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The Golden Breakdown: Steph Curry cooks the Cavaliers anew

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What was supposed to be a comfortable victory ended up being a close call down the stretch. Curry’s 40 points ended up being 40 much-needed points, and with a little help from Kevin Durant, the Warriors avoided a monumental upset.

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The last time the Golden State Warriors faced the Cleveland Cavaliers this season, it was back in December 5, when the Cavaliers put up an admirable fight against the defending champions. The Cavaliers aren’t the same team that once was the Joker to the Warriors’ Batman. The departure of LeBron James has once again driven them back to square one, and it is clear that a roster that is mostly made up of inexperienced youth and journeymen veterans don’t pose any serious threat against an elite championship team.

The Warriors won their first matchup by a score of 129-105. The final score, however, doesn’t indicate how admirable the effort of the Cavaliers was — going into halftime of that game, they managed to have a 6-point lead over the Warriors. While the Cavaliers were able to somewhat surprise their adversaries, the Warriors leaned on the efforts of their elite MVP superstars — Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant — to get them over the hump and eventually blow out their former arch-rivals.

On that night, Curry finished with 42 points, mostly on the back of another sublime shooting performance from behind the arc in the form of 9 threes made out of 14 attempts. Durant also put in a fairly large share, scoring 29 points, hauling in 10 rebounds, and dishing out 9 assists. It was one example — among many — that their partnership has always thrived, and it will continue to thrive for as long as both of them are teammates.

The Warriors and the Cavaliers met again last night, and it wasn’t a completely meaningless game for the Warriors — they still had to reduce their magic number of clinching the West’s first seed to 1, especially since the Nuggets aren’t going to cooperate with that effort by laying down and letting themselves lose. Coming off an abysmal shooting performance in Staples Center the previous night — going 1-of-9 from three-point range — Curry made sure that he wouldn’t have a second straight night of largely missing the mark.

There’s something about shooting in a court that is mostly colored purple and gold that gives Curry some sort of handicap. But there is something about the wine-colored letters of the Cavaliers’ uniform that transforms him into his Human Torch form — and torching is an apt term for what he inflicted against the Cavaliers last night, scoring 40 points on a shooting clip of 12-of-21 from the field (57.1 percent), and a 9-of-12 clip on threes (75 percent).

It seemed like every shot he would throw up would find its way into the bucket. Even this three that turned into a 4-point play went in despite a considerable amount of contact. It’s amazing how Curry maintains balance under huge amounts of defensive pressure, and it is a testament to the time and hard work he has invested into perfecting his craft.

It wasn’t a complex action from the Warriors that allowed Curry to do this either — just another simple pin-down from Looney, a failure by Curry’s defender to cleanly get over the screen, and the opposing big man failing to hedge or trap.

The Cavaliers are the worst defensive team in the league, with a defensive rating of 116.6 that is ranked dead last. That is compounded by a league-worst 49.4 percent on field goals allowed by them, and 37.8 percent on three-point field goals allowed, ranked 29th in the league.

The Cavaliers are, to put it simply, a figurative Swiss cheese on defense. And Curry had no problem taking advantage of the multitude of holes the Cavaliers exposed right in front of him.

On most of these possessions, Curry’s defender was Collin Sexton, the Cavaliers’ rookie point guard. Sexton made a good account of himself on the offensive end by scoring 27 points, but the task of having to guard Curry on the other end was something that he couldn’t handle. Granted, even the most veteran and experienced defenders have a difficult time stopping Curry, but Sexton made a couple of mistakes that can be fixed as he gains more experience — allowing Curry too much space to operate, not closing out hard enough, and losing track of an off-ball Curry.

Curry also cooked the Cavaliers without the need to shoot threes. Have a peep at this beautiful sequence from Curry, who links up with Quinn Cook for a beautiful give-and-go bucket.

Once again, Sexton makes the crucial mistake of relaxing after Curry gives up possession of the ball. A better understanding of Curry’s tendencies would’ve allowed him to be more cognizant of Curry’s ability to immediately move after passing the ball. Most of the time, it is to relocate to a corner spot in order to receive the ball back and shoot a jumper. In the sequence above, Sexton’s overplay gives Curry a wide-open cutting lane toward the rim, and Cook simply passes the ball back to him for an open layup.

The 3rd quarter started out with more of the same, with Curry hitting 3 more threes. The common denominator in all of these made shots? You guessed it — Sexton as the defender.

Curry also used the unusual pull that he gets — and his willingness to set screens for his other teammates — to give Draymond Green 2 of his season-high 20 points. Keep track of Curry in this possession, where he is being tightly guarded by his man. He goes inside toward the paint, then flashes out as if to go toward the perimeter. Instead, he sets a back screen on Green’s unsuspecting defender, allowing Green to drive inside unimpeded for the easy layup.

After the 3rd quarter, the Warriors would sport a 15-point lead despite being outscored by the Cavaliers, 35-31. With the second unit being brought in — one bereft of Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, and DeMarcus Cousins — it was up to Klay Thompson to provide enough scoring to maintain the status quo.

But that didn’t happen. Thompson struggled with his shooting throughout the game, and the Cavaliers eventually came back to cut the deficit to single digits, with them closing the gap to as little as 3 points. The Warriors had forgotten that this game wasn’t entirely meaningless — they still had to win in order to get them much closer to clinching the top spot in the West. And while their chances of clinching it was pretty high, there was still an off chance that the Warriors could fall apart all of a sudden in the last few remaining games of the regular season, allowing the Nuggets to steal away home court advantage for the rest of the Western Conference playoffs.

Durant had spent the majority of the game being a distributor and playmaker, and it was a fine decision for most of the game. The Warriors hadn’t needed his scoring for the majority of the game, with Curry and Green shouldering the scoring load during the first three quarters. But with the Cavaliers dangerously coming close to mounting an unthinkable upset, Durant needed to do what he does best.

And with the Warriors holding a precarious 3-point lead, they go to a simple low-post split action, with Green acting as the low-post facilitator. Green has a mismatch down low, with the much-smaller Sexton guarding him. This forces Cedi Osman to slightly sag off the perimeter to account for a possible Green attempt to score down low.

This, however, proves to be a crucial mistake. Curry and Durant come together for the split action, and Curry’s defender signals for Osman to switch onto Curry. Osman doesn’t get the memo and leaves Curry open on the perimeter for a split second, which is all the time Curry needs to catch the pass from Green and knock down the three that effectively kills the comeback of the Cavaliers.

With the Nuggets winning against the Portland Trail Blazers, the Warriors will still have to win one more game out of the 3 remaining regular season games in order to clinch the top seed. They stepped off the gas pedal and almost allowed the Cavaliers to act as spoilers, potentially giving them much more to worry about than just simply winning another game. But when you have two of the best insurance policies in the league in Durant and Curry, all previous transgressions can be forgiven and mostly forgotten — as long as victory is at hand at the end of the night.

Seventy-nine down, 3 more to go.

Stay Golden, Dub Nation.