For Cavs fans, basketball junkies and casual observers, Sunday’s shocking 95–93 Cavs win in Game 2 was euphoric. For everyone else (Warriors fans, Vegas bookmakers) it may have felt like the opening scene of Olympus Has Fallen. Before we get carried away by visions of LeBron notching 46, 21, and 18 next game or recouping that ill-founded wager we made online, lets take a deep breath.
Can it happen again? Can it happen three more times again?
The answer is long (sorry), convoluted (that’s me) and context dependent (my bailout card). Yes, they can do this. Here are eight reasons why:
1. David Blatt Is Doing All The Things
We might be discovering what David Griffin and Cavs brass saw in the most persecuted and scrutinized coach in sports. While his in-game interviews continue to regress, let the records show that Blatt has prepared his team defensively. Golden State’s high octane offense is accustomed to its share of quick and opportunistic baskets, but on Sunday they rarely scored on less than 3 passes. Those easy baseline cuts the Warriors usually feast on? The Warriors got zero points on those, a significant wrinkle in their offense.
Blatt’s Cavs have become comfortable with size mismatches in interesting ways. During a stretch in the second quarter, he put 7'1" Timothy Mozgov on 6'8" Andre Iguodala and didn’t bat an eye. And instead of losing precious inches switching on every screen, the Cavs were content with perimeter players winding up on on bigs in the post and vice versa.
The gamble is clear: since refs often provide overmatched players an allowance of uncalled contact, let Matthew Dellavedova and Iman Shumpert fend for themselves on Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes. And if Tristan Thompson ends up checking a guard after the Warriors’ weave action at the top of the key, they’ll live with it for now.
Sans Kevin Love and now Kyrie Irving, Blatt looks more than comfortable swinging at the ropes and simply trying things. Holding Mozgov on the bench was criticized as a clueless mistake, but it was a pivotal move to give LeBron more space and free up shooters. For all the hoopla surrounding their small-ball lineups, the Cavs would prefer to play without Andrew Bogut and his screens on the floor. More than a rebounder, Bogut keeps the defense on their heels with the threat of dropping back for high-low lobs and alley oops. The Warriors without him and Draymond Green’s threes lose a major dimension in their attack.
2. Dellavedova has Big Rugby Balls
Twitter almost collapsed on itself after Dellavedova snatched his only offensive rebound of the game in OT to help seal the win. Delly played another ugly, effective game, going 1–6 from deep for 9 points. His 6 turnovers felt like 8 or 9, and Cavs fans continue to hold their collective breaths every time he dribbles the ball upcourt or makes a post entry pass.
He also had the highest plus/minus among starters for either team (+15) and forced Curry into 0–8 FG and 4 turnovers. Basically, the guy plays his ass off and clearly isn’t phased by the moment or the fact that he is usually the least talented player on the court.
3. Steph Curry’s Looooong Night
Remember that Quincy Pondexter, an injured Tony Allen and Jason Terry’s corpse have been the main adversaries in his way. While he wouldn’t admit it post-game, it was clear that Dellevedova’s body contact and active hands provided a new challenge for the MVP. Curry’s 26.1% eFG% in Game 2 was his worst in 36 career playoff games, in 97 games this season, and in the 247 games in which he’s taken at least 15 shots.
When Steph says “I doubt this happens again” and “one game is not going to make me stop shooting or alter my confidence at all,” it feels as though he’s trying to convince himself. You still believe him. He’ll bounce back and shoot the ball better. Still, the thought of him blazing the Cavs in the manner he did during the first three rounds of playoffs seems like a pipedream.
“We haven’t really clicked… they’ve done something to take us out of our rhythm.” — Stephen Curry
The most necessary adjustment is not Steph’s shooting but his passing. During the second half, Curry attacked the paint and looked for cutters with more frequency, but coach Steve Kerr needs to open up weakside shooters for Curry to find off the pick and roll. Those one-handed cross court darts have been a lethal component of their offense all season, and noticeably absent in Game 2.
4. Style = Substance
Keep in mind, the Cavs have been the best defensive three point team in the playoffs, and Blatt’s guys have mostly been good at staying put on their man and understanding their coverage on multiple perimeter screens. There has been the occasional slip up, and fortunately for Cleveland, the Warriors were simply unable to make them pay.
Both the Cavs and the Warriors lead the playoffs in three point shooting. The difference is that while the Warriors take those shots in transition and off the dribble, the Cavs have a more traditional drive-and-kick scheme. What you’re seeing is the thing that critics have said all season long about the Warriors: You live and die by those jump shots.
‘We were really, really bad on offense.” — Draymond Green
That doesn’t mean Golden State is doomed, but it might require them to play more desperate. Their offense is predicated on a tempo and space that is simply harder to preserve deep in the playoffs. Refs are a little more lenient with their whistle, defenses try a little harder. NBA players would never publicly admit this, but the way you rotate on a screen or closeout on shooters in June is different than in the dog days of February. The NBA is a game is inches and milliseconds. Those slight changes of pace and space can affect a player’s rhythm.
Meanwhile the Cavs shot 32.6% from the field and won. Before Game 2, teams that made less than 33% of their field goals won a grand total of 4 times. This season. But dogfights like this Finals matchup skew the stats and players’ bodies continue to slow down by the grind. As the series continues, teams become more familiar with each other. Things only get slower, not the other way around.
“It’s the grit squad that we have. It’s not cute at all. If you’re looking for us to play sexy, cute basketball, it’s not us.” — LeBron James
Even though Golden State clearly has more talent, depth and health, we’re one LeBron game winner away from a 2–0 Cavs lead heading back home. That’s because basketball is a game of style, and the brand Cleveland is currently playing provides them with an inherent advantage.
6. J.R. Smith Almost Killed Us All
This wasn’t a “Jrrrrrrrrrrr” game, this was a “JRRRRRR!!!!!” game. His 13 points and pair of threes might appear passable but he almost got banned from the state of Ohio and my eternal affection after Game 2. LeBron and Co. have been great at mitigating the effect of bad J.R. games this season. A 3–18 game on the Knicks winds up being 2–8 in Cleveland. But Sunday was an exception. Three boned-headed fouls nearly put the Warriors over the top. I’m expecting him to play for the Cavs the remainder of this series.
7. The Tristan Thompson Problem
That game-clinching offensive rebound by Delly was made possible by Thompson, who needed two guys glued to him. Every one of his 14 boards (7 offensive) was a public service and it’s a luxury that Blatt’s “center” can stay in front of Golden State’s guards. Still, its curious that his plus/minus (-21) was the worst of any player in the game. Up to this point, the Cavs have mostly played Mozgov with Thompson. It will be interesting to see if they try Mozgov alone because of his ability to finish forays to the basket with his height, draw fouls and hit open 12 footers.
Thompson’s other replacement, James Jones, was a game-high +22. The Cavs ability or inability to use Thompson, and Blatt’s sensitivity to correctly play either him or Jones at precisely the right moment will be key for the rest of the series.
This whole thing still comes down to the greatest player on earth. The King’s shooting inefficiencies do not express how multifaceted and tenacious he has been. People rolled their eyes when he recently proclaimed “this is probably the best that I’ve ever been.” He’s showing us now. It hasn’t been purely physical domination. LeBron has a mental edge and unmatched understanding of what needs to be done on every possession. Even the ones where he doesn’t succeed.
“I was knocking on the 40 door again. They ‘let me’ score 40 again.” — LeBron James
Oh yeah, and only one player since 1964 scored more combined points in Finals Games 1 & 2 than LeBron James’s 83 (44 + 39). That would be Jerry West with 94 (53 + 41). James circa 2013 would not be able to control both ends of a Finals game for 50 minutes. But can he do THAT three more times? Everything we know about sports, the human body and physics tell us no. It’s just too much.
But that’s what we’ll all be watching for on Tuesday.
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(Shoutouts to: Marreese Speights’ dunking ability, another Mike Miller sighting, Riley Curry STILL on Twitter, Kyrie’s hospital room TV, Someone named Joe Harris on the Cavs, Delly > Kyrie tweets, half-court shots to win beamers.)