After three quarters of uninspired basketball, the Warriors turned it on.
Even after the Cavaliers outplayed the Warriors in the third quarter, even after they dominated on the glass, Golden State still had something nobody else has: Stephen Curry.
With his team down 13 points, Curry opened the fourth quarter with three straight 3-pointers. Then he flashed to the rim on a backdoor cut and wrapped a pass around to Damion Lee for two.
Curry came at Cleveland like a flamethrower. Before Cleveland could blink, the Warriors went on a 17-0 run.
Curry’s ninth 3 of the night was a mean stepback over Darius Garland. His 40th points came after cherry-picking down the court and gave the Warriors an 11-point edge. The easy layup was Curry’s 20th point of the fourth quarter.
Led by Curry’s incredible flurry and 40 points, the Warriors (13-2) dug themselves out of a hole to handle the Cavaliers on the first night of a back-to-back. Draymond Green handed out a season-high 14 assists and the Warriors won the fourth quarter, 38-6.
The ability to flip the switch isn’t always a good thing, but it can be the sign of a great team. And with the Cavaliers missing several key players, all the greatness in Quicken Loans Arena on Thursday wore blue and gold jerseys.
Here are three takeaways from the Warriors’ 104-89 win in Cleveland:
Not a walk in the park
The Cavaliers were on the second night of a back-to-back. They were without star rookie Evan Mobley. Starting center Jarrett Allen and starting guard Colin Sexton also sat out with injuries. So did stretch-four Lauri Markkanen.
Even shorthanded, Cleveland didn’t just roll over for the Warriors.
The Cavs played hard on both ends and stunned a sleepwalking Golden State to start, jumping out to a 10-0 lead in 2:52.
They withstood a barrage from reserve Nemanja Bjelica (14 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals) and a more engaged GSW defense, taking a 54-51 lead into halftime.
They crashed the glass relentlessly, out-hustling the Warriors to create extra possessions.
They even won the third quarter, the period Golden State has dominated so consistently for so long, 27-17. It took a 13-point lead into the final frame. Then Curry exploded.
The biggest conclusion of Thursday is that the Warriors have made their presence known around the league with their hot start. They’re a team with a target on their backs, and they’re going to get every opponent’s A-game going forward.
Cleaning up the glass
The Warriors have been one of the stronger rebounding teams in the league so far, but you wouldn’t be able to tell that if this was the first time you watched Golden State in action.
Heading into the Cavaliers game, GSW ranked third in the NBA in rebound percentage, including a league-best defensive rebounding rate. Curry led the team in rebounding for multiple games, a sign of committed box-outs from his teammates.
The Cavs are a middling offensive rebounding team with all their excellent frontcourt players healthy. Without them, they pounded the glass and earned second chances with pure effort.
Cleveland grabbed 13 offensive rebounds, leading to 21 second-chance points.
Then Golden State owned the boards in the fourth. Their defense ramped up, Curry turned up, and Cleveland had no chance.
Bjelica heating up
Before the Minnesota Timberwolves came to the Chase Center on Nov. 10, Bjelica led all NBA in 3-point shooting, converting at an absurd 57.9% clip.
Bjelica was due to come crashing back down to earth. Entering Thursday, he hit two of his previous nine attempts from downtown, a 22% mark.
Against the Cavaliers, Bjelica rediscovered his groove. He hit his first two 3s, including a deep 29-footer from above the break. The forward sparked a 7-0 run midway through the first quarter when the Warriors were stumbling.
With his outside shot established, Bjelica worked inside. On one play, he posted up the smaller Denzel Valentine and scored easily on the block. The smart play illustrated Bjelica’s offensive value; he’s too good of a shooter for many centers to guard him on the perimeter, but he’s also too tall for smaller defenders to check him.
Bjelica also added two big steals in the fourth quarter and three overall. He impressed early in the season with his passing, and found Damion Lee for a crucial 3, too. He wasn’t perfect though, as he missed two clean looks from deep late in the game.
The way Golden State is built, Bjelica’s not always going to be the one providing energy. Sometimes it’ll be Lee, Gay Payton II or Jonathan Kuminga. Lee and Juan Toscano-Anderson both gave GSW solid minutes on Thursday. But Bjelica is more than capable of contributing when necessary, and against the Cavaliers he sensed the Warriors needed his offense. And in the first half against the Cavs, he kept Golden State afloat.