Cavs Lose Focus for Four Minutes and Warriors Bury Them

click to enlarge Love's labor lost right under the basket down the stretch as the Cavs surrender to the Warriors, 118-113.
Love's labor lost right under the basket down the stretch as the Cavs surrender to the Warriors, 118-113.
We romanticize our youth because there’s no better time in life than when you didn’t know any better. Similarly, when you live the dream for long enough, you don’t believe you’ll ever wake up. Last night any Cavs fans not woke to Golden State historic roster talent had to escape from the burning wreckage of their crash-landed cloud. The Cavaliers slim chance at making it a series went sideways and disappeared down the drain grate in a 118-113 loss.

After witnessing LeBron James reach a peak performance level unparalleled in his career, we can hopefully be forgiven for believing the King could make the impossible happen. Unfortunately there are hierarchies of miraculous and what we witnessed last year was like Christ on the corn chip compared to the task laid at their feet this year. It wasn’t impossible, but neither was there a large margin for error.

Realistically, the Cavaliers needed to control the boards, outscore the Warriors by 10-20 points in the paint, outscore them on points off turnovers, limit Warriors fastbreak opportunities, keep their own turnovers down, and run at least opportunistically while conceivably keeping from getting into an up-and-down game with the Warriors.

(This last point is one that Lue debated, but given his substitution patterns and overplaying of the only five guys who were really effective last night, you can’t help but wonder if given enough distance he might concede he’d have had a better chance if James and Irving weren’t so tired at the end.)

Neither James nor Irving scored the final five minutes and collectively missed six shots during that time. Maybe it’s just a make/miss league. However Kerr made sure he got Durant and Curry two-and-a-half and three-and-a-half minutes rest in the fourth. Kyrie played the entire second half and James rested for 34 seconds. It’s hard not to think that made a difference watching them front rim jumpshots while the Warriors stuck threes off the dribble.

Like Game Three, the first half pace was breakneck, though not quite the ridiculous 119 possesssions/game of Game Two. There were 112.4 possessions, and like Sunday’s game, that dropped precipitously in the second half to 94.7 (on Sunday the second half was 98 possessions). We can’t help but wonder if the Cavaliers might’ve been better served slowing it down more in the first halves both games to a pace where the Cavs could better conserve bullets since half the team was firing blanks.

The task at hand first truly came into Focus on Sunday, spooking us out of writing a postgame. The Cavaliers won the points-in-the-paint by 20, their biggest edge all playoffs, had 27 assists (one off their playoff high), had half the turnovers and turned those into 9 more points. Of course, the Warriors set a Finals record with 18 threes.

Last night it was more of the same. The Warriors hit 7 of their first 9 as the Cavaliers made mistakes that left them open and allowed them to get going. Whereas the Cavs had trouble getting their role players going from 3 on the road, the Warriors didn’t have that problem for a simple reason: Their role players aren’t expected to hit threes.

Durant, Thompson and Curry hit 27 of the Warriors’ 34 threes in Games 2 & 3. Last night players outside the Warriors big three took just six shots and made one. They rely on their stars hitting threes, and their bench players mostly refrain. Unfortunately the Cavs drive-and-kick system requires role players to make these shots, and they just never did the whole series. It didn’t help that Love and Irving are also shooting around 30% from distance.

Arguably, some of this is to be expected. The Warriors are the leagues best team defending the three. However the Celtics were number two and the Cavaliers smoked them. Then again, the Celtics in some sense overpowered weaker teams during the regular season with their depth and scrappy play, while the Warriors did it with some truly impressive length. Nobody mentions it, but the Warriors not only defended the three, but allowed the third lowest FG% on two-pointers behind Utah and San Antonio during the regular season.
As you can see, Iman Shumpert, Richard Jefferson, Deron Williams and Kyle Korver are 5-30 from three or 17%, and account for 30% of the team’s threes. Those guys should obviously shoot better, but when you’re relying on those guys to come up with significant offense against a great team that bodes well, because it’s easier to cut off their water and let Irving and James wear themselves out scoring.

“We just felt like the way they play, Kyrie and LeBron had it going the whole game, but that's pretty taxing to go one-on-one the whole game. Both those guys were amazing, 38 and 39,” Kerr said afterwards. “That takes a lot out of you. We just kept telling the guys, they're going to get tired. Stay in front of them. Force them into outside shots, if you can. Fatigue will play a role. And I think when you get guys playing 45, 44 minutes, basically attacking one-on-one the whole game, it's – you hope eventually it's going to take its toll.”

The Cavaliers got open shots and didn’t knock them down. Again. Cleveland was 16-46 on uncontested shots, while contesting 48 of the Warriors 83 shots. Didn’t matter, Golden State still shot over 48% from three and overall. Meanwhile the Cavaliers were just 3-18 on the short corner three (9-26 above the break). Though stats weren't available for last night, the Cavs were 9-28 on open 3s and 4-18 on wide open threes the first two games.

You can draw whatever conclusions you need from that. Maybe they were just that close in a make/miss league. Maybe the pressure of playing so hard with so little margin of error made it hard for anyone but he suddenly rejuvenated J.R. Smith to throw in threes. Love and Irving finished the night 1-14 from international waters. The rest of the team was 11-30 on a night when the Cavaliers set the record for three-point attempts in a game going 12 for 44 (breaking the record the Warriors set in Game Two while making 18 of 43).

Again the Cavaliers won points-in-the-paint, but the 28-14 halftime deficit shrunk to 46-38. And though they forced 6 more turnovers (18 to 12), Cleveland could only turn it into 2 more points, meanwhile the Warriors beat the Cavs 24-13 on fastbreak points and 16-4 on 2nd chance points. AT HOME. Thompson finished with just 3 rebounds and was a non-factor while Love’s inability to put back a rebound at the rim turned into points the other way and a painful turnaround down the stretch.

Sometimes you play your heart out and you just aren’t good enough. That seemed to be LeBron James’ feeling.

“I said it after we won the Eastern Conference Finals that we're getting ready for a juggernaut. It’s probably the most, most firepower I've played in my career,” James said afterwards. “I played against some great teams, but I don't think no team has had this type of firepower. So even when you're playing well, you got to play like A++, because they're going to make runs and they’re going to make shots and they got guys that’s going to make plays. So we made enough plays tonight to still win the ball game, but they made a couple more.”

Indeed when you think about it, the game came down to two stretches of the game – the final 90 seconds of the first quarter, and the final two-and-a-half minutes of the game. Cleveland was outscored 21-0 in that four minutes and won the other 44 by a 113-97 score. That pretty much tells you the challenge they pose. The Cavaliers had their number for most of the night. Unfortunately for the Cavaliers, most of the night’s only good enough to defeat Eastern Conference teams.

Maybe next year they’re take their defensive fundamentals more seriously and play harder all season understanding that discipline sure paid off for the Warriors, who were poised throughout while the Cavs struggled with focusing for the full 48, despite talking about it, literally all playoffs. Guess it’s one of those more aspirational goals.

We’re going to take a look and these two disastrous segments but let’s note ahead of time – there were many points where poor play and faltering focus held the team back, so picking out these moments is only going after the lowest hanging fruit in some sense.

First Quarter Fiasco: You’ve Been Shumped

Between Iman Shumpert and Deron Williams the Cavaliers have enough high-grade fertilizer for all of Iowa. Shumpert’s play is emblematic of the monkeypaw, the genie in the bottle, of the thing that on the surface looks useful, but proves to be insidiously disastrous, waiting until a perfectly-timed moment to foil the sheets in every bed of the house. That moment came late in the first, when Shump, with a little help from Richard Jefferson conspired to shave ten points (which is to say we’d be suspicious if we didn’t already know about his tendency toward self-defenestration).

It PTS-inducing moments like this – when LeBron sat for 90 seconds – that induce Lue to never take him out. Let’s be honest nobody would be surprised if Lue turned into Adrian Monk after another year coaching Shump and developed a habit of touching each endline before sitting down to coach any quarter. His play will make you OCD just to deal with the anguish.

First Shump can’t get over a pick, sticking Love on Curry with King of Queens-predictable results.
Then Shump took a ridiculous jumper with 13 on the shotclock that was in no way a good shot. Curry can be seen smiling in relief. In transition, Golden State runs one of their cheater plays where first Curry then Livingston grab Jefferson, moving him in front of Shumpert before Livingston lets go and pushes Shump away like he were boxing him out. While Shumpert has notorious issues getting over screens, this isn’t his fault. Same result, though – Curry’s second consecutive three. Jefferson probably needs to switch and close that out given Steph’s skills.
Here's the video:
A moment later the team shows terrible spacing on a Kyrie drive that winds up in an turnover, and Shumpert does the mannequin challenge instead of switching a Curry screen on Jefferson, letting Livingston go free for a layup.
Finally in this last mind-numbing sequence Shumpert lets Curry get a decent look at a three, fails to box him out, letting him get the rebound, then overpursues, giving him an unobstructed lane at the basket. Finally after Curry blows the finish Shumpert mindlessly – without checking the clock takes a three-pointer with 19 seconds left instead of waiting for the last shot. (Did he really believe the Warriors are afraid to give him open 3s – many as he likes?)
Naturally the Warriors converted on the other end when someone blows another screen (Kyrie? Shumpert?) giving Golden State a 10-0 run during the 90 seconds James sat, turning a three-point Cavs lead into a 7-point deficit.
Thanks guys, way to make a King go mad.

The Last Straw

That the Cavs had to fight the rest of the game to right that 90 second lapse of intelligence tells you all you need to know about how the Warriors play basketball. The wheels start to come off, immediately following James last basket, a driving layup for his 37th point and a 104-99 lead. After Korver bricked a three on a solid contest by Iguodala, Durant hit a three on a Draymond screen when LeBron allowed Green to push him past the three-line and Love wasn’t close enough to truly contest, allowing Durant to take an open straightaway three.

A moment later JR Smith converted one out of two and Kyrie pushed a Love rebound into an “and 1” that gave the Cavs a 108-102 lead. That would be Irving’s last basket of the game. Both would miss three shots down the stretch as the Cavs missed ten of their last 11 shots. Curry missed a floater but Irving completely neglected to box him out and the ball bounced right back to him, and he put it back in, 108-104.

J.R. Smith jumps out at Durant, perhaps going for a steal, but in the process left Klay Thompson alone in the corner for a three. If Smith was once a fine defender, this playoffs his play’s been marred more mental mistakes than first-ear calculus (or whatever).
But the Cavs hung tough. James drew a foul and converted then J.R. Smith hit a three off James’ 9th assist with 3:09 left. The Warriors would score the rest of the points. There were opportunities. Love missed on a feed from James directly under the basket (putting an exclamation point on his 1-9 shooting night by hitting the underneath of the rim) which turned into a Curry fastbreak layup the other way as Korver couldn’t stop ball and Smith abandoned the middle of the lane to chase his man, echoing the Cavs Finals theme of terrible, uncommunicative transition defense.

After a Durant drive and baseline 13’ pullup over Thompson, where Tristan seemed to give him a bit too much room, LeBron drove the lane and found Korver in the corner for an open three he missed. Durant pushed the ball and with Lebron hanging behind the line pulled up on the left at the arc and dropped the triple in James face for the 114-113 lead. It was like a slow motion wreck. Everything so vivid as if visible from a mile away, but equally helpless to change it.

A rather poor stepback three by Kyrie, not only failed to set up a 2-for-1 situation, despite receiving the ball with 45 seconds left, but wasn’t a particularly good shot. Durant drew a foul, and sank the freebies for the 3-point lead. Iggy got his hand into James firing mechanism on the corner three he attempted off the inbounds, and the ball went out-of-bounds off James essentially ending the game and any chance the defending champ had of repeating.

Final Analysis

How can one do anything but acknowledge what an extraordinary three years LeBron James has gifted us since his return. This year he played better than he ever has, than anyone would rightly conceive. Irving took clear steps forward and while still inconsistent from the field, Love’s turned into a fine defensive player during the past year. (Don’t be surprised to find him at center more next year, daring teams to deal with his range.)

But the reliance on aging veterans may not have done that Cavaliers a lot of favors as again they found themselves short on athletic bodies to compete with the Warriors finesse and speed. (We’ll pass over the way Tyronn Lue, reduced to five useful players, still wouldn’t give Derrick Williams the slightest taste of meaningful action, like David Blatt in 2015, hurting himself by an unwillingness to test his bench despite obvious personnel issues.)

Nonetheless, it’s hard to fault anyone too deeply. The innocence any diehard Cavs fans lost this year was that a focused LeBron was enough to compete with anyone. To be honest, what the Warriors have assembled is truly unfair, and they’ve managed to keep it healthy and happy. They’re every team’s nightmare for years to come.

Even a perfectly executed gameplan and on-point role players would’ve had a difficult time extending the Warriors. Unfortunately the Cavaliers perhaps didn’t take their challenge seriously enough. When the time came requiring tight focus and unyielding intensity they faltered. Perhaps a season playing with greater abandon and effort for the full 48 will prepare them for the challenge of the Warriors.

We hope the Cavaliers win the pride game on Thursday and postpone any celebrations for at least another game until the Warriors return to Oakland. It’s disappointing any time you can’t win the title when you sport the league’s greatest player. But LeBron showed us his finest this postseason and it was something to behold. Consider that the icing on the greatest sports year Cleveland’s had in half a century.

We’ve been spoiled, and still want more. What’s wrong with that?

As for us, it’s time to move along we think. There are ideas we couldn’t pursue while spending so much time covering the Cavaliers. There was nothing but joy in the creation of my book, King James Brings The Land a Crown: The Definitive Tale of the Cavs 2016 Title Run, but other challenges await. There’s a play, (The Rise and Fall of) Gilligan’s Island, arts features and news stories to write.

There will be one more book signing this Saturday, June 10 at the Barnes and Noble in Woodmere, Ohio from 1 to 3 pm. After that you can find my book at your local independent bookstore, in most cases, perhaps the local Barnes and Noble or surely my website, It’s a great Father’s Day gift; check out my site and find out why. You can follow me on Twitter @CRS_1ne Thanks for all the love and support; unless the Cavs win their next two, this is my last column of the year and perhaps my last Cavs column forever.