OAKLAND, Calif. – There was a bit of a sense of calm around the Cleveland Cavaliers as they arrived for Game 2 on Sunday afternoon. They had a certainty about them that they’d play better than they had in the opener of these NBA Finals.
They were right, they did. But it wasn’t even close to good enough.
There are many things to examine within the first two games of this series, and a good number of words will be devoted to it. But the underlying reality is this: The Cavs’ margin for error against the Golden State Warriors is nil, and that point was blasted home as the Warriors took a 2-0 lead with a 132-113 win.
Go forensic on the stats, the lineups, the rotations, the play calls if you like, it’s going to come down to the same endpoint. For the Cavs to win, they have to play nearly perfectly or the Warriors have to play poorly — perhaps even both things must happen. And that would be to win just one game.
It would help if the Cavs had some better defensive players or habits. It would help if their bench, which was woeful for a second consecutive game, would carry some weight. But there doesn’t appear to be a magic bullet. Even LeBron James, an all-time trump card, can only do so much against the armada the Warriors have assembled.
James was a beast on Sunday, going to his trademark attack-the-basket game plan. Over and over he invaded the paint, scoring bucket after bucket with a mix of force and grace. He dunked, he shoved Warriors out of the way, he found impossible angles, got crazy bounces on the rim to go his way.
He had a triple-double by the third quarter and finished with 29 points, 11 rebounds and 14 assists. It was one of the most complete Finals games he’s ever played, and that catalog is reasonably extensive by now. He is also the first player since Wilt Chamberlain in 1967 to average a triple-double over the first two Finals games.
“I thought for the most part, with the game plan that we had, we tried to execute it as close as possible,” James said. “We were much more physical today than we were in Game 1, and we forced them to 20 turnovers. And they still beat us pretty good.”
When he plays like this, with the jutting jaw and thousand-yard stare, James’ team usually wins. But he’s never played a team like these Warriors. There’s nothing usual about them, even by championship-round standards.
More to that point, Kevin Love played the best Finals game of his career. He hadn’t shot well in the Finals, well, ever, having been under 35 percent his past four Finals games dating to last year. He was fantastic on this night, shooting 52 percent (12-of-23) and scoring 27 points to go along with 7 rebounds. He even held his own defensively for the most part, playing passable stretches at center as the Warriors forced Tristan Thompson off the floor with their quickness again.
The Cavs made some adjustments, too. As promised, they played faster and cleaner, getting their possessions up and turnovers down. Coach Tyronn Lue changed his lineups, using Iman Shumpert to defend Kevin Durant more and dusting off Channing Frye to help open the floor, as a couple of examples.
The Cavs even tried to be relentless, they kept coming at Warriors, cutting the lead down over and over and over. But for every step forward they took, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Durant delivered a roundhouse.
“They make it tough, and they put you in some tough situations,” Lue said. “Every mistake you make defensively, they make you pay.”
Kyrie Irving was off his game, and the Cavs finally had a bad night shooting the 3-pointer. They were averaging 14 triples a game but went cold from there, making just 8 of 29 tries. But in all honesty, even if they did make a bunch more, it might not have mattered.
At this point, it’s fair to mention the Cavs were down 2-0 to the Warriors last year and, for that matter, the familiar 3-1. And you could even say the Cavs played better in this year’s Game 2.
But it’s also fair to say these Warriors are such a bigger challenge, a type of strain the NBA might never have seen before.
“As much as the comparison wants to be drawn from last year to this year, this is a totally different team,” Irving said. “There is no comparison even though we’re down 0-2 going back home.”