Ideally, the series would’ve ended on Friday. It definitely would’ve made this piece much easier to write; more conclusive. A 73-win team falls apart with a 3-1 lead in the Finals, adds the second-best player in the world, cruises through the regular season and then dominates the playoffs; culminating in a sweep of the playoffs. It sounds perfect, much like the Warriors ball movement. However, the Cavaliers won Game 4, preventing that storybook ending for this year’s Warriors incarnation. Last year, this team made it a mission to break the 72-10 record that legendary 1995-96 Bulls team set, this year, they’ll have to be satisfied with merely one-upping the 2000-01 Lakers record 15-1 postseason run.
Unless the Warriors lose Game 5 of course. I was preparing to write a piece on ball movement, versatility, shooting, and how if you give Kevin Durant enough space he can drop 34 on you effortlessly, but alas, LeBron James and company were able to slow the game down and get physical enough to simply outlast the Warriors. Of course, J.R. Smith draining wide-open threes contributed to the 137-116 win for the Cavs on Friday, but the Cavs ability to slow the game down and get Tristan Thompson involved in pick-and-rolls ultimately ended up being the key. Thompson had four offensive rebounds, four more than he’s had all series. His activity in the paint and as the roll man were helpful in getting defensive slack on the perimeter, which along with good off-ball movement, were instrumental in getting J.R. nine open looks. When he hits on five of them, as he did on Friday, getting all 15 of his points exclusively behind-the-arc, the Cavs are a tough win for anyone, even the Warriors.
Cleveland fans will be quick to crucify me for not mentioning Kyrie’s 40, so there it is. He was sensational, going 15-for-27 from the field and 7-for-12 from behind-the-arc. He’s a blur with the ball, and it doesn’t help matters when his crossover puts opposing ankles six feet under, proving himself to be a scoring threat any time he has the ball in his hands, but as always with Cleveland, it all goes back to LeBron. He was aggressive, slashing to the rim and punishing defenders all night, getting to the line 10 times. LeBron’s ability to pass the ball has always separated him from the pack, and his vision was on display, kicking it out to shooters and making the right play.
Chris Broussard proclaimed that Cleveland couldn’t beat Golden State at their own game after Game 2. There’s no way an older LeBron can keep up with the young, dynamic Warriors core, they’ll run him and Kevin Love off the court. However, I saw a lot of Golden State in Cleveland in Game 4. The Cavs had 27 assists, one more than the Warriors in this game. LeBron had 11 assists, but perhaps he could’ve had more had his teammates also not made the right plays; kicking it out to a wide open J.R. after receiving the dish from LeBron, etc. When Cleveland operates slowly, methodically working Golden State in the half court, beating them with their own version of the Warriors ball movement, they can easily grind out a win.
That’s what makes me question the Cavaliers effort. Did they win Game 4 to spare LeBron the shame of being swept, or do they have intentions of winning this series? It seems odd to write them off before the champagne pops since we saw them come back from a 3-1 deficit last season, but as everyone is quick to point out, this isn’t the 2015-16 Warriors. Harrison Barnes isn’t here to miss wide open shots anymore. They replaced him with Kevin Durant.
Winning four straight against this team seems to be just too daunting. The Cavaliers looked good on Friday, but how will they do Monday? Can they keep the game slow, make the right passes and stay alive in this series, or will the Warriors close it out in Oracle tonight? Keep an eye on Durant tonight, he was by far the best player in the series in Golden State, but LeBron’s return to Cleveland seemed to rejuvenate him. If the Warriors want a win tonight, Kevin Durant will have to elevate himself to that level once again.