Mariotti: Curry lights up Oracle, Warriors win with defense as Mayweather booed

OAKLAND — Sitting courtside, Floyd Mayweather watched Stephen Curry like the rest of us Wednesday night, probably thinking the kid-faced brawler might give him a more spirited fight than Manny Pacquiao. Who's really the pound-for-pound champion here, anyway? Judging by the voracious boos for Mayweather and the intense love-in roars for Curry, amid one of his most important performances as a Warrior, the answer is obvious in these parts.

The fools who still say Curry isn't the NBA's Most Valuable Player didn't watch him turn around a critical playoff game in a three-minute blur that constituted appreciably better entertainment than anything Mayweather produces. In addition to giving the Bay Area its most untamed basketball emotions — which is a major statement, considering the fun players in Oracle Arena through time and a championship 40 years ago — the Warriors are giving you vertigo. Just as this semifinal series has jolted you in various psychological directions, so did the time frame determining an eventual 98-78 blowout that, in all likelihood, will lead them into the Western Conference finals. Sometimes, a prizefight is seized in the opening rounds, as was Game 5 against the injury-dazed, scoring-challenged, three-point-bereft Memphis Grizzlies.

The Warriors absorbed the first blows, then responded quickly with the devastating knockout on a night when they played frenetic, championship defense, an element not seen in two lackluster losses. As usual, Curry was the initiator, motivator, creator and crowd-rallier in a wild, fabulous sequence that everyone should preserve in the DVR bin, whether the Warriors win it all or not. But this time, his frenzy wasn't all about shooting, though a rocking series of three-pointers kickstarted the Warriors and turned the crowd daffy. It was about his defense, his six steals — which made him, by night's end, the first player in NBA history to record six steals and six three-pointers in a playoff game.

“Tonight was about our defense,” Curry said.

And what is he feeling in general, as the Warriors return to the Elvisdome with a 3-2 series lead? “It's getting bigger and bigger for us,” he said. “And we love it.”

Any late arrivers walked into the building to find a quiet crowd and a 13-point Memphis lead. Not again. Not another slow start for a team with a pattern of too much complacency when nothing has been achieved around here. Yep, that's exactly what was happening again. Klay Thompson missed his first four shots and threw the ball away twice, as his teammates were committing four more turnovers. On the other end, Zach Randolph was unstoppable again inside, with Tony Allen's absence with hamstring problems actually backfiring on Steve Kerr's defensive strategies. Someone had to rescue the teetering cause.

Wave in You Know Who. Curry started it with a steal and a stepback 3-pointer, reducing the lead to eight. He followed with a 3-pointer, cutting the lead to five. Then came a Curry steal … and madness. He missed a 3-pointer, the raging Andre Iguodala gathered the rebound in one of his best performances for this team, only to miss the putback. Draymond Green won the leaping battle to tip in the shot, drawing the foul and reducing the lead to two. That left the first-quarter finale to Curry, who stepped back to hit a trey with 2.5 seconds left, giving the Warriors the lead and then becoming Steph The Entertainer, with even Mayweather standing and cheering.

Def Steph waved his arms repeatedly, imploring a standing, screaming crowd to get louder. He looked up to the roof, to the sky in a tribute to his faith, then he stomped around the court, as Mayweather would do in the ring, only all that Curry heard were cheers as he pounded his chest.

“You feel the energy of the crowd,” Curry said. “It was a cool moment. We were down a good amount. To get back in the game, get our crowd back into it and end that quarter as strong as we did, it was really important.”

Iguodala, who provided 16 points with his trademark defensive prowess, wasn't so understated. “It was huge for us. He's done a great job the last two games of just taking over the game,” the veteran said. “He gave us quick bursts after the way we started to get us out of that slump. He made big shots and got the crowd into it. He's showing maturity, MVP basketball.”

Later in the night, when Mayweather was booed as he was shown on the scoreboard, he grinned and rose his arms. He is the villain in a sports world where Curry is the new golden child, now that Tom Brady has been tarnished. There are real heroes in this world. And then are frauds. And while the box score will show just 18 points, Curry displayed another side of his MVP value with those six steals, along with his seven rebounds and five assists. It would be wrong for anyone to view Curry as merely a shooter. After this performance, maybe that nonsense will stop, too. He and his team won this game with defense.

“Steph made two or three steals,” Kerr pointed out, “hit a couple threes. That got the crowd back into it. The first 10 minutes were not pretty. The crowd was anxious. I thought we were a little tight; we came out a little nervous. That was the key stretch: down 12, to actually have the lead. I thought it was a miracle to have the lead. It was an important stretch, where we seemed to get out legs underneath us, and our defense kicked in.”

Defense. If the Warriors are serious about beating the Los Angeles Clippers, handling LeBron James and winning a championship, Kerr cannot repeat the D-word enough. Charles Barkley has yet to figure out that this so-called “jumpshooting team” does play defense, as it has the last two games, and does make the vital strategic adjustments in the postseason, as Kerr and his staff have done the last two games. That's why they're up in the series as America begins to salivate about the possibility of Warriors-Clippers, the NBA's best rivalry and fast becoming one of the two or three best in sports. But don't go there yet, not until they win Game 6 in Memphis or Game 7 here

“You always have to try to get it done when you can,” Kerr said. “You don't want to mess around. You never know what can happen. Our intent is to go down there and play the same kind of defense we did the last two games. That defense has really turned around the series. I said it wasn't good enough [earlier in the series]. This is what we're going to need.”

I'll finish the sentence: To win the championship.

It's hard to believe when looking at the final numbers what Curry had done to spark all of this. Thompson had 21 points, recovering from his poor start. Green had nine assists, recovering from his early mistakes. David Lee, whose attitude has been tremendous in losing big minutes to Green, showed he's ready for the Clippers series with well-timed contributions. Iguodala had his best offensive game in some time with 16 points. Shaun Livingston was so impressive defensively that Kerr, miked by the TV network he used to work for (TNT), told him during a play stoppage that his ball pressure had turned around the series.

No, not that kind of ball pressure. Brady jokes are not allowed here. This is real sports.

As informed basketball people know, Curry became a better defender this season under Kerr and assistant coach Ron Adams. In Memphis, they showed him tape about his lapses offensively. “Steph is incredibly grounded, very coachable, and he saw what he was doing wrong,” Kerr said. “We were just in a rush. The last two games felt different. He is attacking when he wants to attack.”

Basketball 101: When the offense isn't rushed and lets the defense create the frenzy, the Warriors look indomitable. Kerr has been preaching this for weeks. His message finally is resonating.

“We can't just come home and expect to win. We have to do something about it,” Curry said. “It all starts with our defense. I'm gonna have to bring it and start games by setting the tone defensively and protecting the ball. We have to keep being aggressive and keep attacking and be ready for every moment that comes.”

Near midnight, not a soul in the interview room or locker room had said that Curry saved the Warriors' collective ass in Game 5.

So I will.

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