Cavaliers Seize Momentum, Shove It Down Warriors Throats

History may be written by the victors, but time makes its edits, especially when the lines were perhaps too hastily composed. The Cavaliers have turned what many perceived as a rout into an obstacle course Golden State’s having trouble completing, sending the Warriors to their third double-digit defeat in four games last night, 115-101.

Here’s the thing – 73 wins are nice and everything, but Veni, Vidi without the Vici is just tourism. After failed two elimination games, the Warriors look shakier Bill Cosby’s defense. Golden State’s legendary composure is cracking worse than the latest losing combatant to a hydraulic press. Maybe they underestimated the intensity of LeBron’s will?

Perhaps this is something Amin Elhassan would understand, were he to stand on the catwalk which until a moment ago was bridging the 50-story Splash Brothers waterslide ride, the centerpiece of his post-championship amusement park.

From such a vantage point Elhassan might see beyond his knee-jerk idolatry of his former boss, Steve Kerr, to the great expanse beyond his personal Kubla Kahn, where the people of middle America live lives much like his, only with significantly less smug.

That catwalk had crumbled as the Twin glowers Steph & Klay wobbled beneath the force of Game 3 and 5 quakes. The shocks had already brought Elhassan tumbling to his knees before these great twin monoliths. The ride’s foundation shook a third ferocious time (like the Q’s roof midway at the end of the first quarter) and split right between the “unanimous” and “MVP” of the foundation’s inscription: “Look On My Unanimous MVP, Ye Mighty and Despair!”

As the foundation cracked the brothers tumbled. The Klay ride made a horrifying whine as it tumbled to the ground and began calling “Foul.” That’s only what it sounded like, Amin realized, because the rides audio clip of James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s World,” was repeating “World” over and over again.

Klay came down 30 feet to Elhassan’s left, sending a flood of champagne-flavored seltzer water toward him as he struggled to his feet just in time to witness the fall of Steph, a conspiracy of nature or something! Elhassan sprinted to avoid the falling idol and managed to outrun it, only to be clocked upside the head by the rides’s flying mouthpiece-shaped rafts.

The raft slid over Amin’s face just as another flood of fizzy water passed over, giving him the strange, terrifying sensation of drowning. Amin blacked out, and awoke to a voice very similar to that of Alec Guinness suggesting, “The Denial’s strong in this one.”

There was a second voice, deeper, regal, and maybe just a tad pissed off. “What do you want me to do?” Alec Guinness sighed, and to Amin’s groggy head sounded to take a long drag on a pipe. “Well, maybe you could do that thing – you know where you dunk in his mug a few times?”

“You think I should facialize him?” Amin tried to shake his head, and realized it was held in place, indeed, as his vision cleared, he realized his eyelids were being held open too. He could do nothing but watch hour after hour of LeBron James brutalizing helpeless droogs with the “ole pan-handle and yarble down the yahzick yahma” and he platched like a baby Jordan.

That’s when Amin really awoke. He was struggling to his feet, shoes soaked in seltzer, when he was knocked out again by a wayward elbow from the animatronic Harrison Barnes which was chasing a big floppy dollar sign balloon, unaware it wasn’t legal tender. Of course every time the animatronic Barnes reached for the balloon, it naturally missed.

* * * *

Some observers probably owe the Cavaliers an apology for their lack of faith. All season the Cavaliers have told us about the process, pointed to the injuries and difficulty settling into their roles. They said they would do what they need to do to win, whether that’s shoot 3s or attack the rim, and they have.

It hasn’t always looked pretty. It didn’t look pretty last year. Golden State has a way of doing that to teams. But as bad as things have looked at times this year, the Wine and Gold made their final home game something to remember. Whether or not they win the championship, LeBron put up a second, even greater game for the ages. (James is the fifth guy in finals history to post consecutive 40 points games, others include Jordan, Barry, West, O’Neal).

In a powerful testimony in the Players Tribune posted yesterday and written the night before, Richard Jefferson talked about the power of character and personality of LeBron James. How he makes his teammates feel invested – something J.R. Smith mentioned last year, and how it made him want to work that much harder. Tristan Thompson in last night’s presser noted how he felt inspired to work harder by the work he sees LBJ put in.

“I don’t care if you’re a LeBron ‘fan,’ or not, I have seen it: Bron has something I’ve never seen. The way he says ‘follow me and I’ll take you there’ with actions, more than words, is like no one else I’ve ever played with,” wrote Jefferson. “He’s the kind of leader who makes you want to carry the weight too. I feel indebted to him. We all do.”

click to enlarge LeBron's second half shot chart
LeBron's second half shot chart
Jefferson reported after the game, “[James] told us one point in time late in the fourth [quarter], ‘Get stops and I’ll take care of the other end.’” And James did. He scored 27 second half points with a very efficient 10-17, as well as 2-4 from 3 and 5-6 from the line and five of the team’s 11 second half assists. Not to mention a steal and two blocks (with four steals and three blocks for the game.)

Just for comparison’s sake, the reigning two-time MVP winner Steph Curry had 12 second half points on 4-11 shooting and 3 turnovers before fouling out and throwing his mouthguard into the front row like a kid sent to his room without dinner. Meanwhile his wife was tweeting that the Warriors loss was an NBA conspiracy. You have to wonder if she’s a friend of Kanye.

Kerr Brews New Batch of Whine

For those trying to tell LeBron James that “It’s a Man’s World” and he should pipe down about the foul complaints, the Warriors made a terrific show of irony that should cure even Alanis Morrissette. (No, for the last time Alanis, bad weather is never ironic.)

“They’re going to let Cleveland grab and hold these guys constantly on their cuts and then you’re going to call these ticky-tack fouls on the MVP of the league to foul him out,” groaned Golden State Head Coach Steve Kerr, working the refs despite admitting, “let me be clear we did not lose because of the officiating, they totally outplayed us.”

That’s rich considering how Golden State gets open involves more grappling than a typical college kegger. But the fact is the Cavaliers got physical with the Warriors and Golden State didn’t/couldn't respond.

“We stuck with our game plan, being aggressive and physical defensively and I thought being aggressive offensively attacking,” said Head Coach Tyronn Lue. “In the second quarter we got away from it. We kind of slowed the ball down in the second quarter, which made us stagnant and made us get some shot clock violations, getting late to the shot clock. But for the most part I thought we did a great job, just continued to attack in transition, in the half court, and make them guard us.”

As Lue’s comments imply, the team’s plan was to push the ball, and they got out in transition frequently, not just on the 12 steals they forced, but frequently off rebounds. They had 13 first half fastbreak points and 22 points in the paint (11-15) while holding the Warriors below 30% shooting.

The Warriors did much better offensively in the second half, shooting 53% including 56% (10-18) from 3, but also missed 8 free throws. Even so, they only outscored the Cavs by two, 58-56. Indeed, while Kyrie only had 3 second half points, Love, Tristan and J.R. Smith (11 in second half) combined for 21 second half points to fill the gap, and LeBron carried the Cavs the rest of the way.

The Game

If you only watched one quarter of Cavaliers basketball all year, you’d want to watch the first quarter of last night’s game. They took to the Warriors like Chicago Cops to supporters of Eugene McCarthy. The Cavs got under their skin easier than DMSO, and pushed them around like paraplegics.

The Warriors started the dreaded Death Lineup. Kerr should have made sure they could steam a mirror before hitting the floor more Dead or Alive (see, “You Spin Me Right Round (Like A Record)”), as in reeling.

The defensive effort by the Cavaliers was simply off the charts. Indeed, rewatching the first five minutes, you couldn’t help but feel the Warriors were exceptionally lucky to be only down 8-2. Of course, that didn’t last, while the defensive intensity did.

Kyrie has been unfairly maligned all series. As we mentioned in the last game’s column, the ESPN folks just couldn’t seem to find a better time to publish their Kyrie’s Killing the Cavs piece.

(Not to be outdone, yesterday featured a laughable tweet from Ethan Strauss, given the circumstances. 
Of course, Strauss is the author of this beautiful post Game 2 bit of arcana, How the Warriors' defense is dismantling LeBron James. Ah, how time flies, eh? For the record, LeBron got isolated on Curry and took him to the hole for an easy basket early in the first.)

Even tonight, when Irving finished with a more benign 23, the Warriors weren’t appreciably better off. In the first quarter he played terrific, high intensity D, and made these two pretty plays, blocking Klay Thompsons’ drive on Kevin Love and then stripping Harrison Barnes trying to post him in the lane.
But the real defensive stopper in the first half was Tristan Thompson. We suspected Thompson might put up some big numbers. The Warriors like to help with Green, and that can put Thompson in good position to beat much smaller guys on the offensive boards. Beyond that, Thompson was very smart about how he positioned himself and the team took advantage when guys slunk off of Tristan.

On this LeBron elbow play, J.R. Smith curls around a Thompson wing screen, and finds Thompson on the roll for a foul. Not only does Smith make a nice pass, but he initiated the offense once or twice, allowing LeBron to operate off the ball and stake out a good position on offense (often at the elbow).
On the below plays you see Thompson grab a rebound at the end line, then sprint up the court, beating Golden State’s Festus Ezeli, catching a perfect bounce pass from LeBron for a dunk. Then on the next play – a screen in the middle of the floor, not on the wing, you’ll note – LeBron throws a perfect pass to a cutting Thompson for the flush. Thompson finished the quarter with 7 points, the same as Kyrie, and nine rebounds.
Lue said after the game that putting Thompson in position to take advantage of the open space was something they’ve worked on the last few days.

“We've really been working on getting to the right spots because they do a great job of protecting the elbows and boxes and loading up. So really the last two or three days we really have focused in on Tristan being in the right spots because he's very important to what we're trying to do,’ said Lue. “Tonight he really got to his spots and really was in the right position every night, and LeBron and those guys could find him when he was open.”

But even more important than the offense, was the great intensity of his defense. He checked Curry on at least two occasions and just about everybody else on the floor. He was tenacious. We love that he’s taken up the Kevin Garnett tactic of not allowing opponents dead ball shots at the hoop, which is just part of the attitude you see in these clips.
“Defensively being able to switch one through five with him is great for us, so we need him on the floor,” said Lue. “His physicality every night, guarding one through five, on the glass every night, and just, you know, he brings a physicality to this game every single night. He's the heart and soul of our team.”

He finished 6-6 with 15 points and 16 rebounds, made 3 of 4 free throws, and had three assists, including this nice one to help get Kevin Love his only bucket.

The Others

Love found himself in foul trouble just 90 seconds into the game, and Richard Jefferson took most of his minutes. He only got through another 75 seconds in the second quarter before he picked up his third foul, but Love came in and had 6 of the team’s 21 points in the third. This included an unfortunate situation during the end of the third guarding Klay Thompson when scored 12 of his 25 points, during a 14-4 run to close the period.

The Warriors certainly can get hot, but they haven’t been able to sustain it long enough for most of the last four games to bridge the lulls. Their “Strength In Numbers” has been rather conspicuously absent. Leandro Barbosa had 14 including a couple 3s, but Barnes finished with the same number of points as us, despite eight more shots. Shaun Livingston(e) was 1-6 while Green and Iguodala combined for 13 points on 12 shots.

Jefferson continues to show himself to be an exceptionally smart player, who can be trusted not to make bad plays, to know the rotations, and the play hard. He only had 3 points (a corner three featured a toe on the line) but had two steals and 6 rebounds playing 32 minutes to Love’s 12. He finished +15 and Love finished -6.

Meanwhile Iman Shumpert continues to be a self-contained Pompeii, a regular movable feast… of destruction. He finished -13, had four fouls and a turnover to go with two bricked open jumpers. We can only presume the ongoing disaster film that is Shumpert’s post-season performance may be in danger of being preempted by Mo Williams, who has moved ahead of Matthew Dellavedova after his second consecutive strong showing in limited non-garbage time minutes.

If you don’t believe in the power of Lue, or perhaps playing time to change a player’s character, then watch MoGotti harass the much taller Livingston. We barely believed our eyes. He came right down the next possession and hit a baseline floater. He finished with four.
The other guy who stepped up was Dahntay Jones. When Jefferson picked up his third foul to go with Love and Shumpert, Lue reached down the bench to pull out Dahntay Jones. He’s barely played but put together 5 points in his two minute stint, to the applause of his mates.

“That's a long-time friend of mine and it just felt good to see him get in in such a crucial part of the game. With two and a half minutes to go in the half and you haven't played all series, you haven't played all game, and to come in and contribute the way he did, scoring five points in two minutes and just being aggressive defensively, rebounding the basketball, boxing Draymond out, I thought it was fantastic,” said Lue.

The Thompson run helped close the gap, but James took control on offense and scored the first 10 points of the fourth quarter. Then he found J.R. Smith for a three and Thompson for two alley-oops sandwiched around a James turnaround jumper.
The lead was 13 with just under five minutes left, and the Warriors couldn’t do much. It didn’t help when Stephen Curry drew his sixth foul, and threw his mouthpiece into the crowd in anger, drawing a technical. At that point, it was pretty much over.

Final Analysis

It’s fair to suggest the team waited to be backed into a corner to show their true colors. Lue objected after the game about the stiffness of the challenge posed by the first two games of the series. Did Cavs fans underestimate the difficulty?

“You know, you always prepare for them, but until you get in between those lines and see how fast they move, how hard they cut, how hard they play, you really can’t get a gauge for it,” Lue said. “So I thought Game 1 was, you know, was that test for us. Then Game 2 just kind of got away from us.”

But since then the Cavaliers have had a bead on the Warriors. The loss of Bogut clearly hurt the team. Ezeli was a poor substitute, and Varejao failed to reprise Game 5’s ref-enabled flopfest. Yet the small lineup got butchered as well, with the help of Tristan and Richard Jefferson.

The Warriors played a great regular season, but it’s hard not to come away feeling that they might be drained emotionally from the journey. If the Cavaliers aren’t in their head already, they’ve gone to a couple open houses.

As Jefferson noted, the pressure is all on the Warriors now. The Cavaliers are playing with found money at this point. Sure no team has come back from 3-1 to win the finals, but for 26 years Games 6 and Games 7 were in the same place. That doesn’t make it all that easy.

We’d also remind you that the six of the last seven times teams have faced each other in the NBA Finals in consecutive years, the prior season’s runners-up took the title. We suspect the winners just can’t manufacture the same intensity as those who were denied. That’s certainly how it looked last night.

On paper, the Warriors are still the favorites. But we haven’t seen very much over the last 10 days that says the Warriors are the better team. One bad half, and otherwise the Cavaliers have had their number.

Game 7s are sort of anything goes. But we like Cleveland’s chances to end the curse, by overcoming long odds, and proving most of the media wrong. It hasn’t been easy, but that’s to be expected, and every bit of respect they’ve gotten, they’ve earned.

There’s really only one thing left to do, remove this malingering stain from the Cleveland sports landscape and fill the space with a big shiny trophy. Here’s looking at you, Amin!

We’ll be in Oakland at Oracle Arena for Sunday’s game. We’ll be posting live video, analysis and plenty of snark. You can follow along on Twitter @CRS_1ne. We will run one final pregame article before then, with a discussion of coaching philosophy and how it’s changed, along with Cavs notes. Look for that Sunday morning, and read our account of Game 7 on Monday morning.