The 2016 Playoffs have been a cautionary tale against drawing hasty conclusions. Each round has produced a series in which a team has been written off, only to confound expectations and advance. In round one it was Portland, who capitalised on injuries to Chris Paul and Blake Griffin to come back from a 2-0 deficit. In the next round the Oklahoma City Thunder flipped the script on the San Antonio Spurs, having been utterly humiliated in game 1, the Thunder thoroughly outplayed the ageing Spurs en route to a 6 game victory. Finally in the Conference Finals the defending champion Golden State Warriors were written off having fallen into a 3-1 hole, only to roar back and advance in game 7.
For the first two games of the NBA finals it looked as though the Warriors would steamroll their way to a second consecutive title, making the Cavs look ill equipped to compete and at times disjointed, even lost on court. But as the series switched back to Cleveland last night the Cavaliers at least salvaged some pride and perhaps reminded us that we just might have a series on our hands.
Having lost games 1 and 2 by a combined 48 points, a record margin of defeat in an opening pair of finals games, Cleveland almost erased that point deficit with a 120-90 destruction of the Warriors at the Quicken Loans Arena. Kyrie Irving finally found his rhythm erupting for 30 points and more importantly 8 assists. LeBron James was outstanding in going for 32 points and 13 rebounds, crucially shooting over 50% from the field for the first time in 9 finals games against the Warriors. James’ ability to score efficiently is vital to any chance Cleveland has of causing an upset. In 2015 the Warriors basically said to James ‘we don’t mind if you get 40 as long as you’re shooting at 40%’, the logic being that if James’ points are coming in an inefficient trickle they are unlikely to spark the scoring runs which win games in the NBA. This was born out as the Cav’s offence ground to a halt and the Warriors won fairly comfortably in 6 games.
Last night LeBron looked locked in from the start, driving to the basket as well as cutting off the ball, arriving late at the basket to receive passes from his teammates. Defensively James’ leadership shone through as the Cavs produced a vastly improved performance at the defensive end of the floor. The insertion of Richard Jefferson in to the starting line up, in place of Kevin Love who failed to pass a concussion test before the game, meant the Cavs were more able to switch on the Warriors screens, minimising the matchup problems that plagued them in games 1 and 2.
Cavaliers coach Tyrone Lue has a huge decision to make regarding Love before game 4. Does he bring back his star player who has struggled at both ends of the floor, or stick with Jefferson at the small forward spot, sliding LeBron over to power forward which worked so well last night? Jefferson is almost 36 and may struggle to play big minutes over the coming games, but I would expect Lue to try and coax one last push out of those ageing legs.
Along with Irving’s vastly improved performance, Cleveland’s other starting guard JR Smith finally came to the party, scoring 20 points for the first time in 9 attempts during the finals. Smith’s disappearing act, in 2015 and at the start of this series, has been hugely problematic for the Cavs. Smith had shot 29% from 3 point range in his previous 8 finals appearances, well below his career percentage of 37.5%. More concerning for the Cavs was the lack of shots taken by JR in games 1 and 2, going a combined 2 of 7 from beyond the arc. When Cleveland get Smith more involved in the offence it creates more space for Irving and LeBron to attack the rim. If the Warriors don’t have to respect Cleveland’s best 3 point shooter then their defensive coverages are so much easier to organise and they can smother LeBron and Kyrie by crowding the lanes to the basket. Last night Smith went 5 for 10 from long range, shooting with the accuracy and volume required to spread out the Warrior’s D, in turn creating scoring opportunities inside for the Cavs.
What is concerning for the Warriors is not only the improved performances from Cleveland’s star players, but also the poor showings from their own superstars Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. During the first two games their shortcomings were covered up by Golden State’s outstanding depth and Cleveland’s own failings. However, if the Cavs are gonna play like big boys for the rest of the series the Warriors are going to have to lean more heavily on the splash brothers. Curry has yet to produce a defining performance in a finals game stretching back to last year. If he continues to rely on his teammates to bail him out questions will start to be asked. I’m not suggesting that Curry can’t handle to the big stage, he was truly remarkable in games 5, 6 and 7 against the Thunder in the previous round. Yet he only need ask the big guy on the other team how damaging an anonymous performance in a finals defeat can be for your legacy.
There is no doubt that the Warriors still hold the edge in the series. The Cavs, much like the Toronto Raptors they faced in Eastern Conference Finals, are a different team on their home court. However, there remains a suspicion that should Cleveland do to the Warriors what the Raptors did to them, and tie the series heading back to Oakland, that Golden State will simply find another gear and pull away much like they did in 2015. The Cavs will have to hope they can keep winning at home and force a game 7 at Oracle Arena. If they can do this then they are in with a puncher’s chance, they can hope for a super human effort from LeBron and for doubt to creep into Warrior’s minds. For fans of basketball a competitive series is what we’d all like to see, a chance for the Warrior’s to prove their greatness against some serious opposition, or for the Cavs to pull of one of the most remarkable comebacks in finals history.