CLEVELAND — Championship basketball, this is not. The Warriors are playing like a scatterbrained team that doesn't belong in the NBA Finals, in part because their leader and MVP is not right — and sometimes looks like he should join the Harlem Globetrotters. I do not care that Stephen Curry made the score close with late three-pointers. I do care that he whipped a silly behind-the-back pass with two minutes left to Draymond Green, who was in the wrong place himself — I believe Shaker Heights, maybe because he was preoccupied with yelling at officials and making a Beats headphones ad — in what proved to be a killer turnover.
It led to a three-pointer by LeBron James, who took his second step Tuesday night in what would be an astonishing achievement in American sports: returning to his home region, winning Cleveland's first professional sports title in 51 years and doing so with a Dellavedova, a Timofey, a Smith, a Jones, a Thompson who isn't Klay and a coach from Israel. LeBron followed the shot with some sort of Zorro move where he put his imaginary rifle back into his holster. But what should be remembered about Game 3 is James' epic reaction with 51 seconds left, after Curry inexplicably threw an inbound pass right to him.
He pointed to his head and left his finger there, as a statement to Curry.
“I'd seen that set before. I knew it was coming,” James said of the turnover.
Smarts and savvy in critical moments, he was telling the world, are the difference between the 2014-15 MVP and one of the all-time greats. James can make such gestures now that he's up 2 games to 1, a 96-91 victory also in that holster.
You know the situation is desperate for the Warriors when Steve Kerr, who normally would defend Curry in a mass-murder trial, admits that his star is missing his usual doses of high energy and infectious joy. Both Kerr and Curry claim he isn't fighting aftereffects from his frightening fall in Houston two weeks ago, when his head smashed against the hardwood. But it's time for this organization to acknowledge the truth here: Something is wrong, not only with Curry's continuing erratic shooting but also with his body language, especially after the Warriors fell behind by 20 in the third quarter. Asked specifically about Curry, Kerr laid it out well in the bowels of Quicken Loans Arena, which still was shaking from three hours of louder-than-Oracle noise that included introductions of Ohio State coach Urban Meyer and other celebrities and pre-taped directives from James and his teammates to “MAKE NOISE!!!!!!!”
“Yeah, obviously, Steph had a huge fourth. But I didn't like our energy. I didn't like our body language for much of that first three quarters,” said Kerr, referring to Curry and its effect on his teammates. “This is what we have to fight through. Things aren't going our way, it doesn't matter, you've got to fight through. You've got to bring energy. You've got to bring life. You've got to bring some emotion. Obviously, when the shots go in, it's easier to do that, but you've got to do that when the shots aren't going in as well, and that applies for all of us. We can't get our heads down.
“Steph never loses confidence. I just thought he lost a little energy and, I don't know, life. We just need life from everybody, we need emotion from everybody. He's not a really emotional player like Draymond is or somebody else. But we've got to fight through the down periods with just that competitive life and energy. I thought we got around to that, but we've got to do it for 48 [minutes].”
That Curry was quick to agree with his head coach was more troubling. “I've got to be aggressive. I said that going into tonight that's what I was going to do. Obviously, I didn't make any shots in the first half,” he said. “Whether I'm making shots or not, I've got to stay — I'll use the word vibrant — and just kind of have fun out there, because the team definitely feeds off of my energy and joy for the game. So if it's not going our way, or not going my way specifically, I've got to find different ways to get us going.”
As even a basketball novice expected, the Cavaliers are sending several bodies at Curry. And again, Kerr and his staff have no Plan B. There is no inside game beyond re-emerging David Lee, with Green continuing to be a washout and an always-complaining embarrassment. And Harrison Barnes? Did he leave the hotel? Thus, the onus falls to Curry, who, as a 6-3 shooting guard, cannot make the all-encompassing, over-the-top plays in this series to overcome LeBron.
Curry also made a tactical mistake in the news conference: He dissed James. In another 46-minute masterpiece, The King reached down into the largest oxygen tank in the history of basketball and produced 40 more points, 12 more rebounds and eight more assists. For some reason, Curry decided to focus on James' volume shooting: 34 shots, of which he made 14. At this point, as he tries to will a sports-futile city and a lunchtime-YMCA cast to the most unlikely of championships, no one is looking at his shot totals … except Curry, who happened to make 10 of 20 but whose percentage since the Houston spill remains sub-par.
“I mean, we all know the accolades he has. He's a great player. He's shooting an OK percentage in our eyes,” Curry said.
An OK percentage? Really? Why does that matter? He's halfway to a title.
“He's getting up a lot of attempts, and anybody that's that much of a volume shooter when he needs to be for his team, he's going to have points,” said Curry, continuing down this wrong road. “The timely ones are the ones that killed us. The three late in the fourth quarter, certain easy buckets that you allow him to get. But that's not the issue why we're down 2-1 right now. It's the way we're playing on the offensive end, especially to start games. We'll fix that as we try to even the series on Thursday.”
James wasn't impressed by Curry's analysis. “I don't have a comment for Steph,” he said. “That's not my concern. What my concern is how I come out and play, be aggressive. If it's high-volume shooting, I'm living in the paint. I'll shoot 34 shots, but I only took six threes, and one of them was a heave at the end of a shot clock. I'm just trying to help our team win. If it's high-volume shooting, high rebounding, high assists, I'll do what it takes to win. We're out two All-Stars (Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love). We're out a starting center (Anderson Varajeo). I have to pick up some of the shot attempts.”
He wasn't done. “I'm so outside the box right now. I went seven straight seasons with improving my efficiency. This is a completely different challenge,” he said. “Whatever it takes to win, I'll do.”
Way to go, Steph. You not only lost the game — and lost your consistent jumpshot — but you lost the post-game. If there ever was concern that James will collapse from fatigue, Curry just shot him up with more fuel.
Dumb, dumb, dumb.
As pointed out by Andre Iguodala, whose performance has been worthy of the Finals when so many of his teammates have flamed out, the revolutionary Golden State offense has been derailed by a dose of rust-belt elbow grease, inside a downtown garage so loud that the scoreboard actually was providing closed-captioning. The only statistic you need to know: The Warriors had four fast-break points. “We just couldn't find our rhythm and we haven't been able to find our rhythm. Then we had those small spurts where it seems to be going for us, but tonight it was a little too late,” Iguodala said. “We've been down before and we can get out of it. But it's easier said than done. It's up to us to do the things that we haven't been able to do on both ends of the floor. Executing small things. Small things are really biting us in the ass a little bit. Loose balls — they've gotten to every one of them. Offensive boards, second-chance points — they seem to have a knack for those things, and we've got to come up with them.”
Why aren't they getting to them? Because the Warriors don't seem to want this trophy nearly as much as LeBron and the Cavs. There is a school of NBA thought that a team must stumble in a big moment or two before it wins a championship. The Warriors — from the coach to the superstar on down — don't seem ready to win a trophy right now. The next two days and nights will answer the question of whether they can recover.
You know who wants it? Matthew Dellavedova wants it. Once again, he produced the hustle plays that made St. Mary's even prouder in Moraga and left Curry looking languid by comparison, though the newest NBA cult hero suffered cramps that may have had to do with diving and spilling into the crowd so much. The cramping was so severe, he was sent to the Cleveland Clinic for observation. Imagine if Delly's cramps gave the Warriors life.
That said, why oh why didn't general manager Bob Myers bring in Delly as a free agent when the fellow Aussie, Andrew Bogut, suggested the idea? His defense and overall inspirational presence, thought to be an aberration by the Warriors in Oakland, carried over to the town that loves him almost as much as LeBron, the prodigal son who returned. As Cavs coach David Blatt said, “Delly's the most Cleveland-like Australian I've ever met in my life. And if you're from Cleveland, you know just what I'm talking about. They love Delly because he just plays with all his heart and he cares first about the team.”
The one positive on this night was Lee, who will play more because he helped free up Curry for shots. But you sense the aura of LeBron and Cleveland has spooked the Warriors. Sitting in the arena was to experience a three-hour Chamber of Commerce rave, just as James had requested from the fans. Everything he does — ask for noise, or ask for quiet during late free throws — reminds you that this city is his domain.
“We're playing against a great team,” Iguodala said. “LeBron makes a lot of those guys good, but they're a very good team. They're just taking it to us right now.”
When the Warriors return to the arena Thursday night, they'll be facing more than a Finals opponent. They will be facing LeBron James, never more motivated to pounce on an historic opportunity, and 51 years of Cleveland heartbreak.
They have one day to figure out this lethal combination of fire and resolve. My guess is, it won't be nearly enough time.