Game 2 was sloppier and more physical. Not quite the complete game the Warriors wanted to stitch together for the return of head coach Steve Kerr, but emblematic nonetheless.
You ever get invited over to the older neighbor kid’s house for an afternoon? Remember looking through all his stuff? A bigger baseball mitt, more suggestive posters, dirty socks like land mines on the floor. The smells were unfamiliar, mustier. His sheets were crusty and crumpled. There was a TV in his room with his own video game console. You stared at it, afraid to touch it as if it would shiver and dissolve just from the brush of your fingertips.
He looked over, annoyed by your mere presence yet somehow a smile crossed his face to momentarily paint over his contempt.
He’s got that game, Mortal Kombat with a ‘k’. You’ve heard about it from kids at school. Other guy’s mothers let them have it but yours wouldn’t and now you understood why. It was hero fighters unmasked only to reveal skeleton faces. They had swords which sliced through arteries causing blood to spatter across the screen. They popped their opponent’s heads off like a soda tab. Sometimes the brute force would cause the victim’s spine to come up with it, whipping around on the ground like a giant baby alien worm. It was all too much and at times not enough.
You lost each time but not for lack of trying. The neighbor kid toyed with you, maybe let you take a round off him once in awhile, but when it came down to business, he would filet you and leave your standing there, reeling, spinning and frozen in time, waiting for your ultimate fate. Would he take off your arms and beat you to death with them? Open his mouth and engulf you in the snakes that shot out of it? Or would it be a simple, merciful, beheading that would simply drop your guy to his knees, blood spurting out of his neck like a chocolate fountain.
The possibilities were endless, but the results were always the same.
One couldn’t help but get the feeling that the Warriors were playing the role of older neighbor kid at Oracle Arena Sunday night. Golden State, as they had game one Thursday, came out a bit scattered, this time committing unnecessary turnovers much of the first quarter, even falling behind Cleveland by a half dozen early on. Perhaps they were a little jittery because for the first time in nearly a month, head coach Steve Kerr was able to sit on the bench with his team.
Kerr, who has battled back problems for the last two years, bowed out during the team’s first round series against Portland for surgery. His recovery included visits to practice, coaches’ meetings and he was a regular in the locker room both at home and on the road, but Sunday’s was his first on-court appearance in two series.
The Warriors committed 13 turnovers in the first half. In that time, however, they maintained the same physicality and in spurts played their transition game finding Cleveland flat-footed as they orchestrated full-court passes and created four-on-three or five-on-four mismatches. The Cavaliers were seemingly setting the table as the Warriors were clearing the dishes.
The Warriors got right in the locker room and kept it to seven turnovers in the second half. More importantly, they continued to show Cleveland they were going to be the pushers, movers and grinders. That effort was led by the field marshal of this finals thus far, Steph Curry.
With 8:53 left in the third, the strangest thing happened to bear this out. Curry, who always comes with disclaimer adjectives like demure or under-sized, went iso with LeBron, a mismatch off a screen that should have Curry looking to pass cross-court for the open Warrior. But there they were at the right hash mark, then down toward the baseline, Curry put on a dribbling clinic while LeBron played his signature defense, keeping his body in complete control, not yielding an inch. Curry stepped back a few feet up from the baseline and it looked like he would create a few inches of space off the dribble, enough for a quick-release three. LeBron in anticipation came forward a step into Curry’s body and that gave the two-time MVP enough space to slither, spin and slip past James, driving baseline toward daylight. James, playing from behind, came within a fingertip of blocking Curry against the glass, but the Warriors’ guard was an inch faster and the ball laid up and in.
It isn’t a highlight likely to be remembered for all time and might not have even been the signature play of the game, Kevin Durant’s exclamation point slipping back door on a gassed LeBron during the fourth quarter was more highlight-worthy if not emblematic. But what Curry did was send a statement. The physicality he’d been stripped of in 2016 after going up for a similar lay up and having his legs taken out from under him during the first round in Houston, seemingly falling from the top of Toyota Center and landing on his back—never quite right for the rest of the playoffs, had been completely exorcised.
Sunday was Steph Curry in full. Thumping, demanding, charging—and not backing down for anyone.
Cleveland has found ultimate success after having been down 2-0 in a Finals against the Warriors before. They head back to Quicken with the mindset that they will not surrender a single point Wednesday without making the Warriors bleed for it. The Warriors know that. These teams are Ali and Frazier, nothing is taken for granted and shifts in momentum are seismic.
And yet, one can’t help but look at the Warriors are standing there, holding the controller, wearing a smirk, knowing they’ve still got a couple finishing moves that haven’t been revealed just yet.