Maybe it’s not always the best idea to read Draymond Green’s lips, particularly if you’re given to prudishness or fainting spells or if, you know, you’re into the whole brevity thing, but on Thursday night, in the midst of Golden State’s 102-83 whitewash of Cleveland during Game 4 of the NBA Finals, the Warriors’ garrulous, undersized forward hit a 3-pointer, and in typical Draymond fashion, he ran his mouth afterward.
“I’m back,” he appeared to say, and this wasn’t completely true, because Green was surely not his highest-level self (maybe in part because of a literal aching back), just as the Warriors weren’t all their highest-level selves. But that Golden State team – the whirring machine of spare parts and extra passes and fast breaks and electric 3-point shooting that cycled around a pair of transcendent guards throughout one of the greatest regular seasons in NBA history – died out in the midst of the playoff grind sometime last month. It’s about survival now.
And so the Warriors did what they had to do to survive on the road and tie the series 2-2. They went to a smaller starting lineup, they pushed the tempo as well as they could and even as those two guards, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, weren’t really versions of their best selves, either, their teammates picked up the slack, as they’d done all season. There was Andre Iguodala, starting a game for the first time all season in place of lumbering center Andrew Bogut, putting up 22 points; there was forward David Lee – who had been quietly stashed on the bench for most of the playoffs until the tail end of Game 3 – stepping in for Green during key stretches, and energizing an offense that had spent much of the first three games tripping over its own tail.
“I thought through the first three games, they were the more competitive team,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “This is the Finals. It’s about playing every single possession like it’s your last.”
If there’s one thing Kerr has proven, it’s that he’s willing to experiment, to try different combinations, to shake things up until he finds a formula that works. He did it earlier in these playoffs, trailing 2-1 to Memphis, when he reengineered the way the Warriors were defending a bigger team; and he did it again last night, when he essentially conceded the paint to Cleveland’s big men, Tristan Thompson (12 points, 13 rebounds) and Timofey Mozgov (who led all scorers with 28 points). None of that mattered, because the Warriors were more energetic, they were quicker and – for the first time all series – they seemed to take advantage of the fact that the Cavaliers are injured and gassed and running out of depth.
“Yes,” Cavaliers coach David Blatt admitted, when asked when his team was tired, in a rare admission of honesty from a coach in this position. “This was the third game in five days, including the trip back from the West Coast. It seemed to have an impact on us, yes.”
Mostly, it seemed to have an impact on LeBron James, who was saddled with the additional burden of falling into a photographer during the second quarter, taking a slice out of his head so gruesomely bloody that his mother actually came over to the bench to comfort him. After putting up absurd numbers in those first three games, it made sense that LeBron (20 points on 7-of-22 shooting in 41 minutes, after averaging over 40 points in the first three games) would wear down at some point, because even superheroes hit the wall. And LeBron had no help this time on the perimeter, not from J.R. Smith (0-of-8 from 3-point range) or Iman Shumpert (1-of-5), and not from budding folk hero Matthew Dellavedova (2-of-9); in all, Cleveland shot 33 percent from the floor, and 4-of-27 from 3-point range, while the Warriors finally hit some key shots when they needed them, going 12-of-30 from beyond the arc.
“This was the first time to me [in the Finals] that we played our style of ball,” Lee said afterward, and the fact they did it without a huge performance from Curry (22 points on 8-of-17 shooting) or Thompson (4-of-9, nine points) would seem to bode well for a team that now returns to the security blanket of its home arena in Oakland for Game 5. The thing that makes the Warriors great, when they are great, is that their two best players are capable of elevating the games of everyone around them, merely by the very threat of their presence. For the first three games of this series, it was LeBron James who did that. But last night, it turned around.
“Klay was 4-for-9, and he played the perfect game tonight in terms of making guys guard him,” Iguodala said.
But then, I’m finished trying to decipher momentum here. The conventional wisdom would state that Golden State has it, that the Warriors are eminently more talented and have now righted themselves and that they should be able to, at the very least, defend their home court in two of these final three games and win a championship. But this series has so wonderfully defied the conventional wisdom that part of me hopes it doesn’t play out that way at all, that this thing keeps surprising us in ways the NBA so often hasn’t in its recent past. It’s all fresh and new, and it’s a best-of-three series for the championship; maybe the Warriors are back, but who the hell knows how long it’ll last?
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb