Three takeaways from the Golden State Warriors’ 122-103 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 2 of the 2018 NBA Finals, to take a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series:
Anything less than immortal just won’t be good enough for LeBron, or the Cavs
Three nights after perhaps the greatest individual performance he’s delivered on the sport’s grandest stage resulted in “one of the toughest losses” he’s ever faced, LeBron James scored or assisted on 22 of the Cavs’ first 28 points in Game 2.
Cleveland still trailed by four after 12 minutes.
James played the entire first half, never going to the bench for a breather, as he continued to shoulder virtually the entire creative load — save for a nice bounce-back first half for George Hill after his haunting finish to Game 1 — for a Cavs team trying to win a firefight against a Warriors side that just couldn’t miss inside the arc. He headed into intermission with 15 points on 11 shots, eight assists against two turnovers, seven rebounds and two steals.
Cleveland still trailed by 13 at the break.
He got more help after halftime, as Kevin Love shook off a 2-for-10 start to pour in 13 points in a third quarter that saw the Cavs, season-long strugglers in third-quarter minutes, actually beat the Warriors, the league’s best third-quarter team, in that bellwether period. Golden State exhaled on the defensive end, and the Cavs took advantage, making the extra pass, finding open shooters and staying close. LeBron scored or assisted on 17 of their 34 third-quarter points.
Cleveland still trailed by 10 entering the fourth. And after LeBron drilled a deep 3-pointer off an offensive rebound by Larry Nance Jr. to cut it to seven a minute into the fourth, Stephen Curry answered with consecutive 3s …
… to put the Warriors back up by 13. Cleveland would never get within single digits again.
All night long, it was the same damn thing. The Warriors would throw a punch. The Cavaliers would answer to stay within striking distance. And every time Cleveland got within a couple of scores, Golden State would come back over the top to keep them at bay.
For every Tristan Thompson alley-oop, there was a Klay Thompson pull-up. For every Love rumble to the paint, there was Kevin Durant isolating against a mismatched defender to get wherever he wanted, for whatever he wanted. And for every bit of LeBron brilliance that Cleveland hoped would reel the Warriors in, there was a Curry bomb, especially in the fourth quarter, as Golden State hit the afterburners.
“We felt like we were right there,” Hill said after the game. “But every time we’re right there, Steph, KD or Klay hit a big shot and it brings momentum down.”
LeBron finished with 29 points on 50 percent shooting, 13 assists and nine rebounds in 44 minutes, sitting only for the final 4:09 when head coach Tyronn Lue yanked his starters down by 18. That’s a monster game — one of just 17 instances of at least 25, 10 and 9 in a Finals game in NBA history, according to Basketball-Reference.com (James is responsible for nine of them) — and it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t even close.
And I mean … hell, if 51-8-8 wasn’t, then what will be?
James would neither cop to being gassed after a couple of off days following his remarkable Game 1 nor acknowledge anything in particular the Warriors had done defensively in Game 2 to ratchet up his degree of difficulty. But as vital as he was in the first quarter, as productive as he was in getting Cleveland’s offense unstuck in the third, he just didn’t seem to have the same head of steam he’d built up in Game 1.
There were a couple more misses in the paint than you’d expect. A couple of step-backs and foul-hunting pull-ups when switched onto Warriors centers. Lagging back in transition and leaving the rest of the Cavs to defend 4-on-5 on a trip that ends in a JaValeMcGee dunk. Nothing glaring, really.
Taken together, though, they were signs that on this night, LeBron was human. Still awesome, but not unfathomable. More All-Star than all-powerful. When that’s true, the Cavs need something else. It just doesn’t look like they have it.
Love went for 22 points and 10 rebounds, but again found a bullseye on his chest as the Warriors worked in the high pick-and-roll, forcing him to guard Curry up top and run him off the line, often with disastrous results. A lot of that owed to poor help behind the play; J.R. Smith acknowledged after the game that a lot of the Warriors’ dunks and layups came off of “miscommunication on my switches.”
Hill was much more aggressive in Game 2, looking to attack off the bounce and shooting with confidence. But he once again battled foul trouble, scoring just three points after halftime as Golden State took away Cleveland’s only consistently viable non-LeBron ball-handling and creating option. And outside of the energy of centers Thompson and Nance … well, that’s it, really.
Smith (five points, 2-for-9 shooting, many defensive miscues) was brutal again. Jordan Clarkson might have finally played his way out of Lue’s good graces. Jeff Green had six points on seven shots in 20 minutes, dribbling his way out of a clean open 3 and into a more tightly contested jumper on more than one occasion. The Warriors have neutralized Kyle Korver, swarming him off the ball at every opportunity; Cleveland’s top marksman has attempted six shots in 33 minutes over two games, and made one.
That’s the state of things for the Cavs: if LeBron doesn’t remain in God mode at all times, they’ll lose. It almost happened against Indiana and Boston, and it’s happening here, against a better, deeper, more frightening team … that’s also getting gifts like what happened to J.R. in Game 1 and David West hitting his first corner 3 of the season to push an eight-point lead back to double-figures late in the third.
It’s certainly possible that the Cavs’ role players do a better job of rising to the challenge when the scene shifts back to Cleveland for Game 3 on Wednesday, and that Lue’s able to find some more viable counters for what Golden State’s been doing to get his team on the board. But even if Cleveland can get Love knocking down shots more efficiently, keep Hill out of foul trouble, spring Korver for some catch-and-shoot looks, and exorcise the demons plaguing the wing rotation, the margin for error is infinitesimal if LeBron’s not playing almost literally perfect basketball.
The expectation that he will is insane and unfair. It is also the expectation he will continue to have for himself.
“I put our team in position to try to win a championship, to compete for a championship,” James said during his post-game press conference. “You know, it’s my job to make sure that we’re as focused, laser-focused as possible, do my job, and continue to instill confidence into my teammates until the last horn sounds. That’s my job. That’s my responsibility. That’s my obligation, and I need to continue to do that, which I will.”
Of course he will. There’s no alternative.
Aggression changes everything for these Warriors
The Warriors didn’t play perfect basketball on Sunday. They helped keep Cleveland in the game early by clanging some open looks from deep, committing some fouls to put the Cavs on the line, and coughing the ball up a bit to scuttle possessions.
But even if, as Draymond Green suggested, they can “play so much better” than this … they were still pretty freaking good, thanks in large part to the fact that they were pretty freaking assertive and dynamic on both ends of the court.
Cleveland continued to commit to switching screens when the Warriors tried to attack in the pick-and-roll. (“We saw Houston do a good job doing that [in the Western Conference finals] so we piggybacked that,” Tristan Thompson said after the game.) So head coach Steve Kerr had his players “slip” their screens — running up to the ball-handler as if they were going to set picks on his man, then quickly cutting away from the ball before the two defenders involved in the play could effectively hand off the assignment — to avoid the traffic jam and get into the paint quicker.
Two primary beneficiaries: McGee, who got the starting nod over Kevon Looney after giving Golden State a boost to start the second half of Game 1, and Shaun Livingston, whom Kerr’s been relying on a lot with Andre Iguodala still sidelined, and who has come through with two dynamite Finals-opening performances. They combined for 22 points on perfect 11-for-11 shooting, with the bulk of that damage coming in the paint as they worked their way into advantageous positions behind defenders totally preoccupied with the All-Stars stationed in front of them.
“I mean, when you’re trying to take away Klay, Steph and Durant, other guys are going to be open,” Lue said. “So, you’ve got to make those guys beat you, but they can’t get easy baskets and dunks and things like that.”
The Cavs just couldn’t get their communication right in handling those slips. The result was a steady diet of passes over the top to the rim, with 22 of the Warriors’ first 32 points coming in the paint. Once the floodgates were open, the Cavs never found a way to stem the tide; Golden State busted them up inside (20-for-25 inside the restricted area) and out (15-for-36 from 3-point land) en route to a blowout victory.
57.3% is the best the Warriors have shot from the field in a playoff game during the Kerr era.
— Fast Break (@GSWFastBreak) June 4, 2018
Just as important: the Warriors cranked up their aggression on the defensive end, too.
From the point-of-attack defense of Green and Durant through the help defenders positioning themselves in the paint and digging down on drives, the Warriors made James see and fight through waves of defenders every time he planned his attack.
“We watched the film, and obviously from Game 1, LeBron had an amazing night,” Curry said after the game. “But a lot of it was just a lack of kind of sense of urgency early in possessions to try to just be physical. Klay, Draymond and K.D., especially, were huge in that transformation to Game 2 with just putting up a little bit of resistance, and just trying to make them work.”
The Warriors also dared the Cavs’ other shooters to make them pay for cheating toward James. While Cleveland found success in stretches, the balance tilted Golden State’s way, as the Cavs shot 41.1 percent from the field and 9-for-27 from deep as a team.
Cleveland still won the rebounding battle, but it was significantly tighter — 53-38 in Game 1, 42-41 in Game 2 — as the Warriors made more concerted efforts to chase down loose balls, to finish defensive possessions by cleaning the glass to start the break, and to keep the Cavs from being able to dictate the pace, style and tenor of the game with their bruising board-crashing.
“We were in good shape to start the game,” Durant said. “We’re doing a good job with making second and third efforts. We did a better job of boxing out. I think the offensive rebounds that they grabbed this game weren’t backbreaking like last game.”
The Warriors can just out-talent you, and they have this season, on many occasions. When they dig in, though — when they take seriously the challenge of shutting off your water, when they take personally the task of keeping you from getting to the front of the rim, when they focus on the job of moving the ball and their bodies into positions that create great shots, not just ones they can make because they’re great — they can destroy you. It took three quarters for that to happen on Sunday, but it did, because they just kept leaning on the Cavs until they broke.
It’s still all about Steph
You may have heard, by now, that while Steph has won two NBA championships, he has not yet won an NBA Finals MVP trophy. But while Iguodala and Durant deserved every bit of praise they received for their performances, they produced them in the context of a team built around and animated by Curry’s revolutionary skills and audacious application of them.
Even as others took the accolades, Curry remained the focal point of everything the Warriors do offensively, and the fulcrum of the culture that has sprung up around and sustained the most successful organization in the league these past few years. Everything traces back to Steph — the free-flowing offense, the delight in sharing the ball, the switching defense that wouldn’t work if he couldn’t hold up as its weakest link, the avalanches with which Golden State buries opponents at a moment’s notice.
After Cleveland hung in through three quarters, Curry dropped a building on them in the fourth, scoring 16 of his game-high 33 points in the final frame. He went a perfect 5-for-5 from deep, delivering a broken-play dagger with just under eight minutes remaining from about 30 feet out over the outstretched arms of a dispirited Love:
“No matter where you are on the floor, especially past half-court on their side, he always has a chance to make a miraculous shot,” Love said after the game. “[…] I felt like it was well-contested. We played 23 1/2 good seconds of defense, and he turned around and hit a moon ball.”
He’s been doing a lot of that. Through two games, he’s averaging 31 points, 8.5 assists and 6.5 rebounds in 42.2 minutes per night, shooting 45 percent from the field and 50 percent from 3-point land (on 14 attempts a night) while holding up when Cleveland tries to hunt him down and bully him with LeBron-as-battering-ram. (Something Cleveland probably hasn’t tried to do enough, really.)
Reasonable people will probably argue forever about whether Curry or Durant is the “better” player, all things considered, but Curry’s the more central player to these Warriors. When the ball’s in his hands and the attack runs through him in the pick-and-roll, Golden State becomes inarguable, irresistible, nearly unstoppable. (It helps that having Durant play in the flow of the offense often results in elevating KD’s best traits; he was brilliant in Game 2, scoring 26 points on 10-for-14 shooting, adding nine rebounds with seven assists, two blocks and excellent individual and help defense in 38 minutes.)
Curry’s made it clear that he’s not especially interested in winning his first Finals MVP trophy just so long as he gets his third Larry O’Brien Trophy. But while it’s difficult to come away from the first two games of these Finals thinking that anybody other than LeBron James is the most irreplaceable player to his team, it’s also become tough to come away from them thinking that Curry’s not two wins away from adding another piece of hardware to his trophy case, and another line to his growing Hall of Fame résumé.
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