CLEVELAND — The Golden State Warriors have cruised through this regular season and playoffs with hardly a stressful moment. That has included the first two games of these NBA Finals, in which the Warriors have battered the Cleveland Cavaliers.
But as this series shifts to Cleveland for Game 3 on Wednesday night, it returns Golden State to the scene of a rare low moment during the Warriors’ campaign: a Christmas Day loss to the Cavaliers.
“It was a good game for us,” Warriors Coach Steve Kerr said Tuesday before his team’s practice at Quicken Loans Arena. “Disappointing finish, but a good test for us, good reminder of, first of all, how good these guys are, but also a good indication that we had some things to figure out.”
The Warriors had yet to figure out how to get Stephen Curry back to the player he’d previously been. Curry was healthy after battling ailments in last year’s playoffs. But while his numbers looked good (24.1 points, 4.2 rebounds, 5.8 assists), he didn’t have the spark he showed in the prior two seasons, both of which ended with him named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player.
The nadir of that feeling, however, was here on Christmas Day. In that game, the Warriors blew a double-digit fourth quarter lead, and Curry — who finished with 15 points on just 4-for-11 shooting to go with three rebounds and three assists — took the brunt of the criticism for how Golden State fell apart.
It was a repeat of the criticisms that followed Curry after his performance in the Finals, when the Warriors had blown a 3-1 lead to let a second straight title slip through their fingers. And, in a rare moment of public frustration, Curry let everyone know he wasn’t happy.
After spending the first two months of the season making sure his teammates were comfortable with their new roles after absorbing Kevin Durant’s considerable talents in free agency, it was time for the face of the Warriors to play like it again.
“I think it just showed Steph we needed him to play his game,” Green said. “We needed him to be as aggressive as he’s ever been. We don’t need him to be aggressive to try to get everyone else involved. That’ll happen because he demands so much attention everyone else is going to get involved, anyway.
“I think it showed us how aggressive we needed him to be … it really just showed us, and Steph, ‘We need you to be aggressive at all times, and everything else will flow from there.’ ”
Curry’s per game numbers were better after that game (26.1 points, 4.7 rebounds, 7.2 assists), but not dramatically so. What changed was that Curry had the ball back in his hands again.
The hesitancy Curry played with at times earlier in the season was gone; in its place was the aggression his teammates had hoped to see. The result was Curry looking like a legitimate MVP candidate again, and the Warriors’ offense morphed into a synchronized attack centered around Durant and Curry.
“[There’s] understanding that not just me and [Durant], but Klay, Draymond, we all can just be ourselves, and just play our game and not have to overthink or overcomplicate anything, really,” Curry said. “We all bring a little something different to the table, and the pieces of that puzzle fit really well.
“And so, when we’re all locked in and focused and playing aggressive, knowing that whoever has the ball will make a play, just try to keep it simple. Something good’s going to happen.”
The first two games of these NBA Finals have shown just how great these Warriors can be. It’s a formula that’s based around Curry and Durant’s combined dominance being too much for anyone — even a team featuring LeBron James — to overcome. It’s also a formula that, the last time the Warriors played here, was one the team was still trying to decipher.
And while the low point of that partnership — or, at least as much of a low as one can have in a season as full of success as this year has been for Golden State — was that Christmas Day game, it also served as a catalyst to allow the Warriors to get to the level they have arrived at now. When they will take the floor again in Game 3, they will have a chance to put a stranglehold on this series because of the strength of that partnership.
“I think that was kind of the point of the season where we started doing a better job of blending their talent,” Kerr said. “It wasn’t really anything strategic. It was more just a feel, and that was natural, that was going to come the more those guys played together.”