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, let’s take a deep breath. Can it happen again? Can it happen three more times again?
The answer is long, convoluted, and context dependent (sorry we’re not sorry). The answer is also yes, and here are eight reasons why.
1. David Blatt is doing all of the things
We might be seeing what David Griffith and Cavs ownership saw in the most persecuted and scrutinized coach in sports. While his in-game interviews continue to regress, let the record 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 three 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-foot-1 Timothy Mozgov on 6-foot-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 bigs in the post and vice versa.
The gamble is clear: since refs often provide overmatched players an allowance of uncalled contact, allow Matthew Dellavedova and Iman Shumpert to 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, Blatt and the Cavs will live with it.
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. On the road, mucking up the paint and forcing their way to the line in the second half might have been unsustainable.
For all the hoopla surrounding their small-ball lineups, the Cavs would prefer to see Golden State play without Bogut on the floor. He sets great screens, is liable to clean up on put backs, and most importantly keeps the defense on their heels with the threat of dropping back for high-low lobs and alley oops. Without him, and minus Draymond Green’s three point shooting, the Warriors lose a major dimension in their attack.
2. Dellavedova Has Big Rugby Balls
Twitter almost exploded after Dellavedova snatched his only offensive rebound of the game in OT to help seal the win. Sure, Delly played a solid game, but it was not without warts. The Aussie was 1-6 from deep and scored just nine points, while his six turnovers felt like more, as Cavs fans held their collective breath every time he tried to dribble the ball upcourt or make a post entry pass.
He also had the highest plus/minus among starters for either team (+15), held Curry to zero points on eight shots and forced the league’s MVP into 4 turnovers while guarding him. Basically, the guy plays his ass off and clearly isn’t fazed 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, Tyreke Evans, 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 constant body contact and active hands provided a new challenge for the game’s best shooter. 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 shakily 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, too. You still believe him. He’ll bounce back and shoot the ball better, but the thought of him blazing the Cavs in the manner he did during the first three rounds of playoffs seems like a pipe dream.
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 were 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 them, the Warriors were simply unable to make them pay the way they have at home all season long.
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.
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 of inches and milliseconds. Those slight changes in pace and space can effect a players rhythm.
Meanwhile the Cavs shot 32.6% from the field and won. Before Game 2, teams that made less than a 33% of their field goals won a grand total of 4 times. This season. But dogfights like these Finals skew the stats. Players bodies continue to slow down by the grind. As the series continues and teams become more familiar with each other, things only get slower, not the other way around.
Even though Golden State clearly have more talent, depth and health, we’re one LeBron game winner away from a 2–0 Cavs lead heading to Cleveland. That’s because basketball is a game of style, and the brand Cleveland is currently playing provides them 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 our eternal affection after Game 2. The Cavs 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, as three boned headed fouls nearly gave the game to the Warriors. Expect him to play for the Cavs the remainder of this series.
7. The Tristan Thompson Problem
That game clinching offensive rebound by Dellavedova 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 interesting to see if they try Mozgov alone because of his ability to finish dives to the basket with his height, draw fouls and hit open 12 footers.
On the other end, Thompson’s replacement James Jones was +22, the highest in the game. 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, and its still hard to quantify exactly how good LeBron is playing. People rolled their eyes when he proclaimed last week “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 visible mental edge and unmatched understanding of what needs to be done on every possession.
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).
2013 James 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, and fatigue and physics tell us no. It’s just too much.
But that’s what we’ll all be watching for tonight. Cheers.