OAKLAND — If Game 5 of the NBA Finals was to be the final home game for the Golden State Warriors in this magical season of theirs, then they left the sellout crowd at Oracle Arena with memories that would last a lifetime.
The fans will remember their chants of “M-V-P! M-V-P!” and “War-riors! War-riors!” in the final seconds of the 104-91 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers, which moved their team within one victory of an elusive NBA title.
Years from now, they will remember Stephen Curry in all his Most Valuable Player glory, getting the best of mighty LeBron James in the end by scoring 17 of his 37 points in the crucial fourth quarter.
And maybe – just maybe – they will remember the game as Curry’s coming-out party. Because after four rather ordinary games by his Most Valuable Player standards, the Bay Area bomber looked like a guy who had finally gotten comfortable on basketball’s biggest stage.
“I mean, these are the plays I’ve been making all year and the ones I feel confident in,” said Curry, who also had seven rebounds and four assists. “Obviously, when one goes in, it keeps your confidence high.”
“I called all those plays. Those were my genius inventions,” deadpanned coach Steve Kerr, ever the jokester. “No, that was just Steph taking over the game.”
Now the Warriors can close the deal in Game 6 in Cleveland on Tuesday night.
“There’s a lot of emotion,” Kerr said. “You’re right there on the cusp of something, but you still have to get the job done. And in this case, we’ll be on the road against a great team.”
Well, a great one-man team, anyway.
James put up another monstrous triple-double — 40 points, 14 rebounds, 11 assists — but only three teammates scored more than five points. Meanwhile, five Warriors scored in double figures, including Draymond Green (16), Andre Iguodala (14), Leandro Barbosa (13) and Klay Thompson (12).
Clearly, this is the Warriors’ championship to lose. They are the infinitely deeper and far more talented of the two teams. While Kerr can mix and match eight or nine players, counterpart David Blatt has shortened his bench, partly out of necessity, partly out of design.
Result: The Cavaliers were gassed in the last fourth quarters, when they were outscored by 28-25, 36-24, 27-12 and 31-24 margins. They also have history against them. No team has overcome a 3-2 deficit in the NBA Finals while winning Game 7 on the road since the 1978 Washington Bullets.
Yet the Cavaliers have the most dominant player in the world, and it may be not wise to bet against James just yet.
“We’re going home with a Game 6, and we’ve got enough to win it,” insisted James, who still deserves to be the MVP in the series. “We’ll worry about Tuesday first. But if we protect home like we’re capable of doing, we force a Game 7. I feel confident.”
Asked why he would feel that way after two consecutive losses, James answered matter-of-factly, “I feel confident because I’m the best player in the world. It’s that simple.”
Well, it’s not that simple, really.
For the second consecutive game, Kerr started a small ball lineup that had Iguodala on a wing, Draymond Green at center and Andrew Bogut on the bench. He snookered Blatt down the same path. Rather than pound the ball inside to big man Timofey Mozgov, who was a factor with career-high 28 points in Game 4, Blatt — after watching Mozgov struggle early against double-teams — elected to think small himself. That’s when Kerr had a strong suspicion that Curry would have one of those special games.
“It was a different game, you know, because they decided to go smaller and the floor was more open,” Kerr said. “From the very beginning, when the went small, had their shooters out there, I thought, ‘This is Steph’s night. This is going to be a big one for him because he has all that room.'”
While Mozgov turned into the Incredible Shrinking Hulk — zero points, nine minutes — J.R. Smith became the odd man in. Smith threatened to snap out of a horrific slump with eight points in the first period but predictably bricked eight of his next 10 shots, which left James to shoulder too big of a load once again.
“I don’t think we’ve lost (Mozgov) by any means,” said Blatt, who was quizzed repeatedly on the subject afterward. “That’s inaccurate. Did I make a mistake? Listen, when you’re coaching a game, you’ve got to make decisions. I felt that the best chance for us to stay in the game and have a chance to win win was to play it the way that we played it.”
But asked whether he would rely on the same alignment in the next game, Blatt said, “Not necessarily.”
If Curry continues to shoot the ball that way he did on this day, it might not matter.
When James drained a 3-pointer from Palo Alto to give the Cavs an 80-79 lead early in the fourth quarter, the Cavaliers were still in the hunt. That’s when Curry put his stamp on the game, losing superpest Matthew Dellavedova with a behind-the-back dribble and depositing a 3-pointer to get the lead back for good. A short time later, he put Dellavedova on a swivel again, then drained another 3-ball for good measure.
“Signature moments only come for players who are holding the trophy at the end of the day,” Curry said. “So I can sit here and talk about what a great play it was and what a turning moment it might have been, but we have to be able to back it up and finish the job.”
After 40 long years without an NBA championship, imagine what the Warriors and their fans will have to remember then.
Paul Ladewski is a veteran Chicago sports journalist who recently relocated to the Bay Area as the Warriors beat writer for the San Francisco Examiner. He is a regular contributor to SheridanHoops.com.