WASHINGTON — Last year, when the Golden State Warriors overwhelmed LeBron James’ herculean effort to win the NBA Finals, we saw one of the best players in the game stretched to his limits, which were simply not enough. The Warriors discovered their “small ball death squad” lineup, and a depleted Cavs team missing Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving couldn’t keep up.
This year was supposed to be different. And it is. The Cavs are much, much worse this time around.
Love and Irving have proved to be disastrous on defense, allowing 116 and 115 points per 100 possessions, respectively. The Warriors have run them ragged in the first two games in Oakland, exploiting both off the pick-and-roll, winning by the greatest combined margin of victory through two games in NBA Finals history.
Warriors: won 1st 2 games by combined 48 points, largest point-differential through first 2 games in NBA Finals history.
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 6, 2016
James hasn’t been faultless in this. He turned the ball over seven times in Sunday’s loss, scoring just 19 points on 17 shots. But we’ve already seen what happens when James takes complete control of the Cavs offense against the Warriors and grinds it to a miserable halt, as he did in last year’s Finals. And we’ve already seen the Warriors figure out how to handle it.
It’s understandable if you were lulled into thinking the Cavs had a real shot in this series, based on the way they rolled through their Eastern Conference competition. But anyone paying attention to Cleveland’s defensive woes in its two losses to Toronto could have seen the cracks in the walls.
Yes, the Warriors came in exhausted after needing every ounce of magic to escape the Thunder. Yes, Steph Curry is probably something shy of 100 percent, considering he’s opting out of the Olympics to rest the knee he hurt in the first round, an injury that cost him four playoff games. But does anyone remember what happened in Golden State’s lone visit to Cleveland this year? It’s really worth watching, because these are basically the same two teams that will play Wednesday night.
Timofey Mozgov started that game, but it’s not like Cleveland has better answers on the front line.
So, what, go small? When LeBron moved to the five, it was a disaster in Game 2.
Start Matthew Dellavedova? Sure, Irving’s been terrible, his lackluster offense only compounding his poor defense, leading to a series worst -34 plus-minus. Or, rather, it’s tied for the series worst. With Dellavedova. Who has amassed the same garish mark in just 27 minutes on the floor.
Perhaps most disconcerting were head coach Tyronne Lue’s postgame comments Sunday regarding the Warriors’ notorious small ball lineup, the one that they discovered just in time to beat the Cavs with last year, and have punished everybody else with this year.
“Being faster and being longer and athletic gave us some trouble. It gave us some problems. So we’ve got to try to figure that lineup out, and we’ll be fine,” he told reporters.
Good luck with that, coach!
The reason there are no easily available answers is that there are really no answers at all. The reason the Warriors lost just nine times all regular season is because the very best basketball teams in the world could not find such answers. Oklahoma City did, three times in four games, thanks to a pair of hyper-athletic seven-footers who threw a wrench in Golden State’s freewheeling offensive flow, then got out in transition to counterattack on the fast break. There are no such luxuries lurking on Cleveland’s bench, where the exhumed corpse of Richard Jefferson has been arguably the team’s second-best overall player thus far.
Before the series began, I thought the Warriors would need the full seven games to win. Their series against Oklahoma City left their top players battered and exhausted, facing a quick turnaround for Game 1. With Draymond Green one flagrant foul away from an automatic suspension (which he still is), I figured any game he missed would likely go to Cleveland. But Golden State’s bench rallied to control the first game, and Green was the best player on the floor in a laughter of a Game 2.
The Cavs hit the century mark in 12 of their 14 playoff games prior to the Finals, but even that half of their game has disintegrated under the Warriors’ defense. Golden State simply doesn’t give up wide open threes with the volume that Cleveland’s Eastern Conference foes did because of their switching. They aren’t constantly behind the rotation of the ball, chasing it around the court.
Cleveland has now lost seven straight regular and postseason games to Golden State, going back to Game 4 of last year’s Finals. The Cavs have been outscored by an average of 18.6 points per game. They haven’t scored 100 once.
At this point, the Warriors winning in anything other than four or five games might be the biggest surprise.
It’s easy, and lazy, to want all of this to be a litmus test for LeBron, for it to cement his legacy one way or the other. But the simple truth is that what has happened so far in this series, and what is likely to continue to happen, has very little to do with him at all. It has to do with a supporting cast ill-equipped for the job. It has to do with an overwhelmed rookie coach trying, and failing, to learn on the job. It has everything to do with a historically dominant team fulfilling its destiny.
There’s a sense that James may still lift the Cavs to a win in this series by sheer will and a 40+ point performance. Although given Andre Iguodala’s singular defensive dominance against him — holding James to 35 percent shooting over their last 10 matchups as his primary defender — it will more likely take a far better effort on the part of James’ teammates to make that happen.
Even if it does, it probably won’t be enough to win the title. And that won’t be LeBron James’ fault.