Champions come to play in the fourth quarter, and that's what the Golden State Warriors did Friday during Game 4 of the NBA Finals.
Golden State beat the Cleveland Cavaliers 108-97 to take a 3-1 series lead thanks to a 29-20 advantage in the fourth quarter (and 58-42 advantage in the second half). The Warriors now look to win the NBA title at home Monday after clinching it in Cleveland a season ago:
After staying relatively quiet through the first three games of this series, the Splash Brothers led the way for Golden State Friday night.
Stephen Curry finished with 38 points and six assists with seven made three-pointers, while Klay Thompson added 25 points and four made three-pointers. Golden State set a new NBA Finals record for made threes in a game with 17, per Warriors PR.
It also set a record for the most wins in a season (including playoffs), per NBA TV:
Kyrie Irving scored a team-high 34 points for the Cavaliers, and LeBron James just missed a triple-double with 25 points, 13 rebounds and nine assists. However, Cleveland's offense largely turned into the others watching those two attempt to make individual plays in crunch time, and the Warriors overwhelmed the Eastern Conference champions in the second half.
Cleveland now has a daunting road ahead after Friday's loss:
There was news before tipoff, as the NBA announced on Twitter that Cavaliers forward Kevin Love was cleared to play after missing Game 3 with a concussion, although he didn't start. Love did see the floor in the first quarter, but Golden State built a 29-28 lead after the first 12 minutes.
It was a drastic turnaround for the Warriors after they trailed 33-16 at the end of the first quarter in their 120-90 loss in Game 3, but ESPN's Michael Wilbon pointed out one problem for the visitors:
Even though the Warriors were struggling to grab the loose balls, James had only two points with 7:48 left in the second quarter and his team trailing 34-33. Tom Withers of the Associated Press noted the Cavaliers leader was "strangely passive on offense," which didn't bode well for the Game 4 hosts.
As a result, Los Angeles Lakers forward Nick Young—who is never afraid to shoot—had something to say:
James may have been a non-factor in the scoring department to that point, but Irving gave his team a 42-41 lead with less than five minutes until halftime with a contested layup. It gave him a game-high 14 points, and he even swatted the two-time MVP on the defensive end:
James eventually finished with seven points at the half, but Irving led the way with 16 as the Cavaliers built a 55-50 lead at halftime. He extended it to 56-50 with a free throw to start the third after Warriors head coach Steve Kerr was whistled for a technical foul at the end of the first half.
Golden State closed to within 65-64 when Thompson hit a three with less than eight minutes left in the third, but Irving continued to torch the Warriors defense on the other end:
Still, Irving could only do so much to counter the Warriors, and Curry gave his team a 72-69 lead with a three with nearly four minutes left in the third to cap off an 8-0 spurt. Cleveland trimmed the deficit to 79-77 by the end of the third, although it was having difficulty stopping Curry, who scored 11 points in the quarter and had 25 entering the fourth.
The back-and-forth continued in the final quarter, as the teams traded leads in the opening two minutes. Amin Elhassan of ESPN pointed out a concern for the Cavaliers after Andre Iguodala gave Golden State an 86-83 advantage with a mid-range jumper with nine-plus minutes remaining:
The defense was one thing, but Cleveland's offense became stagnant in the early stages of the fourth with little ball movement. Golden State extended its advantage to 93-84 off a three by Harrison Barnes with less than six minutes left, prompting the Cavaliers to take a timeout.
At the time, Cleveland's last field goal was a dunk by James with more than 10 minutes remaining, and Dan Wolken of USA Today reacted to the ill-timed slump for the Cavaliers:
It wasn't just Irving, though, as James struggled in isolation sets as well.
"Cavs offense has devolved into either standing around until last shot or move the ball for 10 seconds and then stand around until last shot," Rich Eisen of NFL Network observed.
With Cleveland's offense in a funk, Curry's three to put Golden State up 96-86 with less than four minutes left felt like a dagger.
There was some drama in the closing stretch, when James and Draymond Green jawed at each other, as Vincent Goodwill of CSN Chicago described:
It seemed to spark James, who found Irving on an assist and then cut the lead to seven with a free throw. However, Curry answered with a layup in traffic to push the lead back to 98-89 with less than a minute remaining, and the Cavaliers never challenged again as the Warriors clinched the win at the free-throw line.
Game 5 will take place Monday back at Oracle Arena in Oakland.
The Warriors won the first two contests at home by a combined 48 points and were a sparkling 39-2 at Oracle during their 73-win regular season. Cleveland looked overwhelmed for much of the first two contests and will have to find a way to close games more effectively than it did Friday.
Golden State is playing with house money at this point and has to win only one of the next three, two of which would be at home if the series were to go the distance, to earn the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
As for the Cavaliers, they would be best served to focus on just Game 5 and not the larger picture. If they win one on the road, they will be only a single home victory away from forcing a decisive Game 7.
That is still a tall task against the defending champions.
James played 46 of a possible 48 minutes Friday. When asked about it after the game, Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said, per Rachel Nichols of ESPN, “When it’s time to win in the NBA Finals, you have to play as many minutes as you need to.”
Lue wasn’t happy about the way his star was officiated, via Bleacher Report:
Richard Jefferson echoed similar sentiments when talking about James, per Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com: “Four free throws for a guy who lives in the paint is rare.”
Part of that was excellent defense from Iguodala, who described what it is like guarding James, per Jared Wade of FanSided: “At any moment the guy can just turn into an uncontainable player. You gotta have the appropriate fear.”
Curry can also do that, but he was instead asked about his shoes that the Internet had some fun with after the win, via Kenny Ducey of Sports Illustrated:
Curry did have a worrisome message for the Cavaliers, via SportsCenter: “Just because we are going home doesn’t mean we can relax.”
As long as Golden State heeds its star’s advice, it will likely win a second straight NBA title.