CLEVELAND — History will have to wait.
With a tantalizing chance to polish off an unprecedented, undefeated playoff run of 16-0 and win their second championship in three seasons, the Golden State Warriors came to play the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 4 with an inexplicable lack of defense and fell, 137-116.
"It's never one thing," said head coach Steve Kerr. "Our defense was not sharp. [The Cavs] made tough shots. They got it rolling. I thought they played a tremendous game."
With their first defeat of these 2017 playoffs, the Warriors lost out on securing a perfect postseason, but they can still put an end to this series with a victory in Game 5 on Monday night at Oracle Arena.
For that to happen, the Warriors need to leave behind in Cleveland this unreasonable facsimile of what was the league's second-stingiest defensive rating in the regular season (101.1 points allowed per 100 possessions). The Cavs scored 49 points in the first quarter, which was a Finals record for any quarter ever. They rolled that into an 86-point first half, which was the most prolific half in any Finals game.
"They did a good job of attacking early and it opened up their three-point game," Durant said, who finished with 35 points. "They also just caught some in rhythm and knocked them down. That's the team they have been all season—knocking down deep shots and difficult shots as well. But if you give them some open ones, like we did early on, they will knock them in at some point."
From there on, the Warriors played the Cavs tighter and with greater defensive cohesiveness—they were only outscored 51-48 after halftime—but their overall discipline failed them throughout the contest. In the first quarter, it was poor defensive rotations that left sharpshooters like Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving and JR Smith open on the perimeter en route to a 16-point deficit. In the third quarter, it was Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Zaza Pachulia each getting called for technicals.
"They brought a level of physicality that we did not match," Kerr said. "We have to do a better job of that."
The Warriors also couldn't locate that critical momentum-swinging shot, no matter the effort. Despite a buzzer-beating three from Durant at the end of the first half, they went to the locker room trailing by 18 and in search of answers to slowing down the dynamic trio of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, who combined for 67 points in the first half before finishing the night with an astonishing 94.
The Quicken Loans Arena crowd came to cheer with throat-shredding abandon. In turn, the Cavs harnessed that energy and—despite being down 3-0 in the Finals and on the furthest brink of elimination—played their most inspired basketball in weeks.
And the Warriors came away with their first loss of the playoffs.
"It was an emotional game. It's the Finals," Kerr said. "They were down 3-0. We knew they were going to come out and fight, so there was a lot of fight and a lot of intensity. That's kind of what you expect at this level."
It's still hard to rationalize the Warriors team that showed up on Friday with the juggernaut that had powered its way to a 15-0 start in the playoffs and hadn't lost a game since April 10.
Even as the offense was more than up to the task—their offensive rating of 120.7 was a fine-enough showing to win on most nights, but the Cavs simply could not miss their shots. Their 24 threes on 45 attempts represented yet another Finals record they set on this night.
That was also the last time Kerr's usual starting five—Durant, Green, Pachulia, Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry—played a full game and lost. It's been 138 days since that defeat.
If there's good news to be gleaned for the Warriors from this debacle, it's that the Cavs must replicate this showing on Monday to keep the series going and force a Game 6 back here on their home court.
The chances of another complete defensive breakdown by the Warriors are only slightly greater than them blowing this once-certain 3-0 lead. They've certainly given the Cavs fresh life with this ugly night of basketball.
The more encouraging side of that outlook is that a win on Monday means this becomes little more than a footnote to history.
Winning the title in five games would give Golden State a 16-1 record (.941) in these playoffs, mere percentage points better than the 2001 Los Angeles Lakers (15-1, .938) for the best title run ever.
"We are in the NBA Finals," Curry said, who finished with just 14 points on 13 shots. "We got to find our edge next game. There's no secret."
If they find that edge and win one more, no one will fixate on this disastrous Game 4 fiasco.
One more win and the Warriors are world champions again.
Just one more win.
Erik Malinowski covers the Warriors for B/R. His book, Betaball: How Silicon Valley and Science Built One of the Greatest Basketball Teams in History, will be published in October. Follow him on Twitter: @erikmal.