Was this a basketball game or a football game? Pound, Dribble… Pound, Dribble… Pound, Dribble. The Cavs attacked the Warriors interior relentlessly with their gargantuan front line of Shaquille O’Neill, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Anderson Varejao. Pound, Dribble… Pound, Dribble… Pound dribble. The Warriors made goal line stand after goal line stand. One by one, their big men were carried off the field of play. Rony Turiaf with an ankle sprain, Andris Biedrins with 5 fouls and a sprain to his pride.
In the fourth quarter, the teams finally matched up small. And then…. Pound, Dribble… Pound, Dribble… Pound dribble. Lebron James took over in the post, eating up the much smaller Corey Maggette and Cartier Martin.
The Warriors were hit with a steam-roller in this game. And yet, despite a Monta Ellis meltdown in the third quarter, and a brutal stretch in the fourth quarter which saw the Cavs take a 14 point lead, the Warriors never quit. The Warriors locked down defensively, with newly called-up Cartier Martin drawing an offensive foul, Stephen Curry making a huge block on Delonte West under the basket, and the entire Warriors team forcing the Cavs into missed jumpers. On the offensive end, Maggette continued his assault on the basket, getting to the line for four free throws. Curry buried two huge long-range jumpers. And then, down 6 with 0:58 left in the game, the Warriors came up with a sensational play: Monta stole the ball in the backcourt, Curry retrieved it and in one motion lasered a left-handed behind-the-back pass back to Monta for a three-point shot. Warriors down 3 with 0:57 left.
After Lebron and Curry traded buckets, the Warriors made one last beautiful defensive stand, forcing Lebron into a bad three-point attempt. Monta got the rebound with 0:06 left, and…
Hesitated. He made a motion to call timeout, then saw Don Nelson frantically signalling for him to push the ball up court. He took off, but with the time now perilously short, he failed to see a wide open Vlad Rad, and dumped the ball to Curry for a desperation heave, which Curry missed as time expired.
An unfortunate mixup, one I discuss in more detail below. But to me, this play was not the story of the game. The story of this game was how the continually injured, undermanned, and undersized Warriors fought through adversity to keep this game close. The same way this Warriors team has fought throughout this entire snake-bit season.
They never quit.
Is that worth something in an 11-25 season? Is it worth watching? Worth rooting for?
Where does this heart come from? This fierce desire to compete in every game, against all odds? This unquenched will to win? This belief that they CAN win?
Does Don Nelson deserve any credit?
Monta Ellis: One game after I rhapsodized ecstatically over the progress and promise that Monta has shown in his game recently, Monta laid an egg. Isn’t that the way it always is?
He struggled running the offense right from the start. Pick and roll was clearly Don Nelson’s initial game plan to attack the Cavs tenacious half-court defense. Monta got a few jumpers from this play, but was terrible at hitting the rolling big men: he turned the ball over several times on the pass.
In the third quarter, Monta suffered a complete melt-down. He began to take his repeated frustrated forays to the basket personally, and stubbornly continued to take the ball into the teeth of the Cavs double and triple teaming defense, without ever looking for his open teammates. He got 5 of his attempts blocked in this quarter, including, I believe, 4 in a row. He went 1-12 in the quarter, at one point missing 11 straight shots.
As an example, take another look at the play at 8:10 of the third. Monta has the ball at the left key. Curry is wide open at the right key. So wide open that he is jumping up and down and waving his arms to attract Monta’s attention. Monta looked him off, drove into three men, and got his shot blocked, for the third straight time. Monta suffered a terrible loss of composure in this game, that as much as anything was responsible for this loss.
This doesn’t mean I’m now down on Monta. One glance at the rest of his line will tell you how great a player he is, even in an off game. 5 steals, including the one in crunch time that led to his clutch three. 3-4 from three, 9-11 from the line. 45 minutes.
I’ll stick by my opinion that Monta is the next superstar in the league. He learns from his mistakes, and he will learn from this game.
Corey Maggette: Maggette had a tough time guarding Lebron. The size difference between the two is simply mind boggling. I mean, Corey Maggette is a big dude, but as Nate Thurmond put it, Lebron made him look “like a junior.” Lebron put up 37 and 8.
But he needed 23 shots to get his points. Here is Corey Maggette’s line:
32 points on 7-14, and 17-18 from the line. 7 rebounds.
32 points on 14 shots. Ridiculous. Elite. Corey Maggette put the Warriors on his back in this game, as he has done so often this season.
Attention must be paid.
Stephen Curry: Curry stepped up big time in this game, continuing to cement his status as one of the Warriors big three. 21 points (on 8-15), 7 and 5. That’s getting it done. And he got it done in crunch time, with 10 points in the final 6 minutes.
He is also simply dazzling. Monta Ellis could learn something from his clever cross-overs, and the soft high finishes off glass against the Cavs’ monsters in the paint. He could also learn something from the way Curry sees his teammates. I can’t help but think that if Curry had been bringing the ball up instead of Monta in the closing seconds, he would have spotted Vlad Rad wide open and waving his arms.
That play that Curry made at 0:58, retrieving the loose ball, and in one motion flicking it behind his back, with his left hand, to hit Monta in the hands at the three point line. Could any of the other point guards in this draft have made this play? How many other players in the league could make this play? I think you could count them on the fingers of one hand.
The Centers: Turiaf played a beautiful game, until his ankle went out. Take a look at that +6. The size of this guy’s heart is incredible. Think the Warriors missed him in their first 30 games? I sure hope he’s not out long.
Beans on the other hand, was simply miserable. I have a theory: I think he’s still hurting. I saw him sneak in a little ab stretch that made me say “uh oh.”
Hunter was game against Shaq. He got run over on one possession, but on the next he blocked Shaq’s shot. Loved that.
Vlad Rad: Vlad got the start in the place of Anthony Randolph, and had a huge game, with 18 points and 9 rebounds, including 3-3 from three. What was equally remarkable was his defense. Take a look at his defense on Big Z at 3:00 of the third quarter, that resulted in one of his 3 steals. Then watch his defense on Lebron at 0:20 of the third.
Tantalizing. But we’ve been here before with Vlad. He needs to get his Tantalizing/Enigmatic ratio over 2.
The Little Three: With Vlad Rad’s ascension to the starting lineup, Cartier Martin now joins Watson and Morrow in this group. And as this game indicates, I expect him to get the most minutes of the three. The Warriors desperately need his size and defensive ability at small forward. Watson and Morrow will be reduced to backing up Monta and Curry. There aren’t a lot of minutes there.
Martin looked pretty good on defense. And Nellie went to him more than I thought he would on offense. He seems to have a jump shot, with three point range. I’m looking forward to watching him play.
Morrow and Watson continued to be invisible. Morrow just can’t get himself open. Watson can, but his jumper is still vacationing off the Bermuda coast.
The Last Play: I’m sure this will be a topic of much discussion among the Nellie haters, so I’ll write a pre-emptive “Crazy Nellie” postscript here. Nellie has always believed that it is easier to get a good last second look by pushing the ball up court against a scrambling defense, than it is to attempt a last second inbounds play against a set half-court defense. This is particularly true, as Nellie explained post-game, when that defense is Cleveland’s small-ball unit, capable of switching at every position.
And if you go back and watch this play unfold, and see Vlad Rad wide open and waving his arms at the three point line, I think you’ll understand Nellie’s point. Monta Ellis’ confusion cost him 2 seconds in pushing the ball up court, and may have also cost him a look at Vlad Rad.
Perhaps Nellie can be faulted for not communicating his intentions more clearly. I think it’s more likely that Monta, who has played under Nellie for several years now, simply had a mental lapse. But whatever the case, I don’t think he’ll make the mistake again. He, and this team, are making strides every game.