The 2016 NBA Finals return to Cleveland on Wednesday night, with the hometown Cavaliers’ proverbial backs against the wall. Games 1 and 2 belonged entirely to Golden State as the Warriors showed no ill-effects from their previous seven game series against the Oklahoma City Thunder. What was supposed to be arguably one of the greatest matchups in NBA Finals history has instead looked more like one of the worst matchups thus far.
The storyline from Game 1 was the Warriors’ bench as unsung heroes, Shaun Livingston and Leandro Barbosa, carried the load while Splash Brothers, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, failed to get anything going. Arguably the best backcourt in NBA history was held in check as they combined for only 20 points on 8-27 shooting from the floor. Livingston had a team-high 20 points for Golden State as he utilized all of his 6’7″ frame to get shots off over smaller defenders at will. Barbosa, who looked to be channeling his inner-Phoenix days, proved to be a shot in the arm for the Warriors as he came off the bench to score 11 points in a multitude of ways. Cleveland had no answer for the Warriors’ bench and in the end fell 104-89, in a game which wasn’t all that competitive in the fourth quarter.
After such a ho-hum performance in Game 1, the expectation was the Cavaliers would come out locked in and focused in Game 2. It looked like they were after the first quarter, as Cleveland held a 21-19 lead after 12 minutes. However, that did not last long. Cleveland was outscored by Golden State over the final three quarters 91-56, en route to a 110-77 blowout loss. While Golden State undoubtedly played well, led by Draymond Green with a game-high 28 points, Game 2 was more about the sheer lack of fight from Cleveland. LeBron James scored 17 on 7-17 shooting but the more telling statistic was his 7 TO’s. James was oddly passive and ineffective in key moments as the game was slipping away from his Cavaliers. There had to be three or four times where James had Curry guarding him in the post and rather than take advantage of the mismatch, he kicked the ball out to the perimeter. This was very representative of the game in its entirety and to make matters worse for Cleveland, Kevin Love left the game with concussion-like symptoms and will miss Game 3.
As the series travels cross-country to Cleveland, the question now becomes: Is Cleveland done? While it’s not necessarily all that surprising that we find Cleveland down 2-0 heading into Game 3, it’s surprising how they got here. Prior to Game 1, this was almost assuredly a seven game series, but after two lackluster, uninspiring performances many are wondering if this series is closer to becoming a sweep than a six or seven game series.
So, how have we got to this point? Well, it primarily starts, and ends, with two divergent styles of basketball. The Warriors’ style of spread them out, attack off the bounce, kick when help comes, and make the extra pass is a thing of beauty even to the most casual of basketball fans. It is especially effective when they decide to play their small-ball lineup without a traditional center in the middle. With this lineup on the court, GS has proved almost impossible to guard with shooters at all five positions. Contrast that to the Cavaliers’ one-on-one isolation basketball where it seems as if the goal is who can pound the ball into the ground the most every possession. That’s great and can work when you’re playing the Detroit Pistons, Atlanta Hawks, or even the Toronto Raptors. But not against the Golden State Warriors, one of the best defensive teams in the NBA.
For the Cavaliers to climb this mountain and get back in the series they have to start sharing the basketball. The ball cannot continue to stick like it has. Kyrie Irving needs to become more aggressive off the bounce and become more of a facilitator for his teammates than he has been thus far. Irving had one assist in 33 minutes in Game 2 which simply will not cut it out of your point guard. JR Smith also needs to get going, especially with the news that Love will miss Game 3. Six shots out of the Cavs’ starting shooting guard is not enough, and while sometimes Smith needs to be told to shoot less, in this instance he needs to be told to shoot more for them to have a chance.
None of these adjustments will matter much however, if LeBron doesn’t assert himself early on and take advantage of mismatches in the post. The Warriors stifled James when he chose to drive in Game 2, forcing him into all those turnovers. While he cannot stop attacking, he needs to be more prudent with when to attack and when to sit down on the block to use his size and strength advantage over smaller players trying to body him up. Look for LeBron to realize this and put himself in an increased amount of post-up situations tonight and going forward.
I am not willing to say this series is over just yet. There’s too many things that could happen tonight to make such a prediction. I do believe Cleveland wins Game 3 at home in front of an excited, if not desperate crowd at Quicken Loans Arena. However, if that happens I caution those who will say the Cavs are back in this series. Remember, this is the now-87 win Golden State Warriors they’re facing. Take it one game at a time and see what happens. If Cleveland finds a way to get both at home, then maybe we can talk, but until then let’s see how it all plays out.