OAKLAND —They will be known, until their wounds heal, as the Crash Brothers. In this attempted mugging of a playoff series, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson were survivors more than splashers. That goes for all the Warriors subjected to dirty tactics Wednesday night by Dwight (The Elbow) Howard, Trevor (The Knee) Ariza and a Houston team that thugged it up before bowing from the Western Conference finals behind one of the lamest efforts by a so-called MVP — stir that pot, James Harden — in NBA history.
And to think they call the Warriors a streamlined, finesse team. America now knows differently after a bullish 104-90 victory in Game 5, which gives Golden State its first conference title in 40 years and creates the Finals collision so dearly coveted by the NBA, ABC, you, me and any hoops aficianado who has studied the sport this decade.
You have the Warriors and their adorable, wounded MVP, who danced on the scorers' table and kissed every one of his family members amid the post-game Oracle delirium.
You have LeBron, trying to win one for his native northeast Ohio as a one-man James gang and complete his image transformation from pariah to national treasure.
“We're gonna be us. We're gonna play our same game,” said Curry, who brought his chatty two-year-old daughter back to the press conference (weep, Charles Barkley). “They have some experienced guys who have been here before, but we're who we are. We've got to bring our A-game to beat a player and team like that.”
This time, Riley Curry elbowed her daddy, fitting on this night. “We're very resilient. There are things we have to get through to win a championship,” Daddy said. “Whatever comes in our way, we have to fight through it.”
The Warriors should be favored, having shown they can succeed against any style and individual talent: the pterodactyl presence of Anthony Davis, the grind and grit of Memphis, smallball, bigball, the goonery of Howard, the enigmatic Harden. They also exploded the myth that they, um, live and die by the three-pointer, making only 9 of 29 in the clincher. As their no-longer-rookie coach, Steve Kerr, has preached repeatedly, the trick to this success run of 79 victories and 18 losses is broken down to one word: defense. “I thought the defensive performance tonight was brilliant. This is what happens in the playoffs,” he said. “I remember games when Michael Jordan struggled on shooting nights but relied on defense to win. Every star has to do that at this stage. I would say this was a very-Warriors like performance.”
Who knew the end of this series would be about concussion protocol tests, stitches and protective sleeves? First Curry lands on his head, suffers a head contusion, says his elbow hurts to the point that “it's something you're going to deal with throughout your career,” then admits to having “basically a bruise all the way up and down your body.” Then, with 9:31 left in Game 6, Thompson walked to the locker room after a hard, direct knee to the head. The Rocket involved in both plays was Trevor Ariza, and the kick at Thompson was deliberate, out of a Kung Fu movie.
Thompson was checked by the same doctors who examined Curry. Three stitches were placed in his ear. “He was definitely shaken up,” Kerr said. “We'll keep evaluating him. It was a bizarre night for him.” Indeed. As Curry struggled early in Game 5 — and he's fortunate to have a week off to rest his battered body and weary mind — Thompson stepped up to help his teammate and friend. Recall at the MVP press conference when Curry said, memorably, “I have my family now, and you have your dog,” and everyone chuckled? That's how close they are. Thompson was prepared to bail out his partner until Kerr, in a mistake, left him in the game after he picked up his fourth foul early in the third quarter. Twenty-two seconds later, he picked up a dumb fifth, sat on the bench and threw a towel. Would this error in judgment cost the Warriors a game and force them to return to Houston?
The convenient story line would be Curry coming back and winning it. He didn't, shooting only 7 of 21 — 3 of 11 from the three-point line. One hero was Harrison Barnes, who broke out when most needed with a dazzling fourth-quarter flurry. “We took the stuff personally, when a guy like Klay goes down like that,” said Barnes, who had 24 points. And another was Andre Iguodala, who did a tremendous job on Harden — an NBA-playoff-record 13 turnovers, 2 of 11 shooting, 0 of 3 on trey attempts — and survived a goon elbow by Howard that, somehow, like Game 4, didn't lead to a game ejection. The NBA protected Howard in this series, and the Warriors still won in five.
Kerr kidded that Curry, with his yellow arm sleeve, looked like Allen Iverson. Maybe they will laugh about this someday, but my opinion stands: He should not have returned to the game Monday night, not when the human head is delicate and the Warriors were going to lose that game anyway. He said he has felt no symptoms and has slept well.
He has watched the video of the fall. “I've seen it plenty of times. I'm just really thankful that I came out as well as I did,” he said. “When I saw my arm kind of plant, you look at it and think, 'That's going to be the first thing to go.' Thankfully, it kind of slipped out from underneath me. Then, I landed on my right side. They were definitely thorough in making sure that I was ready to go back into the locker room to get evaluated some more. It was definitely scary, so I'm glad that I made it out OK.”
Does the fall give him pause?
“I won't think about it, like: 'Stay out of the paint.' I won't probably jump at any pump fakes. I'll be more disciplined in that regard, but other than that, I'll stay aggressive and stay in attack mode,” he said. “It was obviously kind of a freak incident. If Trevor goes straight up, without pump-faking, nothing happens. I probably foul him, but I don't flip over. From there, it was just an unavoidable situation and you hope for the best on the way down. But it won't change how I play.”
He looked least like himself than at any point of the postseason. Even James, who broke his wrist on a similar fall in high school, worried when he saw it. “It was pretty horrific,” he said. “I thought he lucked out by getting his hand out of there. Because if he would have landed with all his weight onto his arm, he could have broke his wrist or arm. I know exactly what he was going through at that point and time.”
LeBron always will appeal to the masses, but now he arrives in June as a respected, almost endearing figure after four Miami postseasons in which he was widely reviled. The Decision is a distant public-relations debacle, replaced by James' deft marketing move last summer — remember, he left the Heat only because the championship window was shut — to embrace his northeast Ohio homecoming.
Now, of course, he's milking it. “I'm a guy who believes in unfinished business,” James said after the Cavs' sweep of Atlanta. “I understood what these people were going through, the people here. Not only in Cleveland but northeast Ohio and all over the world who love and bleed wine and gold. To be at this point, it's emotional.”
And shocking — knowing the Cavs were 19-20 at midseason, knowing Kevin Love struggled to fit in and then suffered a season-ending dislocated shoulder, knowing the roster was rebuilt on the fly with the likes of J.R. Smith and Timofey Mozgov, knowing St. Mary's product Matthew Dellavedova was becoming a household name as a pest. James never will surpass Michael Jordan's legend despite Smith's opinion otherwise — Jordan played in six Finals, won all six and was named MVP in all six, while James already has lost three times in the Finals — but not even His Airness pulled off a one-man-gang act like James' this season. With a roster that might have trouble reaching the playoffs without him, LeBronster pushed his team to 34 wins in its last 43 games and a 12-2 postseason. In the Atlanta series, he made history as the first player to average at least 30 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists in a playoff series.
Can he average a triple-double against the Warriors' league-best defense, one that was shredded at times by Harden and the Rockets? “As far as guarantees, I can't guarantee the championship,” James said. “That's not what I'm here for. I'm here to lead. But I will guarantee that we will play our asses off.”
Actually, James has been a one-man organization. He rescued the owner, Dan Gilbert, forgiving him for his petulant anti-James letter the night he left for Miami. And James has rescued the so-called coach, David Blatt, who had an agreement to join Kerr as his top offensive assistant before the Cavs' job was offered. That was a clear blessing for the Warriors, who wound up with Alvin Gentry helping strategize a revolutionary attack. As for Blatt, he reports to head coach LeBron James, who saved him in the Chicago series when Blatt tried to call a timeout the Cavs didn't have, then foolishly wanted James to inbound a ball with 1.5 seconds left rather than take the last shot. James refused, then hit the winning shot that propelled the Cavs to an eventual series victory.
“Yeah, I almost blew it, to be honest with you,” Blatt said.
Said James: “That's why we're a unit. That's why we're a team. And players make mistakes, coaches make mistakes and we have to be able to cover for one another.”
James, in his fifth straight Finals, already is reminding the Warriors that they are newbies and he's the expert. “If you've never been in this situation, you don't know how difficult it is,” he said. The Cavs will get a break with eight days off before the Finals opener. The gap particularly helps Kyrie Irving, the explosive All-Star guard whose knee and foot problems won't fully heal until after the season but now has the advantage of rest.
The Warriors' last memory of James, from late February, is not pretty. He popped them for 42 points and 11 rebounds in a 110-99 loss. That's what started a belief that this team might give Cleveland, city of heartbreaks, its first sports championship since 1964. “We all know how long it's been since a champion has been in this city,” James said. “We will give it our best shot.”
He was incredulous when someone suggested he'd be ever fight from behind in a playoff series. “Underdog? Me?” James said. “I will never be an underdog.”
The sneaker fits.