Like a bad holiday sweater, the Warriors were beautiful in their ugliness on Christmas. They were slogged down by the plodding pace of LeBron James and the Cavaliers, and, yet, even on a day when Steph Curry limped off with a nagging calf strain and even when they lacked their usual track-meet machinery, they still sent James a firm message as he air-balled a late jumpshot and missed big free throws while letting Curry blow by him for a layup.
You still can’t touch this golden trophy, dude, in real time or in your dreams.
It was healthy, if also unsightly, to watch the Warriors win an alley fight for a change rather than ramp into their usual race-car mode. They won as a collective, with defense and perseverance, in an 89-83 win that gives them 28 victories in the 29 games since James walked past their locker room in Cleveland and smelled champagne stench in June. If a nation gasped as Curry, the reigning American sports darling, went to the locker room early in the second quarter with lingering pain from a calf that was kicked Wednesday during a victory over Utah, he quickly returned after a re-taping and heat treatment to calm concerns, if not exactly wow anyone with an iconic jumpshot that has gone awry of late.
In the end, the MVP was willing this victory with flashback moments. Remember when he embarrassed Matthew Dellavedova with the signature shimmy-and-shake move of the Finals? This time, at the top of the key, Curry deked the St. Mary’s product with a crossover and drove unimpended through the lane for a layup. Between that highlight and Andre Iguodala’s block of James — another recurring Finals memory — it seemed absolutely nothing had changed in six months.
Curry is still the MVP.
The Warriors are still the NBA’s best.
“We want more,” Curry declared before heading home to open presents with his family. “You taste a little success and win a championship, but we have such potential on this team. We’re better as a team, and we want to take advantage of it. We’ve got to lay a foundation all season. The record is great, but that doesn’t matter until the playoffs. It’s how we’re playing and finding different ways to win games.”
Oh, this was different. Eighty-nine points? It was the first time in more than a year that the Warriors scored fewer than 100 at Oracle Arena in a regular-season game. They won with their defense — as coach Steve Kerr, who was in the building and should be returning to the sideline soon, demanded of them when he ran their practice session the other day. They held the Cavs to 32 percent shooting, one of the lowest percentages ever for a James-led team, with only J.R. Smith showing any ability to hit three-pointers. James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving were a combined 1 of 16 beyond the arc, and if they have any hope of beating the Warriors in a Finals rematch, they’ll have to practice the long-range missiles that Curry, Klay Thompson and other Golden State shooters have turned into a basketball revolution.
On a night when Draymond Green was the best player on the floor — 22 points, 15 rebounds and 7 assists — the Warriors made only 5 of their 18 three-point attempts. Curry shot 6 of 15 from the field, Thompson 6 of 16. And they still never seemed in danger of losing, even when the game turned tight with two minutes left.
“It’s good to get practice in that type of game as well, where it’s low-scoring and about getting stops, knocking down free throws and executing in the half court,” interim coach Luke Walton said. “It’s great experience for us.”
“Tonight, our defense was absolutely unbelievable for all 48 minutes,” said center Andrew Bogut, who was amazing with four blocks. “To keep them in the 80s, they never really got into a flow.” Bogut also took offense at the ESPN commentary of ex-Warriors coach Mark Jackson, who again took what seemed a bitter shot at Curry when he said on the broadcast from courtside, “To a degree, Steph Curry has hurt the game of basketball,” referring to his three-point bazookas.
Said Bogut, to Yahoo Sports: “Anything he says you take with a grain of salt, and you can quote me on that.”
ESPN should stop using Jackson on Warriors telecasts. The vibe is too awkward, too angry, and the analysis is not coming from a good place. Anything for ratings, right? Including exploiting a sad situation.
James tried to put a positive spin on the loss. It sounded more like a rationalization on a night when he no longer could say he was shorthanded, as he was in the Finals. Love (5 of 16 shooting) and Irving (4 of 15) sometimes seemed as invisible offensively as they were in June. “We gave ourselves a chance,” James said. “If we play like that defensively, we’re going to be a very tough team to beat. Offensively, we just didn’t have it. No one had it.”
Curry had it when necessary, as always. “It’s good to have one of those games every so often,” he said. “If our defense shows up, we’re in pretty good shape to win games. We just show our versatility and that we can win in different ways.”
Usually, it’s a ballet. This time, it was a mosh pit.
Still counts as another victory for the team that can’t lose.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at email@example.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.