Even in a Warriors win that set them up for a potential championship clincher in Cleveland on Tuesday, the story was about LeBron James in many ways.
Sure, Steph Curry was the one with the 17-point fourth quarter (37 points in all) to help the Warriors pull away in a 104-91 victory in Game 5. Curry also made headlines after the game after USA Today’s Sam Amick reported that he was “rubbing his head” and “clearly not feeling well” after his postgame press conference with Draymond Green. The Warriors say Curry was just dehydrated and he’ll be fine. His family didn’t look too concerned outside the locker room, so I’m inclined to believe the team’s report.
James wasn’t fine after the game, but his problems were mood-based. He entered his press conference — wearing a leather Cavaliers cap and carrying a green soft drink bottle — after yet another draining, magnificent performance (40 points, 14 rebounds, 11 assists in 45 minutes). He looked borderline depressed as he sat down. But as questions came forward and James thought back to what he did and how his team fell short despite his herculean effort, he became defiant.
A reporter asked whether he feels “a lot less pressure this Finals run” because the Cavs are shorthanded.
“No,” James said. “No, I feel confident because I’m the best player in the world. It’s that simple.”
And that’s what the Warriors face if they want to win the title in Cleveland: a confident, angry, determined player at the peak of his powers mentally (James describes the action on the floor like he’s the head coach, which is only right since that’s exactly how a lot of the world sees him).
But here’s where the Warriors have an edge — James is a 30-year-old who’s played an extraordinary number of minutes in his career and is averaging 45:33 per game in this series. He is the Cleveland Cavaliers right now, with Tristan Thompson (19 and 10 tonight) the only player approaching anything close to a consistent running mate. And that’s why the Warriors whittled the Cavs down to a nub by the end of this game.
- First quarter: 22-22
- Second quarter: 29-28 (Warriors)
- Third quarter: 22-17 (Warriors)
- Fourth quarter: 31-24 (Warriors)
Oracle Arena has been a lot louder than it was in the first three quarters of Game 5, but with the stakes so great — hold the lead and you’re one win away, or let James lead a comeback and your season has a very, very good chance of ending in a very disappointing way on Tuesday night — the fourth quarter was as electric as they come. That had a lot to do with Curry, who reminded us that he’s the MVP and Matthew Dellavedova is a scrappy (dirty) Australian who can’t hang.
“I mean, those are plays I’ve been making all year and the ones I feel confident in,” said Curry, who stopped short of calling this play a signature moment.
“I mean, it was a fun moment, but it only means something, and I’ll probably have a better answer for that question after we win the championship because signature moments only come for players who are holding the trophy at the end of the day.”
That said, it had to feel good to bury Delly with this shot and all the others he hit in his best game of the Finals.
It took Curry seven shots to get his 17 in that quarter. James took 13 shots to get his 16 (the rest of his team went 3-for-8), and he wasn’t moving at quite the same speed. No one can do everything at the highest level for 45 minutes, and we saw James become pretty close to an offense-only player as the game progressed.
“Obviously, Steph got it going. He hit some huge shots which kept us at bay,” James said.
“We needed our best defensive quarter tonight in the fourth quarter, and we didn’t get it. 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.”
Can the Cavs summon one more full game with the kind of defensive intensity they brought in Games 1, 2 and 3? After the way the Warriors pulled away in the fourth quarters of the last two games to take a 3-2 lead in the NBA Finals, it could go one of two ways.
1. The Warriors’ decision to go small, and the Cavs’ inability to stick with them with (Game 4) or without (Game 5) Timofey Mozgov on the floor, means Cleveland will peter out once again in the second half of Game 6 and Golden State will return home as champions. This is what the Warriors believe will happen.
“We’re confident. We’re not getting ahead of ourselves. In the locker room, if you walked in there (it) was the exact same (as) after a regular season win,” said Curry, who was accurate in his assessment (I walked in there).
2. James will play as well as ever in Game 6 (say, 50/18/15) and instead of getting left in his wake, his teammates will fill in the blanks and keep the Warriors from reaching 100+ points or anything close to 48% from the field or 46.2% on threes (the Warriors’ marks in Game 5). This is what James believes will happen. Whether his teammates are as confident is anyone’s guess.
Do we dare bet against James, who clearly has it in him to make everyone on that team better? (Yes, even J.R. Smith, although that hasn’t been easy.) With only one day in between games, his around-the-clock treatment program will need to work wonders. But the mind is certainly willing.
“We’re going home with a Game 6, and we’ve got enough to win it … if we protect home like we’re capable of doing, we force a Game 7,” said James, who was then asked if this task is similar to the one he faced in his first stint in Cleveland. James wasn’t in a mood to make comparisons. This is a different Cavs team, and he is a much different player.
“I feel confident,” he said.