Much like in Game 1, the Warriors weren’t at their best (offensively). Only this time, instead of winning by 15, they crushed the Cavaliers by 33 points in Game 2. Golden State emerged from a Western Conference Finals bloodbath and now find themselves in an NBA Finals that so far has been a cakewalk. And the Cavs, facing the kind of defensive juggernaut that doesn’t exist in their conference, seem to know they’re toast.
“They just beat us at every — we didn’t win anything,” said LeBron James, who turned it over 7 times, scored 19 points on 7-of-17 shooting, and said he’d need to look at the film to figure out how to turn around a series that is rapidly slipping away.
“No points of the game did we beat them in anything. Even when we had an early lead, they beat us to 50-50 balls, they got extra possessions, they got extra tip-ins. They beat us pretty good tonight.”
James, who told reporters that he was “the best player in the world” after Game 5 a year ago, wasn’t exuding that same sort of defiant confidence tonight. His teammates saw him look defeated in the second half of Game 2, and their comments made it sound like the entire team has realized that they’re in a battle they can’t win.
Tristan Thompson: “They wanted it more than us tonight and it shows in the outcome.”
J.R. Smith: “They want it more than we do right now.”
— Bay Area Sports Guy (@BASportsGuy) June 6, 2016
Usually the smart money would be on the Warriors losing Game 3, since they’ve made a habit of doing so since Steve Kerr took over. However, this series seems different. The Warriors are feasting defensively, and their hunger doesn’t seem likely to wane. Not against this team, and not with an opportunity like this in front of them.
The Warriors already won a title. They set a record for regular season wins that may not be broken in our lifetime. Their players, coaches, executives and owners have all earned individual awards. They pulled off a spectacular comeback against a worthy opponent, a much scarier team than these Cavaliers.
So, what’s left on their basket list?
There’s one final mission, one obvious way they can assert their all-time greatness in a manner we haven’t yet seen. And the Warriors can taste it.
The only team they’ve swept in a playoff series is New Orleans, in the first round last year. If they sweep Cleveland — and based on how tonight’s game went and the Cavaliers’ collective reaction to what went on as the game progressed, it’s certainly possible — no one can say a thing.
That’s what drives this historically great team — they want to shut … everyone … up. They’ve done it so often on the road that it’s hard to keep track of their greatest triumphs in unfriendly territory (well, other than Game 6 in Oklahoma City, the Warriors’ best win yet). But this is their chance to stick it to James, Kyrie Irving (who made comments the Warriors didn’t like last summer), and a veritable army that said the Warriors were “lucky” to face a depleted Cleveland team a year ago.
Their response has been vicious, and it started before this series. In four games, the Warriors have outscored the Cavs by an average of 22 points per contest. Kevin Love is in concussion protocol now, but both Love and Irving started each of the four games.
How are they doing it?
The Warriors’ offense has looked pretty good at times, with several passes leading to easy layups and dunks. Draymond Green played his best offensive game in the Finals thus far, scoring 28 and going 5-for-8 on 3-pointers. But if a team wants to exert their will on another, defense is the best way — the only way to make another decorated squad feel impotent.
Golden State guarded the Cavaliers well in Game 1, holding them to 38.1% shooting and 7-for-21 on threes. They did even better tonight, as their opponents made just 35.4% of their shots and 21.7% of their 3-pointers. And the Warriors showed their versatility in doing so.
Andrew Bogut looked like he drank some sort of magic elixir before the game, blocking five shots in just under 15 minutes. The Cavs kept trying, and Bogut kept rejecting. But the Warriors struggled to break away from Cleveland in the first quarter. Golden State’s offense was sloppy, and two unlikely figures — Tristan Thompson and Richard Jefferson — made some layups and free throws.
Then the Warriors went small. They only played six guys in the second quarter: Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston and Green. The Warriors outscored the Cavs 33-23, and it would’ve been more lopsided if the Warriors had avoided several execution mistakes at the end of the half.
“I just thought when they went to the small lineup, their small lineup was a lot faster than what ours was,” said Tyronn Lue, who’s been pushing his team to play faster since he took over for David Blatt.
“Being faster and being longer and athletic gave us some trouble. It gave us some problems. So we’ve got to try to figure that lineup out, and we’ll be fine.”
Easier said than done, as the Warriors know that as long as they run Cleveland’s shooters off the 3-point line — they made J.R. Smith and Channing Frye completely useless in the first two games, to the point where Lue won’t keep Frye on the floor — the Cavs don’t have the wherewithal to beat them inside. Even James, who bulldozed his way to some layups and dunks and mostly avoided firing jumpers whenever possible, looked too tired to maintain control of the ball — either he threw passes that were deflected, or shuffled his feet in such an obvious manner that the officials were convinced to actually call traveling on him … for a change.
James also didn’t possess the energy and/or desire to defend, and in the third quarter, which the Warriors used to pull away from Cleveland for good, he played worse than he ever has at Oracle Arena. He and his teammates were so awful, James didn’t even play in the fourth quarter.
These Finals, and this Cavs team, provide such stark contrasts from James’ days with the “Heatles.” The Miami Heat defended so well that their aggression and movement jumped off the television screen. Cleveland’s activity on both ends makes it look like James is stuck playing an entirely different sport, with nothing besides the Warriors’ speed and tenacity to remind us of those glory days in Miami.
From OKC’s Most Wanted to MVP?
James and Green are friends, but that’s not why James left Green open. It’s fairly obvious that Cleveland came into this series believing that if they kept Curry and Thompson from scoring 25+ per game (or whatever prodigious scoring total they had in mind), they’d have a good shot against the rest of the squad. But in allowing Green to get open looks, they created a monster of sorts.
“Give credit where credit is due. The guy made shots. Not only when we left him open and contested late, but he made shots in our face,” said James.
“The way they’re playing defense against our guards, Draymond’s going to be open all day,” said Steve Kerr. “So he becomes our safety valve when there’s pressure. He becomes an open shooter when they’re jumping out at Steph or Klay. So it’s a good situation for him.”
Green, who everyone knows is THIS CLOSE to getting suspended if he gets in trouble again, is playing with so much more control and poise (not just emotionally — he also committed just one turnover on a night when the Warriors committed 21) than we saw in the Oklahoma City series. And despite the Warriors saying all the right things about how the series isn’t over, it’s clear to everyone watching that they’re so much more comfortable against this team than they ever were against Kevin Durant, Steven Adams, Russell Westbrook and the rest of the Thunder.
— The Cavs took a 28-22 lead on a LeBron James dunk. Cleveland’s bench celebrated as if they were going to soar with their King to a tied and completely turned around series. Then the Warriors’ small-ball lineup went on a 20-2 run. Bye-bye.
— Andre Iguodala is a ridiculous +49 in this series.
— Funniest press conference moment: Thompson interrupting Green when Green said there’s no way anyone can prove that the 2015-16 Warriors are better than the Showtime Lakers.
— Second-funniest press conference moment: Curry’s response to a question about whether Green could become the team’s third splash brother.
— Here’s a quick Q&A the Cavs might not appreciate:
Q: “Are you guys surprised at all by the lopsided victories here? Klay, I guess you’re not, because you guys are better than the Showtime Lakers?”
Thompson: “I mean, not really.”
— OK, OK … there was more to Thompson’s quote. He said they were clicking at home, and he’d be “surprised if we do it twice on the road.” Still, saying you’re not surprised after beating the Eastern Conference champs by 15 and 33 points might ruffle a few feathers, regardless of what else was said. Not that Thompson probably cares.
— I won’t be at Quicken Loans Arena for Game 3, but I’ll be there for Game 4. The last time I visited Cleveland was Game 6 of the 2015 NBA Finals. Green said the goal was to capture “the hardest two wins of the entire season,” and we’ll see if they’re able to do it on the road. A successful trip means losing a chance to clinch a title at home, but the chance to put that kind of stamp on this amazing season may be too enticing to pass up.