NBA

Warriors absorb LeBron’s best shot, cruise to 2-0 Finals lead anyway

LeBron James started this game in unstoppable bulldozer mode, threw down one of the most ferocious dunks I’ve ever seen in person (the one in transition over a retreating Andre Iguodala was almost frightening, and I was on the other side of the arena in the second deck), and finished with a gaudy triple double. It didn’t matter.

The Cavaliers learned that having a great offense and no defense was a losing formula in Game 1, so in Game 2 they doubled down on the offense and pushed to turn the Warriors over more frequently. The result was a more respectable loss, this time 132-113.

The Cavs made it close throughout the latter parts of the second quarter and the early stages of the third. The crowd murmured, fearing a repeat of James’ dominance a year ago. But this time Kyrie Irving didn’t join the party, as we’re seeing what the Warriors’ superior defense is striving to accomplish. They want Irving to get frustrated and for James to put every offensive responsibility on his own broad shoulders, which does two things.

  1. Negates the two-headed monster thing the Cavs had going in Games 5-7 of the 2016 Finals.
  2. Forces James to conserve energy on defense.

Or, perhaps James just doesn’t have it in him to guard Kevin Durant one-on-one. That’s nothing to be ashamed of; no one can guard Durant in normal circumstances, but even James’ best efforts might look futile with Durant playing this efficiently, this aggressively, and this fast. So when Steve Kerr said after his first game back that James is “playing better than he’s ever played,” that’s both a nice thing to say (don’t want to give him extra motivation beyond building his legacy) and strictly speaking about his offensive contributions.

Oh, and that Steph Curry guy — after he stopped turning the ball over every three minutes in the first half — he was pretty good, too.

“To me, it seems like it’s personal for both of them (Durant and Curry). And you are talking two of the greatest players that we got in this world locked in the way they are. That’s why we’re up 2-0,” said Draymond Green, who was mostly M.I.A. in this game due to foul trouble that started in the second quarter and continued throughout the game.

It’s an embarrassment of riches. The Warriors were lost without Green last year. When he was off the floor, including the 15-point loss in Game 5 when he was suspended, the Warriors were -27 against Cleveland in the 2016 NBA Finals. They’re +17 with Green on the bench so far in this series, and  it’s not a stretch to say it’s all because of Durant.

While the GIF that’ll get the most loops will undoubtedly be the one with Curry dancing a circle around James and slithering in a layup that almost certainly would’ve been swatted into the third row last year, the series-defining sequence so far is right here:

https://youtu.be/J-qoxH3MC8I

Kevin Love, who actually had a pretty decent game in areas other than 3-point shooting (where Cleveland struggled as a team), had no chance trying to score in the post against Durant. Then Durant raced by James, as if “The King” wasn’t even there, before nailing that ridiculously difficult runner over Love.

James is the greatest player in the world. He deserves that title both for his track record and what he continues to do today. But Durant has been the more complete player, and I would even say he’s been the better player over the first two games of this series.

  • Yes, that could change in Cleveland.
  • Yes, Durant is surrounded by more talent than James.
  • Yes, Durant has logged fewer miles than James.

But let’s appreciate what Durant is doing, because his line (33 points, 13 rebounds, 6 assists, 5 blocks, 3 steals) has never been seen in a postseason game since the NBA started recording blocks and steals (1973-74, per NBA PR).

“His defense was amazing, and we needed it. Especially with Draymond out,” Steve Kerr said. “I thought that KD’s defense was unreal, and it was probably the key to the whole game.”

This new version of the Warriors was supposed to be known for amazing offense, sure, but it was also expected that their defense would be porous. Maybe even soft. Instead the Warriors are blocking more shots than they did with Andrew Bogut at center.

The game has changed so much in a couple of years. Timofey Mozgov actually had a positive impact for parts of the 2015 NBA Finals. Tonight Durant was the most dominant center on the floor.

Sweep? 

It’s fair to ask what these first two games mean for the rest of the series, given that the Warriors won the first two games of last year’s Finals by a combined total of 48 points. But last year’s Warriors squad was content to take one of two after the series moved to Cleveland. They were tired after pushing themselves through their historic regular season and getting tested by the Thunder in the WCF, and they were nowhere near as healthy as they are currently.

Mostly, the Warriors really want to shut everyone up, and nothing would do that better than fo’-fo’-fo’-fo’.

And while we can expect Cleveland’s crowd to get the role players hyped in Game 3, Cavs fans can’t help defend the Warriors, and it’s difficult to find a five-player lineup permutation that can. James thrives as a free safety, roaming the lane and swatting shots away. But other than the times he’s tasked with “guarding” Shaun Livingston, he can’t freelance. Plus, a lot of the time it’s James who’s getting lost on back-cuts or generally putting less-than-satisfactory effort into his defensive assignments.

James may shift his focus to defense in Game 3, but he isn’t stopping Durant. And the Warriors seem like the hungrier team to Cleveland’s head coach.

“We got to be better as far as not relaxing, not falling asleep, the loose balls, 50/50 balls, we got to get those,” Tyronn Lue said. “You got to be alert at all times.”

Maybe the Cavs will be more into it at home, but I’m wondering if their lack of alertness stems from a realization that if the Warriors best players are this “locked in,” they don’t have the snowball’s chance they were able to seize a year ago.

It just seems unlikely that they can win a game by pushing the pace against the best “small ball” lineup in the history of the sport, but they seem committed to their “lotsa offense and almost no defense at all” strategy, even though many observers feel like Cleveland only has a chance if they go with their prior method of milking the clock and knocking the Warriors around. They could always go back to that gameplan, but would Lue really decide to change course in such a drastic way at this point?

Dub Steps

— Shoutout to Kerr for not smashing his clipboard and leaving the court in the first half when his team seemed like they were trolling him with their careless possessions. He was probably tempted to say, “Guys, just pretend I’m not here” during a second quarter timeout when the Warriors weren’t as mentally engaged as they probably should’ve been.

— “I was just kind of like a chicken with my head cut off, just running circles.”

— I almost missed the first quarter of this game. I got here as the A’s game was getting out, and was forced to enter the parking lot to the right, where every spot was filled. Cars were lining up to find spaces or just get the hell out of this area we were stuck in, and I wasn’t able to move my car for at least 45 minutes. Finally, due to a little luck and some aggressive parking lot maneuvering, I was able to get out of there and drive around to the other side of the complex.

I entered the bottom floor of the arena as the anthem was playing, and ended up walking past Santana (wearing a velour track suit) as I tried to make my way to the floor. So I didn’t get to see him play the anthem in person, but I was within a foot of a rock-n-roll Hall-of-Famer. I also found myself between a wall and the Warriors’ two best players as they chatted briefly between press conferences. Interesting night.

— If you could combine the first quarter of Game 1 and the first 2.5 quarters of Game 2, you’d be pretty close to having a basketball game so ridiculous that it’d be illegal in several states. The offensive firepower in this series is silly.

— JaVale McGee was the only active Warrior who didn’t play in the second half.

— Klay’s back! He led the team at +24, he scored 22 points on just 12 shots, he went 4-for-7 on threes, and showed the lack of conscience that always seems to be paired with his best performances. So, to celebrate Klay *heating up*, we’re putting all of our Warriors gear on sale!

Discount code: FINALS

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