If not for a few costly, compounding errors down the stretch of Game 1, the NBA Finals could very well be tied up at one game apiece ahead of Wednesday’s Game 3. Alas, the basketball gods have set yet another uncertain path for the Cleveland Cavaliers. For the third consecutive year, the Warriors hold an imposing 2-0 lead over the Cavs, and the threat of elimination is imminent. How will LeBron and his cronies cope at the Q?
The better question may be how will LeBron’s cronies cope at the Q? because LeBron is averaging 40 points, 10.5 assists, and 8 rebounds in these first two Finals outings (and most of that was done with just one completely functional eye). There’s no use speculating on what he may do — he’s made it abundantly clear over these playoffs that he will do #WhateverItTakes to be the most valuable player on either side of the court. His teammates, however, have been a dumpster fire at their worst and a grab bag at their best.
— NBA TV (@NBATV) June 5, 2018
The old adage says role players perform better at home. As true as that’s been for the Cavs during this roller coaster of a postseason, the men in question have more groundwork than ever to make up. Jeff Green and Kyle Korver, each instrumental in the Cavs’ Conference Finals victory, scored a combined 17 points over two games in Oakland. That’s two fewer than Green’s total in Game 7 in Boston! Yes, Jeff’s had to readjust to coming off the bench in the shadow of Kevin Love‘s return, but he must reassert his worth to his team come Wednesday. His abilities to make plays (ie. to let LeBron take a breather) and knock down the corner three are essential to the Cavs’ chances at winning.
Meanwhile, Korver averaged 14 points on 75% shooting in Games 3 and 4 of the Conference Finals. The Cavs were in a remarkably similar situation then: down 2-0 against a better team in a series where they had to overcome an opponent’s home-court advantage. If Kyle can echo this type of output with even higher stakes, the Cavs can at least get the bench-scoring leg up on the Dubs.
It wasn’t clear how Kevin Love would respond to Finals-caliber pressure on the comedown of a concussion, but through the first two games he is, at the very least, pulling his weight. 21.5 points and 11.5 rebounds are quintessential Kevin Love numbers, but he’s shooting just 25% from three (including a 1-for-8 effort in Game 1). As LeBron’s All-Star-in-waiting, he understands his role, responsibilities, and where he must improve. He knows his team can’t afford any more single-digit scoring efforts — he’s put up five of those so far in the playoffs — and that he must take some scoring pressure off of LeBron. By capitalizing on his greatest strengths, Love will only make it harder for the Warriors to fulfill their dynastic prophecy.
Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith are no strangers to the moment. They, LeBron, and Love have quarreled together against Golden State in some of the biggest games of their lives. Thompson can be counted on to do his job — rebounding and securing extra offensive possessions — but a little extra scoring wouldn’t hurt: the Cavs are 5-1 when he nets at least 10 points.
No matter how the Finals shake out, its memory of J.R. will boil down to a certain 4.7-second span of cringe. It isn’t necessarily right, and it certainly doesn’t mean he should just dial it in when he has so much left to give. J.R.’s best series was the Cavs’ four-game extinction of the Raptors, when he averaged 12.5 points and insane 76.9% three-point shooting. In the nine games since, those numbers have plummeted to 6.4 and 29.5%. The Warriors knows this, and they’re going to let him have whatever he wants — but if J.R. can keep with his own Finals trends, he’s due for a couple of 15-point outings in Games 3 and 4.
So we turn once more to the trade deadline acquisitions who were meant to save the Cavs’ season: Jordan Clarkson is a wreck, Larry Nance’s potential hasn’t been optimized, Rodney Hood hasn’t played a single meaningful minute, and George Hill squandered a Game 1 win.
There’s no way around it: the once revolutionary mega-trade was a major flop. That’s not to say Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose, Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Channing Frye, and Iman Shumpert would be faring much better — at least half of them wouldn’t even be capable of playing due to injury — but we must wonder, right?
Hopefully, Ty Lue has considered supplanting Clarkson’s counterproductive minutes with Hood, who’s transitioned from averaging 16.8 points for the Jazz in the first half of the season to making friends with Ante Zizić and Kendrick Perkins on the bench. Nance has been decent but inconsistent; his youthful energy, when channeled appropriately, can be a major plus for the Cavs.
And while George Hill is no Kyrie Irving, he’s not quite a Boobie Gibson either. He’s filling his role beside LeBron as effectively a 32-year-old first-option point guard can — even if his missed free throw at the end of Game 1 showed that LeBron is the only Cav with a clutch gene. The Cavs are 7-2 this postseason when Hill scores in double figures, though, and he’s shown that he can be a demoralizing threat from beyond the arc and an aggressor in the paint.
The Cavaliers overcame an 0-2 deficit to the Boston Celtics en route to defending their four-year reign over the East. The home team won every game of that series until Game 7, when LeBron’s 48-minute, 35-15-9 effort allowed him to pull his scouts out of the TD Garden and into this lopsided matchup with the Golden State Warriors.
If the Cavs can quell the arrogant Dubs and defend the Q, then they’ll be looking at a situation extraordinarily similar to the series they prevailed in just over a week ago. And even though Cleveland is staring in the face of historically low odds, they are — believe it or not — perfectly capable of pulling off the next two wins. They were inches from snatching the Warriors’ sense of home-court advantage in Game 1, mirroring their sly dominance of higher-seeded Toronto in early May. Blame whomever — J.R., George, or the overturned charge — for the overtime demolishment, but for all intents and purposes, the Cavs won something by showing they have the mental resources to stave off a sweep.
The most impressive quality the Cavs have capitalized on? Their third-quarter survival tactics. While the Warriors are notorious for burying their opponents on the other end of halftime, they only bested the Cavs by six in Game 1 and were actually outscored by three in Game 2. Obviously, these third-quarter efforts by the Cavs have yet to translate to Ws. Thank the closing minute antics of Game 1 regulation, and Steph Curry waiting until the fourth quarter of Game 2 to demoralize the Cavs while polishing off his new Finals record of nine made threes. That doesn’t mean Cleveland can relent even an inch in the third period; they need to keep that upper hand and exploit it.
They had some outside help in Game 1 (as if the luckiest team in the NBA needed any more luck), but honestly, the Warriors did what they were supposed to do in these first two games: defend home court. So the Cavs must respond. They must even the series. Otherwise? Draymond surely has a new t-shirt idea on deck. Don’t let them have this Quickie.
Don’t Look Now, But…
The Cavs can’t relax. Not for one minute. Andre Iguodala is eyeing a return for some point in this series, and the loaded anticipation of the Death Lineup weighs upon Cleveland. So too does Iguodala as an individual: his defense, playmaking, and court oversight are invaluable to Golden State’s success. JaVale McGee may have been great in Game 2, but replacing him with Iguodala is the sort of unfair upgrade afforded to this frustratingly marvelous team. It’s not likely that Andre makes his Finals debut in Game 3, but the longer the series goes, the greater the possibility for him to come back and make an impact in the most important games.
Tristan didn’t like being asked if he felt “helpless” against Curry. pic.twitter.com/kqi3i8YXzo
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) June 4, 2018
Steph’s on a tear, and whether or not he cares about the Finals MVP conversation, he’s playing like the accolade is within arm’s reach. He probably won’t make nine three-pointers again, but the unprecedented threat he poses to opposing defenses is an uninterrupted, unceasingly devastating one. That’s what makes Golden State so incomprehensible: Steph’s ability to completely alter opponents’ defensive geometry. If Steph stays hot — and all signs point to him being hot as hell heading into Game 3 — the Cavs, who already have their hands full, will just have to weather the firestorm. Even if he goes cold, the Warriors have insurance for that. And as much as Tristan Thompson would like us to believe that Steph doesn’t make him feel helpless, it really isn’t that easy to shut down the greatest shooter of all time.
Kevin Durant has hardly had a great game, which seems absurd to say when he’s averaging 26 points on 50% shooting. He’s caught heat this postseason (usually, conveniently following losses) for his reliance on isolation play, as if that isn’t what he specializes in. KD’s ability to quietly take over a game is beautiful and damning, and he’s overdue for a showstopper akin to any one of his magnificent, career-defining performances in 2017 Finals. There’s a reason he was elected Finals MVP out of four All-Stars. LeBron will be on notice.