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It’s a make or miss league, they tell us. And if you like misses, Game 2 was your sort of scene.
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The Cleveland Cavaliers stunned just about anyone who had been paying a whiff of attention to these NBA Finals, downing the 67-win Golden State Warriors in overtime to take a 1-1 series tie back to Cleveland. These NBA Finals were expected to be a one-sided affair with Cleveland working without the injured Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, and yet the Cavs rallied behind LeBron James and the indefatigable Matthew Dellavedova in order to pull out the 95-93 win.
The Warriors had to overcome an 11-point deficit with 3:13 left in the contest in order to force that overtime, with a series of calls going their way on both ends. James wowed all onlookers with a 39-point, 16-rebound and 11-assist night, but he also missed 23 of 34 shots from the field and clanged a potential game-winner in regulation. Warriors guard and NBA MVP Stephen Curry missed 18 of 23 shots while turning the ball over six times, airballing a possible go-ahead jumper in the waning seconds of overtime.
Meanwhile, Irving’s replacement – the tireless Dellavedova – clinched the game with two clutch free throws in the final seconds after securing an offensive rebound off a James Jones miss.
Jones was the seventh in a seven-man rotation as Cleveland threw all that it competently had against Golden State in the win. The team made fewer than a third of its shots overall and shot exactly 33 1/3 percent from three-point land, but it also crashed toward the free-throw line and took care of the ball – the Cavs turned the ball over just 13 times in 53 minutes.
James, Dellavedova, and forward Tristan Thompson were absolute workhorses. Thompson scored just two points (after the 64 percent free-throw shooter was hacked twice intentionally, making 2 of 4 from the line), but he also expertly switched on several Warriors after screen-and-roll plays while pulling 14 rebounds – with seven coming on offense. Dellavedova, only starting because of Kyrie Irving’s kneecap fracture, missed seven of ten shots and turned the ball over six times, but he also played fantastic defense on Curry while helping to clear James for endless isolation sets on the other end.
In return, the sweet-shooting Warriors just couldn’t buy one.
Credit should go to Cleveland’s active defense, but the Warriors did clang on an unending series of jump shots and made a series of poor offensive decisions from stem to bloody stern. Klay Thompson impressed by hitting four of his first five shots while working toward 34 points in 45 minutes, but the W’s turned the ball over more times than they assisted (17 to 16) and missed 27 of 35 three-pointers.
GSW coach Steve Kerr limited his bench options as well, working only seven players double-figure minutes in a 53-minute contest, waiting out Curry’s bad luck streak in dancing school from long range – the MVP missed 13 of 15 from behind the arc.
“Nobody is immune from a tough night,” Kerr offered following the loss, and he wouldn’t be wrong in that regard. What he would be wrong with, and he’s certain to agree, would be putting Curry in a position to succeed. The league’s MVP was forced by the Cavalier into working as an afterthought offensively, showcasing little of the derring-do that marked his team’s 80-18 start to the season.
As it ran, his helpers acted as standbys rather than colleagues. Draymond Green played a good floor game defensively with four blocks, but it took until overtime for him to hit a field goal. Harrison Barnes worked a hesitant run, needing 10 shots to score 11 points, missing a makeable 17-footer late in overtime that could have sealed the deal for his team. Andre Iguodala, charged with chasing LeBron James up and down the court, could not replicate his Game 1 heroics offensively.
This was Cleveland’s win, though, and not Golden State’s loss. The Warriors had their chances, to be sure, but only because a determined Cavalier squad dared them into taking them.
The Cavs always seemed in control; and not for the usual, get-the-ball-to-LeBron-and-get-out-da-way, reasons. There was more movement and more action in Game 2 than in Game 1’s overtime loss, with James diving into his sets earlier in the shot clock and with screen-and-roll action clouding Golden State’s defensive approach. Somehow, 11 of Cleveland’s total of 14 assists came from James, as he lowered his shoulder and drove the Cavaliers toward the win – sitting for just 160 seconds of time in his team’s 98th game of the season.
“You'd be hard pressed," Cavs coach David Blatt said following the contest,“to find a guy anywhere, anytime ‑‑ I can think of a name or two, but that's the whole history of basketball ‑‑ that can give you the kind of all‑around performance and all‑around leadership that LeBron does for his group.”
Kerr concluded that “both teams defended like crazy out there,” and, again, he isn’t wrong in that summation. What seems to trick his Warriors, though, is the idea of playing from ahead.
James, for all his aspirations to surround himself with fellow stars and trusted role players, relishes the idea of playing from behind, and his Cavaliers clearly thrive on the challenge. Whether it’s taking on a full-strength Bulls squad while down a starter and a half, working against a top-seeded Atlanta Hawks club, or spitting into the wind while flying out to face the NBA’s best and healthiest team in its own arena, James and limited Co. continually rise to the challenge despite those abysmal shooting marks.
The Warriors get to play the same routine on the road soon, though, acting as the accidental martyr. LeBron’s Cavs have the home-court advantage in a best-of five series, now, with the pressure off of Golden State and the uniforms turning from blues and whites to yellow and yellow. Somehow, out of nowhere, the most important game of the NBA’s 223-day (and counting) season was tipped off on Matthew Dellavedova gathering an offensive rebound and James Jones working as a stretch four off of the bench. Things have gotten out of hand, and Golden State’s task is to restore order.
LeBron James, the guy who just played the game of his life while still missing 23 shots, doesn’t want order to return. Orthodoxy is his enemy, and that’s what makes him so compelling.
He plays best on the edge, with nary a call to go his way, with Timofey Mozgov as his second-leading scorer. It’s clear that he’s ready to do whatever it takes to extend his franchise’s season, and it’s hard to counter that sort of determination with a few fluttery three-pointers. Golden State might win out to end these Finals, but it won’t be easy.
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