The Cavaliers were just about perfect in lurching into Game 2.
On the team’s first possession, LeBron James surveyed the scene in transition before gliding into a layup. A play later Kevin Love kept the ball in his hands for .3 seconds on a quick post-up of Kevin Durant, long enough time to score a three-point submission after the foul. James ran again for another lay-in, and was fouled in his attempt at another fast-break flush. Love again blew by the defense for a barely touched layup off a LeBron-led screen-and-roll in the face of Golden State’s two most-famed defenders: Draymond Green and Kevin Durant.
Later, Love again turned on Green, right away and without hesitation, for another face-up jumper. James missed another spinning layup in transition, Kyrie Irving missed a three, but Love touched leather for another millisecond before launching and making a turnaround jumper on 2016 low-post nemesis Klay Thompson. LeBron was whistled for a dubious offensive foul on yet another transition drive, and Love missed a three after tweaking his clearly pained knee, but James spun yet again to the free-throw line after a transition drive, and made one of two free throws.
The Cavaliers had spun past the Warriors in a breeze. Newly inserted GSW coach Steve Kerr called a timeout. A badly needed one.
His team responded with a Stephen Curry 3-pointer after a timeout, shot at least a dozen feet from the closest Cleveland defender. The Warriors now led 16-14, with 7:37 left in the first quarter: Golden State took Cleveland’s best shot and come out ahead two points.
Soon after, the Cavs were tugging at their shorts. A little after that, Golden State took Game 2 by a 132-113 score. What’s there, then, to look forward to as the series shifts to Cleveland for Game 3 on Wednesday evening?
An exacting, and improved, Cleveland offense
The Cavaliers ran in heavy doses in Oakland, and it was a noble pursuit. At their best, in a cleaner game for either side, Tyronn Lue’s team has it in its makeup to contend in the all-out dash with Golden State. The gamble was worth seeking out, even if the team had to skulk out of the first two games already down 41 points to a 73-win team that added Kevin Durant.
Logic would dictate that after such a failure it would probably be prudent to stop with the gallivantin’, once it came time for Eastern Time on Wednesday. The Cavs were gorgeous to start Game 2, dashing and keeping up and often running behind the very game Warriors crew, but in the end only JaVale McGee slumped as the only Warrior looking out of breath, while the Cavaliers melted. The Warriors can get by with JaVale not at his best.
This is why LeBron is going to be asked to leave work Wednesday night with blisters on his fingers. He’ll have to control a Cleveland screen-and-roll that works in milliseconds, causing havoc with James’ pinpoint abilities and, the club hopes, timely shooting.
This insistence doesn’t have to turn Kevin Love into an outsized version of teammate Channing Frye, never touching the ball and pinning his box score contributions on flings from 25 feet away. It wouldn’t make Kyrie Irving a bystander, if the form and movement was perfect.
Would James want to key in on a slower pace, after being mopped so far in 96 too-soon minutes?
“I play my game, and I don’t change it no matter what the series is. What the course of the day is, I don’t change it with what the score is, I just play my game.
“My game is being aggressive, my game is getting my guys involved, my game is getting into the paint. Shooting some outside shots when they’re available.”
After an attempt to slough the conversation off with an “it is what it is,” on Tuesday, James was asked if he would be keen to slow the pace in the hopes of putting an Eastern stamp on the Golden State ways.
“That’s not our game. We don’t play slowed-down basketball. We play at our pace, and we play our game. We’ve got to this point playing our way. We’ve won a lot of games playing the way we play. So, we’re not going to change.”
How does LeBron stop the Golden State attack? The right answer, for the press that used to be present at these sorts of gatherings, would be to talk up defense. To discuss stops, playing harder, winning the 50/50 battles, talking defensively after too many possessions caught chatter-less in Game 2.
Instead, James got down to what was exactly wrong with the Game 2 attack. How can the Cavs stop those too-quick Warrior runs? Those swift answers sent in the face of every attempted Cleveland comeback?
“Take great shots and don’t turn the ball over.”
That’s what LeBron went with. It’s offense, he knows it. The Cavaliers are going to have to outshoot the Warriors again.
LeBron chased off suggestions that the home cooking would do much for his advantage in Games 3 and 4, but it’s hard to not think it the case for James-aiding additions both recent (Deron Williams has missed all nine shots in this series) or older (Channing Frye missed four of his five shots in California, his lone make a desperate step-back long 2-pointer) or super, super important: J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert combined to miss 14 of 18 shots in the first two games, each clang at critical times. At some point these able basketball people have to act the part.
We’ve been told that we can be quick without hurrying, and one supposes this is what Basketball Supergenius LeBron James was getting at when he encouraged sustaining a bounding pace in ways that wouldn’t leave his Cavs tugging at their shorts far too early into Game 3. That’s stuff LeBron can get away with, though, and his helpers may not be able to find the same mix of alacrity and precision in this series. They’re just not as good as LeBron at these things.
The home setting will have to help.
The Warriors won’t look to buckle Kyrie Irving
No team could. This is still the guy who has worked through myriad injuries in his six-year NBA career, the one who wouldn’t miss the rest of the 2017 Finals for the world after winning it all last year by his hand, and after missing most of 2015 due to a fractured kneecap.
Rumors abound, in the days between Games 2 and 3, that Irving is a little famished after non-stop play upon his return from that 2015 setback, including his work in the Rio Olympic Games last summer. That chatter is supported by his 8-23 shooting in Game 2, one supposes, after a 24-point outing (on 10-22 shooting) in Game 1. Irving blistered the Isaiah Thomas-less Celtics in Games 3 through 6 to the tune of 31.7 points per game on (goodness, gracious, sakes alive) 65.4 percent shooting from the field.
So, must be the knee, right? Eh. Klay Thompson’s around, y’know, kind of running things for stretches.
The guy is missing shots he needs to make. His center wasn’t in place in Game 2 on both his drives and square-ups. Even if his knee issues are weighing down Irving’s ability to crouch and find strength from what usually sets him apart from 99.9 percent of NBA players, he has shown a penchant for overcoming these sorts of setbacks.
Not that the Warriors would care, anyway. They’re not going to stop this train’s velocity, just to pinpoint an attack on Cleveland’s point guard.
Golden State will try to attack the weakest point, as they should, but not in a way that would take away from the beatific combination of mindfulness and instinct that has brought the Warrior offense so far. Leave the mismatches to Don Nelson, a flawed genius left still forever halting the game to laugh and point at the hole in the defense.
The Warriors had the temerity enough to stick with Zaza Pachulia in both games for long stretches, to their offense’s great delight, while limiting JaVale McGee’s second-half play after yet another batch bounding first-quarter production (six points, seven rebounds, an assist and block in eight Finals minutes, all in that period). They’re not to be deterred. If they go after Kyrie Irving, it’s because he’s the one playing the worst defense of the five on the floor, and not because of any lingering injury.
If home-court advantage matters, then we’ll get a great night out
The obvious hallmarks here can’t be overstated. Cleveland’s role players, starters and stars will likely play better while at home, as the Warriors remain a historically great team, tough to beat in any setting. Paired together, and that would seem to equal a close game or two while in Ohio, with the outcome tilting toward the (newly) kitchen-clean Cavaliers.
The problem with that expectation is that the Warriors haven’t been tested, with the reminder that the Warriors are to be trusted after being tested. It’s true that this was the same club that blew a lead to the Cavaliers last year, but the team added Kevin Durant last summer and a whole lot of health and chemistry this spring. Not only do the Warriors have to get a poor jump in Game 3, the Cavaliers have to answer with the perfect throw and tag for Golden State to be out at the bag.
We’ve yet to see Steve Kerr unleash a finisher’s lineup on the Cavs, because all the work by this point has been done by the third quarter. We don’t know how a suddenly springy Andre Iguodala can contribute in the clutch, or how a surprise like Shaun Livingston could extend Golden State’s winless postseason streak. Kevin Durant played 40 minutes in a sure blowout win in Game 2, but that’s just fine in a playoff run that scheduled K.D. for only 12 games in 55 days heading into Wednesday, in a year that saw him play a thousand minutes fewer than his NBA-leading mark of 3,122 minutes played in 2013-14. After two full days off, Durant can play longer. No flies on him.
With the pick of several frightening lineups, and ability to play MVPs and All-Stars heavy minutes without letdown, Steve Kerr can focus the best of a mountainous crew on what remains after Cleveland’s repeated beatings. All Cleveland is assured, even in its Best Night Ever, is a chance against Golden State.
That’s all we ask Game 3 gives us, as well.
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