OAKLAND — Stephen Curry doesn’t hop around the basketball court like he used to anymore.
The Golden State Warriors’ back-to-back MVP is too busy trying to integrate Kevin Durant, reinventing his own rhythm amid nonstop noise about his alleged decline and doing all he can to put his team back on the NBA’s mountaintop. But in a Monday showdown against the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers that had as much meat on the bone as any regular season game you’ll ever find, and that the Warriors won in a 126-91 rout, Curry was skipping around the Oracle Arena floor with nearly three minutes still left in the first half.
It was, in the end, as good a sign as any that the Warriors were back in business against this team that had poured champagne on their walls after an epic Game 7 just six months before.
Curry’s three-pointer from the left wing was part of a 12-0 run that sent the Cavs into the night early, their 14-point lead stretching to 26 amid the kind of Bay Area bliss that used to be the norm when these two teams faced off. The stretch, which lasted less than two minutes in all, featured all that is formidable about this star-studded bunch.
A sneaky Curry steal of LeBron James led to a Klay Thompson three; Thompson blocked Kyrie Irving and sparked a Durant dunk; Durant swooped in for a weak side block only to see Curry’s three fall and the Skip to My Lou impression in full form. There was much more where that came from, as the Warriors’ swarming defense held the Cavs to 35.2% shooting (James and Irving were a combined 12 of 37) and Curry (20 points with 5-of-12 three-point shooting, 11 assists) reminded the masses why this adjustment period should not be mistaken for his demise.
“I obviously wanted to play well. I didn’t want to walk off the floor with anything (less) than what I think was a solid, aggressive game,” Curry said. “I didn’t shoot the ball as well as I wanted to, some shots I normally make didn’t go down. But I can live with that knowing (I) took care of the other stuff that I’m supposed to do on the floor. Really it’s all in my head — I definitely wanted to leave this arena tonight with a solid performance and obviously get the win.”
This was what they had in mind back in July, when – less than three weeks after the Cavs won it all – the Durant recruiting trail ended with him signing on to one of the most talented teams of all time. Durant (21 points, six rebounds, five assists) and Thompson (26 points; five of 11 on threes) were on point, and glue gun Draymond Green had a triple-double outing (11 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists) that even included his latest dust-up with James (a collision in the early second quarter that earned him a flagrant foul).
“It was definitely a hard foul. I think anyone would have gone down if Draymond’s running at you that fast and fouling you like that,” Thompson said. “It was a good, hard foul. Probably warranted a Flagrant 1, but I’m happy Draymond got to stay. He played amazing tonight, triple double. That’s going to happen in this game. Both teams, we’ve faced each other a lot, might face each other down the line, so it’s gonna get physical out there.”
While it’s true that regular season games simply won’t matter by the time the playoffs roll around, this held meaning for the Warriors because, well, even they might have started to question themselves if the trend of Cavs domination had continued. What’s more, the reality is that this group which enjoys such an embarrassment of roster riches had stumbled several times this season when facing the fellow elites.
A 29-point loss to the San Antonio Spurs on opening night sounded the early alarms, if only because that sort of thing simply doesn’t happen to title contenders at the opening bell. A Dec. 1 loss at home to the Houston Rockets in double overtime was curious in its own right, as was the 110-89 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on Dec. 10. But no game cast more doubt on their dominance than the Christmas Day mistake by the lake.
It wasn’t just that they blew a 14-point lead to the Cavs to fall 109-108, or that Curry’s struggles against the Cavs had continued (he had 15 points and shot just 11 times). It was that this matchup that the Warriors had once owned had been turned on its head.
Before becoming the first team in league history to blow a 3-1 Finals lead, they had downed Cleveland in nine of the previous 10 matchups (including the final three of the 2015 Finals). Yet the Christmas Day loss made it four in a row against the Warriors for Cleveland, and it seemed as if the psychological edge was undeniably theirs.
Then Curry started hopping again. And the Warriors, as fascinating as ever, were on their way again.
Follow Sam Amick on Twitter @Sam_Amick.
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