With Game 4 of the NBA Finals hanging in the balance, the Golden State Warriors looked like a 73-win team, while the Cavaliers looked like an incohesive, mismatched group of talent.
The result was a 108–97 Warriors win, giving Golden State a commanding 3–1 lead in the Finals, though as Steve Kerr and his team knows, no 3–1 lead is safe.
Game 4 was a back and forth affair for 36 minutes. In the fourth, the Warriors pulled away on the strength of their death lineup. The Dubs’ offense finally found its rhythm, whipping the ball around the court and finding holes in the Cavs’ defense. Meanwhile, Cleveland defaulted to a series of isolations, stagnating offensively as LeBron James and Kyrie Irving took turns trying (and failing) to score. (James and Irving also looked a little gassed down the stretch, probably as a result of playing the entire second half.)
Curry had his best game of the Finals, scoring 38 points while playing the most aggressive brand of ball he’s played since the West Finals. He was aided by the usual suspects, with Klay Thompson scoring 25, and Andre Igoudala and Draymond Green bringing their trademark defensive intensity.
For three quarters, both teams kept the other close by playing to their strength. Cleveland inhaled glass on the offensive boards, overcoming their so-so shooting by dominating in second-chance points. The Warriors’ play was puzzling, but even as Curry failed to take advantage of Tristan Thompson on switches, Golden State hung with Cleveland by shooting lights-out from three.
Until the fourth, the Cavaliers did a remarkable job against the death lineup, with Thompson’s work on the offensive boards neutralizing the Warriors’ small attack. And Irving found his role on offense, using his crossover to find plenty of good looks until he became too dribble-heavy in the final frame. Kevin Love came off the bench, and had a couple positive moments until his defense became too large of a liability in the game’s last eight minutes.
James was passive for much of the game, and it may have cost the Cavaliers. James seemed to try too hard to get his teammates going, and failed to put his stamp on the game. The two-time Finals MVP played with much more energy in the fourth—including a surprising scuffle with Green—but it was too little, too late, and James’s failing jump shot couldn’t bail out poor offensive possessions.
Tyronn Lue tried all kinds of combinations in the fourth, starting with Love and Thompson on the frontline, before settling on Channing Frye and Richard Jefferson to close the game. The lineup strategy came in stark contrast to the first half, when it was Golden State who was trying to answer Thompson’s energy with the likes of James Michael McAdoo. (Anderson Varejao also gave the Dubs some solid minutes in the third.)
Both teams had to fight through a rough night for the referees, who swung from calling too much early to letting the game look like a rugby match for the much of the second half.
Ultimately, Game 4 came down to identity. For the night’s most important stretch, the Warriors fell back on the lineup they’ve used to close opponents all season. The Cavs’ lack of identity—is it James’s turn? Kyrie’s? Who’s playing center?—meant Cleveland spent too much of the fourth quarter searching for answers.
And now with Golden State one win away from a second straight championship, the Cavaliers’ search is running out of time.