OAKLAND, Calif. — The Golden State Warriors were mesmerizing again — not just for a quarter or a couple of spurts, but for most of the game. Their ball movement could have been set to music. They competed with focus appropriate for the NBA Finals. They even unleashed JaVale McGee and let him make the night all fun and giggly.
In Game 2, you realized why the Cleveland Cavaliers were so distraught after J.R. Smith’s blunder and everything else they did to let the series opener slip away Thursday night. That was their best chance to win a game at Oracle Arena. On Sunday night, they witnessed the return of the invincible Warriors, who rolled to a 122-103 victory and took a 2-0 series lead. And just as you wondered whether Cleveland could recover from the way it lost the first game, you now must ponder the possibility that Golden State, two victories from another championship, has rediscovered its superteam form just in time to tuck this demanding season in bed.
These Warriors have been absent for most of the season. Buried under injuries, complacency and opponent familiarity, they have broken free only for glimpses. But there was something about the way they performed Sunday, how they dictated the game from the start and weren’t content to use their powers in reaction to flirting with trouble, that felt like a breakthrough.
It has been a while since their stars all operated this fluidly and in unison with the role players. It has been a while since the Warriors exemplified their “Strength in Numbers” creed and didn’t seem to be working around depth issues. The day began with Golden State worrying that Klay Thompson’s injured ankle might force him to miss the game and leave the team further exposed to the limitations of its roster. But by the end of the night, Thompson had logged 33 effective minutes, and McGee had enjoyed a perfect shooting night after being reinstated as the starting center, and the Warriors were able to play 10 players at least 10 minutes without suffering many breaks in intensity.
Finally, the Warriors showed you who they are. It was an impressive reminder, and if you had hopes of a competitive series, it was a demoralizing one, too. Since they are two-time champions and can play at an even higher level, these Warriors aren’t likely to relax after a big win, either. They were up 2-0 and 3-1 against Cleveland two years ago and lost, ruining their record-setting 73-win regular season. They know LeBron James is never out of a series. They know, as well as they played, the next set of games in Cleveland will be harder. Coach Steve Kerr was already nitpicking the performance 15 minutes after the game.
“Yeah, we played really well tonight,” he said. “There were a few things that bothered us in the second half, a few defensive breakdowns we’ll take a look at on film. But overall, it was a really good, balanced game. Good defense. Good, intense defense. And excellent offense. So, yeah, we’re happy with the way we played. But we know this is just getting started.”
As I wrote before Game 2, the Warriors have the luxury of being so gifted that they are capable of winning a third title in four years without playing their best basketball. But their extraordinary abilities can be a burden, too, because they are being judged against historical excellence, not just James and the Cavs. Do they want to be championship collectors? Or do they want to make a convincing argument that they deserve to be put high on the list of the greatest NBA teams — or perhaps the greatest teams, period — ever created?
When you’re living in the present, history can be one mean bouncer. It doesn’t automatically prefer the shiny new thing. The Warriors must transcend their era in a dominant and persuasive manner, and that’s a hard thing to do when the scoreboard keeps saying that you’re good enough.
On Sunday, Golden State shot 57.3 percent from the field and made 15 of 36 three-pointers. Stephen Curry set a Finals record with nine treys, and that’s wild because he entered the fourth quarter 4 of 12 from three-point range. But in the final period, with the Cavaliers still hanging around, Curry displayed his shooting genius, making all five of his three-point attempts and dazzling the crowd with his knack for making contested shots and swishing missiles that others would consider desperation heaves.
Curry led the Warriors with 33 points. Kevin Durant had a nice all-around performance, scoring 26 points on just 14 shots and adding nine rebounds and seven assists. Thompson had 20 points. McGee scored 12 points on 6-of-6 shooting. Shaun Livingston made all five of his shots to score 10 points; in two games, he is 9 for 9.
But it’s the Curry flurry that left the arena buzzing.
“Probably the one that stands out the most to probably all you guys and everyone in this arena, when there was about seven seconds on the clock, and he just kept going backwards,” Thompson said, describing Curry’s electrifying shot that gave Golden State a 103-89 lead with 7:54 remaining. “I don’t know why, but he just threw it up, and I don’t think it had any chance of going in, but that was kind of like a dagger shot, and it gave us all the momentum back. . . . It hit nothing but net, and that was just a very good sight to see.”
You marvel at the shooting, but the Warriors won because they complemented it with a defensive performance that limited the Cavaliers to 34.8 percent shooting in the first half and 41.1 percent for the game. James finished with 29 points, 13 assists and nine rebounds, but after his 51-point effort in Game 1, the Warriors can live with that. James didn’t control the game this time, and he couldn’t slow it down. Thanks to their defense, the Warriors were able to play at their fast pace and, with Curry being aggressive and taking 26 shots, the offense flowed properly.
“We’re extremely focused,” Thompson said.
There’s only one way to respond to that: Uh-oh. It means that, if the Cavaliers want to get back into the series, they must elevate their play. It appears the Warriors aren’t toying around any longer.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.