CLEVELAND — Weaving his way toward Golden State’s locker room, where the Warriors were packing for home, Stephen Curry had to handle one last double-team.
Two Cavaliers fans wanted a photo with him.
“Gotta be quick,” Curry said, pausing and smiling for the group selfie.
Curry was happy to please, and happier the NBA Finals were tied again.
With Curry’s shooting touch back to normal, Andre Iguodala playing like a younger version of himself, and coach Steve Kerr’s gamble to tweak his starting lineup — even if he had to lie about it — the Warriors knotted these entertaining finals Thursday night with a 103-82 win over the gassed Cavaliers, who are desperate for rest and help for LeBron James.
Facing the prospect of falling behind 3-1, the Warriors came out to play. They were energized from the start, and they finished off the understaffed Cavs with a dominant fourth quarter, a 12-minute bombardment of big shots to seize momentum going into Sunday’s Game 6 at noisy Oracle Arena.
These were the Warriors closer to full volume, 9 out of 10.
“We really picked up our intensity level,” said forward Draymond Green, who moved to center in Kerr’s smaller starting lineup. “We contested shots. We got on loose balls, and we rebounded. We battled.”
Questioned by some critics for being too laid back, the Warriors were more physical, more focused and more urgent than previously in this series. They outran the frazzled Cavs, pushing the ball up the floor after made baskets and imposing their will for 48 minutes.
Curry was Curry again. After missing 20 of 26 3-pointers in the first three games, he knocked down four 3s and scored 22. He’s made 9 of his last 15 3-pointers, an encouraging sign for the Warriors and something that will keep Cavs coach David Blatt from getting much sleep.
Iguodala, though, was Golden State’s best player. He scored 22 points, made James work for every shot and while making his first start of the season in Golden State’s 101st game, he set the early tempo by outrunning Cleveland’s defense for a pair of dunks.
“He’s one of the X-factors, and he came to play,” James said of the 31-year-old Iguodala, one of his Olympic teammates. “He was in attack.”
Kerr went with a smaller lineup — he benched center Andrew Bogut — and it’s likely he’ll stick with a group that causes matchup problems for the Cavaliers. Because of injuries to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, Cleveland has limited options. Kerr admitted afterward that he wasn’t truthful leading into the game for fear of Cleveland making an adjustment.
Given the Cavs’ fragile state, it may not have mattered.
The coast-to-coast travel, lack of depth and demanding schedule caught up to Cleveland. Although the decimated Cavs downplayed the fatigue, it was obvious they didn’t have their legs.
And the postgame scene in their training room underscored their brittle condition. James needed stitches for a head cut sustained when he banged into a courtside camera; Matthew Dellavedova took an ice bath to soothe his cramping muscles; Iman Shumpert had his bruised left shoulder encased in ice.
All things considered, it’s remarkable the Cavs are in the series.
After carrying his teammates in three games, James was due a sub-standard performance. He still managed 22 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists, but he was unable to dictate the tempo as the Warriors took control.
Blatt may need to re-consider his rotations. He’s only playing seven players, ignoring veterans Mike Miller and Shawn Marion, former champions who might be able to provide vital minutes and ease James’ burden. Also, the Cavs need to get something, anything, from J.R. Smith, who missed all eight 3-pointers in Game 4.
The only time Smith, who arrived at Quicken Loans Arena riding an electric, hands-free vehicle called a PhunkeeDuck, was on the mark was when he muttered an expletive describing his performance.
James, in typical fashion, seemed unfazed by the loss — almost as if he expected it.
He understands his team’s limitations, but he also knows the Cavs still have a chance, and that’s all he can ask.
James has been in tougher jams than this. He dismissed the notion that his next game will be his biggest challenge.
With Miami in 2012, James went to Boston trailing 3-2 in the conference finals and the four-time MVP responded with an epic 45-point, 12-rebound effort.
“That’s probably the biggest challenge of my career,” he said. “Game 5 at Golden State is not that big when it comes to going to Boston, you lose multiple times in that arena, and the franchise I was with at the time had never won a playoff game in Boston. Now that’s pretty challenging, so I’ve been through a little bit in my pretty cool career.”
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