LeBron James usually makes Game 2 of the NBA Finals his own.
OK, not always – he fell in 2011 to the Mavericks and his otherwise-terrible Cleveland Cavaliers team lost in Game 2 to the Spurs in 2007 – but for the last four NBA Finals runs his teams in Miami and Cleveland have managed to pull out a victory. Two were rather desperate, like the time his Heat team evened the 2012 and 2013 Finals after starting in a 0-1, prior to an eventual championship. Two others, in Finals losses to the Spurs in 2014 and Golden State Warriors last year, hardly mattered in the end.
He’ll have a chance to run the streak up to five on Sunday, as his Cavs stare down a Warriors team that ran away from Cleveland in Game 1despite a miserable combined shooting night from Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, as the two All-Stars that combined to miss 19 of 27 shots from the field. That’s unlikely to happen again, we know as much, but we’re also going to pass along three other things to scope out in LeBron’s Favorite Finals Game.
Cleveland from the Word ‘Go’
All the cool in the world shouldn’t keep the Cavaliers from getting’ spittin’ mad at watching tape of Game 1. Though the Cavaliers did well to drop everything and run at both Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry as they peeled off screens – sometimes sending 11 defenders, Austin Carr, two Zambonis, a heavily-modded 1986 Dodge Shelby GLHS Omni, and three-time Grammy award-winner Vikki Carr out to chose those shooters around – the same level of defensive communication just wasn’t in place when it came to stop most other Warriors.
The Cavs didn’t give Game 1 away, far from it, but despite the infamously-poor shooting night from Mssrs. Klay and Curry, the Warriors looked breezy and bouncy in the face of one of the most mediocre defenses to make any recent NBA Finals turn.
The Oklahoma City Thunder once ranked as just above mediocre, but that team started to find its groove and concentration on the defensive end during its Western semifinal win against San Antonio, and against the Warriors the Thunder length and dynamism helped put the scare of scares into Golden State. The Warriors basically spent seven games in the on-deck circle in the Western finals, swinging uncomfortably with three bats in preparation for the Finals.
Now they’re in the batter’s box, with just one bat in hand (due to Major League Baseball’s oppressive rules), and things just seem so much … lighter.
Cleveland doesn’t have Oklahoma City’s dynamism. Kevin Love is Serge Ibaka’s polar opposite, Tristan Thompson remains undersized in the pivot, Kyrie Irving is one of the worst defenders at his starting position, J.R. Smith has just about done away with the sort of bounding that made him a Slam Dunk Contest regular, and even defensive “stopper” Iman Shumpert isn’t exactly a bouncy-type on that end.
The roster makeover just isn’t going to happen, not this month at least. As such, the Cavaliers will have to find a way to play from ahead. To force the Warriors into trying to cover up a 12-point deficit with one shot. Golden State is known for its comebacks, just ask those Thunder teams about the final two games of its season, but that shouldn’t encourage Cleveland to think that the first quarter doesn’t matter just because it’s eventually going to be tied up again with four minutes left in the game.
The Cavs have to start out hot. They have to move into sets with alacrity and not survey the scene, making quick hits to LeBron James in the post or on the move, establishing Kevin Love as more of a triple-threat in the mid-post, keeping Kyrie on the move throughout.
The whistles have to blow. Andrew Bogut has to be sent to the bench with foul trouble, and the Cavs cannot be afraid to go right at Festus Ezili when the Warriors perform their duck-down routine defensively. J.R. Smith is the master of turning nine-point leads into 12-point advantages, and it would allow possession-users like reserve guard Matthew Dellavedova to play with a little more abandon (on offense, I mean) and not pass up as many good looks in lining up his own shot.
Better yet, the confidence will carry over, and the Cavalier offense wouldn’t limit itself to the isolation and screen/roll-heavy mush we saw down the stretch of Game 1.
Even the 73-win Warriors, playing just after 5 PM local time in Game 2, can be taken aback by an initial quick hit quarter.
Despite two turnovers, Stephen Curry didn’t have all that bad a start to Game 1. He’d go on to miss 10 of his next 12 shots, but that term saw Steph nail 2-3 shots, both three-pointers, with two assists as he played the whole quarter.
So it wasn’t as if Warriors coach Steve Kerr was trying to hide a struggling star when he sent out an odd lineup to begin the second quarter: Shaun Livingston, Leandro Barbosa, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala and Harrison Barnes. Kerr also went with that lineup to begin the fourth quarter, and both times those lengthy lineups helped push Golden State to double-digit leads.
Despite not having much experience working together, the lineups took care of the ball in both stints, and they were a big reason why Golden State hadn’t even given up its fifth turnover by deep into the third quarter. They would go on to finish with just nine in the game, eliminating Cleveland’s chances at a series of whoosh-and-you-missed-it transition forays.
Cleveland unsurprisingly did its best work with the starters on the floor. Richard Jefferson did make up for an iffy first half to contribute to a mini-Cavalier comeback in the fourth quarter (of an NBA game in 2016, no less), but on a night when the Cavs’ bench only contributed 10 points in total (two of which, from Channing Frye, coming in garbage time) the initial five had to do the heavy lifting
Tyronn Lue parsed his latest round of begging LeBron and his teammates to play faster with this, on Friday:
“I don’t see a reason for change,” Lue said Friday. “I think the way they play defense, they switch 1 through 5, and it makes you play one-on-one basketball. So your movement with floppy stuff coming off of pin-downs, they just switch out and try to deny those passes. And then you’ve got to post Kevin, you’ve got to post LeBron against those mismatches. So I don’t see any reason for change. We’ve just got to convert.”
That’s true, but with Golden State making the switches that Lue referred to, what space is there?
The small lineup featuring James, Dellavedova, Jefferson, Iman Shumpert and Channing Frye barely played in Game 1, and for good reason. Yes, that lineup destroyed a killer Hawk defensive outfit and capable units from Detroit and Toronto earlier in the postseason, but Golden State seemingly matches up too damn well against it.
We think. Lue, again, chose not to go to it for all but 31 seconds in a 48 minute game.
It’s not a problem for Golden State when Stephen Curry switches onto Channing Frye and that’s a problem for the Cavs. Klay Thompson doesn’t have an issue guarding either Kyrie Irving or Kevin Love on a switched screen and roll. LeBron certainly is a danger in the post, he showed as much against myriad defenders in Game 1, but he isn’t going to have many fast break opportunities when the Warriors are posting a single-digit turnover percentage while putting seven players in double-figures alongside an outstanding per-possession offensive game. And that’s with Klay Thompson finishing with only nine points, and Curry’s struggles.
What variations would help? It’s time for another picture, and bolded break.
Steadied See Saw
Tossing Jefferson into earlier action would help, but the Cavaliers would sacrifice some rather pertinent parts of an attack that still had them within one point of the Warriors with 16 minutes left to play in the game. Cleveland dominated the offensive glass, with Tristan Thompson once again leading the way alongside LeBron, and for all his frustrations Kevin Love still does finish off defensive possessions for Cleveland: Love’s 12 defensive rebounds in Game 1 led the team.
Something has to work, though, because the Cavaliers cannot once again be outscored by 35 points (in a low-possession game) by Golden State’s bench.
The Warriors won’t yet again score 45 points in Game 2 – Leandro Barbosa tossed some tough shots up and was rewarded with 5-5 shooting, Shaun Livingston’s team-leading 20 points could be easily cut by at least half if Cleveland would ever talk to each other on the defensive end – but it is imperative that Cleveland up its own ante as well.
There is no more enviable a passing sight that spying teammate LeBron James in prime post-up and/or triple-threat position, we understand why the reserve guard is giving it up, but Matthew Dellavedova has to make himself a shooting threat. Channing Frye’s shooting abilities cannot be mitigated by both switch-screen defense from smaller opponents, and Cleveland’s own lack of patience and spacing once Frye’s initial option has been taken away. Iman Shumpert has to roam the baseline, and make himself a threat.
Every bit has to help, because though Curry still doesn’t seem to trust his post-knee sprain (that’s not an excuse, TV and radio guys, it’s just what’s happening) footwork both outside the arc and in the point 100 percent of the time, he will have a bounce-back game. Game 1 featured Klay Thompson’s fourth single-digit scoring output in 98 tries this season, and he’ll be around on Sunday. All hands, for Cleveland, will need to be on deck.
It is a bit shocking, a year removed from Cleveland playing without two of its three best players, that depth is still an issue for the Cavaliers. Such is life, even when you’ve shelled out for the largest payroll in the NBA to fill out a rotation, when you pay three players maximum contracts.
Cleveland doesn’t have to play the perfect game to beat the Warriors, who played an imperfect game and still took Game 1. It wouldn’t hurt, though.