CLEVELAND (AP) — Stephen Curry’s only basket in the first 30 minutes came off a broken play. He found himself in foul trouble again. His jumper was nowhere to be found until it was essentially too late.
So much for that NBA Finals sweep.
So much for this looking like an easy repeat title for the Golden State Warriors, too.
The MVP’s struggles were of the epic variety, the best regular-season team in NBA history found a way to fall to 0-4 in Game 3’s during this postseason, and suddenly it’s a series again. Down by 20 at one point in the opening quarter, the Warriors never fully recovered and lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers 120-90 on Wednesday night.
“Nothing about my preparation for tonight, mentally or physically, was different,” Curry said. “Just didn’t go out and execute the way I wanted to.”
Golden State still leads the series 2-1, and Game 4 is Friday in Cleveland.
“We weren’t tough enough,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “We weren’t strong enough with the ball. We were soft tonight.”
Curry scored 19 points, the third straight time in this series that he’s been held under 20. It’s the first time he’s had three consecutive under-20 games since March 2015, and matches the second-longest “slump” — such as it is — that he’s endured in the last four years.
By the time Curry got going, the game was all-but decided. He had 13 points in the third quarter after managing just two in the first half. He was struggling so much at one point that Kerr asked him “You all right?” when he arrived in the bench area during a stoppage in play.
Curry, who missed time earlier in these playoffs with ankle and knee injuries, nodded quickly.
“I’m fine,” he insisted later.
His play at times suggested otherwise.
Out of sorts on one second-quarter possession, Curry was making a cut off the baseline when he apparently never saw a pass that bounced off him and sailed out of bounds. In the third quarter, the game still somewhat in the balance and with the Warriors on a break that could have gotten them within 12, Curry chose not to lead Klay Thompson with a pass that would have set up a layup. Instead, he wound up leading Thompson toward the 3-point line.
Thompson got set and fired. Clank.
Neither sequence cost Golden State the game — an inability to guard Kyrie Irving and J.R. Smith was far bigger than any botched possession — but neither was also the sort of play one would expect from the first unanimously selected MVP, either. And that’s especially so on a night when the Warriors got to face a Cleveland team that scrambled to change its lineup because Kevin Love was sidelined by a concussion.
What the Cavs wound up deciding to do worked: They went big at times, really big (playing Channing Frye and Timofey Mozgov together briefly) at others, and dictated play from the opening seconds.
“We will have an edge tonight,” Kerr predicted Wednesday afternoon. “We’re going to come out and be ready to play. We want to bring our best stuff and if we can get it done tonight we’re in a great spot.”
There was no edge to be found.
Nothing like their best stuff, either.
And the spot they’re in now is far from great, so much so that Kerr was asked if he would consider lineup changes.
“We just lost one game,” Kerr said, smiling. “Change the starting lineup? We weren’t ready to play. They punched us right in the mouth.”
The “Splash Brothers” — Curry and Thompson, arguably the NBA’s best backcourt — have yet to post a single 20-point game in this series between them. Thompson had to leave briefly with a thigh bruise after taking a hard hit from Mozgov, a play that Thompson said afterward “seemed kind of dirty.”
They’ll face a resurgent Cavaliers team again on Friday night in a building where LeBron James and his mates are now 8-0 in these playoffs, most of the games not close.
“Our team has done a great job of being aware of where Steph and Klay are,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said.
Sure, the Warriors still have home-court advantage and lead the series and are two wins from back-to-back NBA titles. And losing Game 3’s against Houston, Portland and Oklahoma City earlier in these playoffs obviously didn’t become knockout blows, either.
But getting routed for the third time in eight games is not at all what Curry and the Warriors expected.
“Law of averages: It’ll all even out,” Thompson said, as Curry sat to his right and nodded. “Just got to keep the confidence high.”