Warriors have outscored Cleveland by a total of 33 points in the fourth quarter of this series, a 60-minute sample size that can’t be sloughed off. Both teams might be offering small lineups and dueling seven-man rotations, but the Warriors are the ones working with an advantage late.
Cleveland, however, still had its opportunities late. And it truly did take tired legs and Stephen Curry’s impossible jump shots for Golden State to pull away, on its home floor no less. The Cavaliers, seemingly, have no business hanging with the NBA’s best team, but there they were yet again deep into Game 5, with just a few short shots from the game’s best player making the difference until Curry worked his magic.
There’s no guarantee that the magic can’t sustain, however, as the series shifts to Cleveland for what could be the final NBA game of the season. Stephen Curry is that brilliant, and his team is that resilient.
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