Stephen Curry and LeBron James produced an MVP-caliber duel, the Oracle Arena fans matched the vocal intensity of their counterparts in Cleveland, and for most of the evening, Game 5 of the NBA Finals was another ratings winner.
As for the rookie coaches?
One coach blinked – and that would be David Blatt – and the other coach won.
Steve Kerr encouraged his deep, skilled and healthy Golden State Warriors to remain true to themselves. To pass and shoot and play fast. To switch defensively and defend ferociously. To remember that, in today’s NBA, size isn’t everything.
And though his patience was tested early, he was rewarded with a 104-91 victory Sunday that brought his franchise within one win of its first NBA championship in four decades.
Blatt? The coach who flinched? He played Kerr’s game – and played right into the gifted Warriors’ hands.
Instead of sticking with his bigger lineup and an effective Timofey Mozgov, the 7-foot-1 center who basically chased the slumping Andrew Bogut into mothballs, Blatt decided his injury-riddled small lineups had the best chance of controlling the series, which returns to Cleveland on Tuesday for Game 6.
But just looking at the final score, Blatt got played. He gambled and lost. During the crucial sequences, the Cavaliers failed to protect the basket, were repeatedly drubbed on the defensive boards and, except for the otherworldly LeBron, offered minimal resistance when Curry ignited the Warriors’ late outburst.
Kerr, interestingly, said he knew Curry was going to erupt when he saw the Cavaliers’ smaller lineup.
“It was a different game, you know, because they decided to go smaller and so the floor was more open,” Kerr said. “When they went small, I thought, ‘This is Steph’s night.’ He took over the game down the stretch and was fantastic.”
Curry was at his dazzling best with his spectacular ballhandling, stutter-step, elusive drives and quick-hit, heat-check jumpers that blow smoke in his opponents’ ears.
Yet at least publicly, Blatt stuck with his script, refused to second-guess a game plan that had Mozgov on the floor for just nine minutes. During a somewhat testy news conference, he was asked repeatedly about benching one of his more productive players, about the wisdom of matching up against the smaller, deeper Warriors and, most notably, for making such a drastic change on a team already depleted by the injury absences of Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and Anderson Varejao.
“(It was) the way we needed to play tonight to give ourselves a chance to win,” he replied to the first question.
And on it went.
“Well, we were in the game the way we were playing. We were right there. So that’s the way that we played it. ... I thought I was pretty clear I thought that was our best chance to win the game. ... I don’t think we’ve lost (Mozgov) by any means.
“Did I make a mistake? Listen, when you’re coaching a game, you’ve got to make decisions. It’s no disrespect to anyone, certainly not to Timo, who has done a great for us.”
Blatt, who coached overseas for two decades before taking over the Cavaliers this season, appeared to hedge only when asked if he intended to take the same approach in Game 6.
“Not necessarily,” he conceded.
In other words, think pencil, not pen. Until the crucial closing minutes, this was another tightly contested game, with 20 lead changes and 10 ties. Certainly for the Warriors, this was not a finished piece of art, a splash-across-the-canvas look that characterizes their style. David Lee missed two layups on one possession. Andre Iguodala endured a nightmare at the free-throw line. Klay Thompson disappeared for stretches before complementing the brilliant Curry in the bang-bang sequence that turned the game.
First it was Curry, answering James’ 34-foot three-pointer with a 26-foot step-back jumper that put the Warriors ahead for good with 7:33 remaining. Then it was Thompson grabbing a rebound at one end and drilling a three-pointer at the other, the lead stretching to 85-80.
And then the whole gang chipped in, stealing offensive rebounds, scoring on putbacks, attacking the rim and leaving Blatt to explain why Mozgov – who averaged 16.8 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in the previous four games – was on the bench during the Golden State run.
Now Blatt has even bigger problems. His Cavaliers are one loss from elimination. His superstar played 44 minutes, about 48 hours before Game 6. As usual, James did everything for the Cavaliers except pass out the towels or coach the team.
“We’ve come this far,” James warned, “and we’ve been very good at home. We don’t want them celebrating at all.”
Ailene Voisin: (916) 321-1208, firstname.lastname@example.org, @ailene_voisin.