OAKLAND, Calif. – It was the way the series was supposed to be played. The way basketball is supposed to be played.
The two best teams on the planet, both wanting to push the pace and score in bunches either at the rim or from beyond the arc and moving the ball to make it happen.
It wasn’t always perfect; they weren’t always in control. But it was compelling.
If you’ve played basketball in a hot summer gym against friends and rivals, the temperature on and off the floor shy of boiling all night long with tempers bubbling, then you can understand what Game 2 of the NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers was like.
For three quarters at least.
The team with the most talent won it, but the world’s second-best team made the Warriors earn every inch of their 132-113 win, a victory that was tighter, tenser and more hard-fought than the score indicates.
Against any other team in the NBA the Cavs probably would have won. Just not against the Warriors.
“I thought for the most part with the game plan that we had we tried to execute it as close as possible,” said LeBron James. “[We] were much more physical today than we were in Game 1 and we forced them into 20 turnovers and they still beat us pretty good, so we got to be much better, too.”
As the series shifts to Cleveland for Games 3 and 4 with the Cavaliers trailing 2-0, the question is if there is anything LeBron and Co. can do to slow down the perfectly oiled Warriors machine that came so close to winning the NBA championship a year ago, added Kevin Durant in the off-season and now seems nearly unbeatable.
They have been just that so far in the playoffs, welcoming head coach Steve Kerr back to the bench after he missed 11 games due to complications from multiple back surgeries by pushing their post-season record to 14-0, the best there has ever been this deep into the playoffs, a perfect 16-0 run just two games away.
The Cavaliers have to be wondering.
Though they had a triple-double from James (29 points, 14 assists and 11 rebounds) and an efficient 27 from Kevin Love and had forced the Warriors into all those turnovers while making just nine of their own, the game was still essentially out of reach after three quarters as the Warriors opened up a 14-point lead and coasted home.
Despite the lopsided final score, the Cavs were determined to make it a game. They trailed by six after the first quarter and three at half. They hung in until the Warriors decided to shake them like a grizzly bear might an unfortunate salmon trying to swim upstream, against the current.
The Warriors are coming across like a force of nature.
Durant is proving the difference. Early in the fourth quarter he blocked Love in the post for his fifth swat of the game and then converted a three-point play in transition to give the Warriors an 18-point lead, their biggest of the game until that point.
The Cavaliers predictably called a timeout but it had no effect, as Durant came back after the break to drop a three, followed by a three by Steph Curry, who finished with a triple-double of his own — 32 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists (he had eight turnovers, too) – to match James, marking the first time in an NBA Finals players on opposing teams had a triple-double and just the second time in playoff history.
Thing is, Durant was still the best player on the floor, stuffing the stat sheet with 33 points, 13 rebounds, six assists, three steals and five blocks.
His play on Love, as he filled in at centre while Draymond Green was sitting with foul trouble, was proof that he’s an element that the Cavs simply don’t have an answer for.
“That’s the luxury that you have with [Durant],” said Green. “Where he gets a block, he gets the rebound, he don’t have to give the ball to nobody, he can go get a bucket. That was a huge play for us … I think that’s where we kind of closed the game out with that play right there.”
Even getting close appeared to take everything the Cavaliers could give and the Warriors just seemed too difficult a riddle to solve. The Warriors bent at times, but seemed to be able to surge at will. Early in the third quarter after a layup by the Cavs’ Tristan Thompson pulled the visitors to within one, Durant responded with a deep three, seconded by a Curry triple, setting up another symbolic sequence with just over three minutes played in the third quarter.
James found himself guarding Curry alone in space and the Warriors point guard used a series of herky-jerky dribble moves – fruit smoothies have been whipped with less twists and turns — to throw James off balance before scoring a layup, turning up the Oracle Arena crowd and pushing the Warriors’ lead back to 10.
The Warriors kept finding cracks and turning them into canyons: An unwise James pass trying to find Love in the post was picked off, leading to a Durant fastbreak And-1 followed by a no-look pass from Curry to Shaun Livingston in transition and the quick 7-0 run pushed the lead back to 11.
“We made runs,” said James. “We cut it to four at one point and then they went on a quick 9-0 or 12-0 run. That’s what they do. That’s what Golden State does. If you make a mistake – like I said, we had a turnover, it came from me, and then we had a miscue and the floods opened again.”
The Cavaliers have committed to matching the Warriors’ pace and three-point shooting. It’s not clear they’re capable, however.
Realistically, who is?
While the Warriors set a Finals record with 18 made threes on 43 attempts, the Cavaliers were just 8-of-29 from deep. They played small and tilted toward shooters – Thompson again was limited to 21 minutes – and as a result this was a game played at a breakneck pace.
It made for an amazing spectacle at times, with MVPs taking on MVPs and all-stars attacking all-stars. But the Warriors have more of those options. While the Cavaliers again got almost no meaningful production from anyone outside their Big Three of James, Love and Kyrie Irving, who struggled, the Warriors welcomed 22 points from Klay Thompson, their defensive stopper who has not shot well in the playoffs but is one of the best shooters in the sport.
Perhaps the only comfort the Cavaliers can take is that they’ve been here before. A year ago they slinked out of Oakland in similar circumstances, down 2-0 and coming off a blowout loss. It really couldn’t have looked bleaker at the time.
Sure enough the Cavs responded by thumping the Warriors by 33 in Game 3 to give them a lifeline as they ended up becoming just the fourth team in NBA Finals history to come back from 2-0 and the first to come all the way back from down 3-1.
But that could work to the Warriors’ advantage this time around, too. Complacency will not be an issue.
“I think we all are – us especially – relying on our experience,” said Curry. “Knowing what a road game in the The Finals in Cleveland is like, the atmosphere, their crowd getting crazy and we have to do the little things to withstand their runs that they’re going to make.”
The matchup that has all the elements of a perfect series played at the highest levels of the sport is being undone by one significant problem: The Warriors seem the better team by every measure.