Every journey begins with that modest first step, and the Cavaliers finally took theirs. Like any artist, they want to top their last effort, so you’ll excuse them for seeking a larger challenge than trailing 3-1 to a 73-win team. (After all, their medium’s drama.)
After watching last night’s performance, you wouldn’t need David Blaine to convince us someone (like LeBron) did the Jedi Mind Trick on Draymond Green, and told him to go running to Durant in the tear-soaked hours after last year Game 7, just so it wouldn’t get boring.
So congratulations, Cavaliers, it’s no longer boring. But if the Cavaliers could’ve played the entire 48 minutes on Wednesday like they did last night, we’d be in a different series and would have saved enough hot takes about Durant as GOAT and how great the Warriors are to heat the Midwest for half the winter.
Finally after three games where they missed plentiful open jumpers – perfectly encapsulated by four-time NBA three-point FG% champ, Kyle Korver, missing a wide open corner 3 on Wednesday – the Cavaliers spun dame fortune round like a record baby, right round, round round. They made a record 24 of a record 45 three-pointers (53%) and 26 of 44 uncontested shots (59%), after shooting 48-125 (38%) on uncontested shots the first three games, including 16-46 Wednesday.
This is the way the Cavs can and should be able to play. Indeed, as we noted in Wednesday’s Column
(which would’ve been our last had the Warriors won), Cleveland had two horrendous stretches at the end of the first and final quarters in Game 3 totaling four minutes in which they were outscored 21-0. The other 44 minutes they were +16. Last night the Cavaliers showed those other 44 minutes were no fluke, winning by 21 and setting a slew of scoring records.
There was a priceless moment in last night’s game, after the Cavaliers had shot out to a big lead, and the Warriors had closed it to seven, 27-34 with 2:48. There was a vague but perceptible kind of knowing-nod look about the Warriors after Livingstons’ offensive board and Iguodala’s dunk when James gave him baseline. That said, “Yeah, you may have rocked us for a moment, but we got you.” The Cavs finished the quarter on a 15-6 run that left the Warriors reeling with a familiar shellshocked look they’re used to seeing on other teams’ faces. Golden State would never get it back to single digits again.
There were encouraging signs by the handful though make no mistake – the Cavaliers live and die by their ability to hit the three. They missed 10 free throws, gave up 16 offensive rebounds (versus 11 of their own), only forced 12 turnovers to their 11, and were outscored in the paint by four, on fastbreaks by one and on the line by six. Yet despite giving up all those offensive boards, Cleveland outscored the Warriors on second chance points 21-16, thanks in part to Tristan Thompson.
Among the most encouraging signs was the fact that the Cavs really tightened the defense in the second half. The Wine and Gold were Midas in the first half shooting 61% from the field and 59% from the arc, but the Warriors were 55% and 38%. In the second half, the Cavaliers got after it better and held the Warriors to 36% and 25% from beyond the boundary, as Durant wound up taking as more second half shots (14) as Curry and Thompson combined (13).
As Austin Carr noted so eloquently in the postgame, “When you force Durant to have to score... it changes the way he plays the game, he gets more ball-controlling and that really hurts their offense.”
Imagining The Key, Man Confirms The Prison
There were several other keys. First, the Cavaliers moved bodies and the ball better than the first three games. They understand the concept, but for whatever reason (see, long season/bad habits) only take it seriously when they’ve placed themselves in the utmost peril. (Presumably like Catholic mafiasos before their deathbed confession.) They had 27 assists, but more impressive, had 10 secondary assists by six different players.
Meanwhile the Warriors only managed 30 uncontested shots (out of 87 shots, 34%). While the mix was essentially 50/50 at home (101 contested, 94 uncontested), on Wednesday they whittled that down to 35 of 83 shots (42%) uncontested. The Cavaliers seem to be getting more locked in with each passing game. Good thing they left plenty of margin for error.
The Big 3 stepped up big, led by Kyrie Irving’s 40 points on 27 shots, including 7 triples. James, Kevin Love and J.R. Smith hit half their shots putting up 31, 23, and 15 points respectively. Smith’s return the last couple games has been huge. Love noted after the game that the team’s pressed Smith to shoot, essentially letting him know that if he only takes 2-3 shots he can’t help the team, which needs his big shots, such as the 33-foot three he hit in the second after the Warriors had cut the lead to 12.
The Cavs made it a point to get him shots – much like they do Love – running him off staggered screens (as they also did with Kyrie at times) to get him open.
Richard Jefferson gave the Cavalier 22 extraordinary minutes, much of them on Durant, but still got to the line on three occasions and scored eight points while posting +13. The same is true of Shumpert, who moved the ball and drove instead of taking jumpers, getting four free throws before also making his only shot, a three late in the game. He finished +12 in just 12 minutes and had three assists (all in the third quarter) and no disastrous defensive miscues (unlike Game 3).
The list of contributors goes on and on. Deron Williams made his first two baskets of the Finals including a three, and Korver hit a three as well. Finally Tristan Thompson rebounded from three bad games by grabbing 10 boards (four offensive) and getting five assists with just two turnovers. Because the Warriors have been trapping Irving on the pick-and-roll Thompson’s been left alone in space. Last night he drove to the hole and found guys (mostly Love) for open shots by collapsing the defense. That’s going to be there so Thompson’s going to have to repeat that feat again on the road.
Not going to spend more than a couple lines noting that James continues to play extraordinarily at both ends. Appearing more restive and calm than you would imagine down 3-0 the last couple days, he put up a quiet 31, committing just two turnovers against 11 assists, as the King found his points in the flow of the offense, and did a tremendous job of facilitating. He knows that at home he needs to get the other guys involved and into the zone.
Contrary to what many pundits suggested, the Cavs didn’t overtly slow things down or start pounding the ball into the post. Lue stuck with his guns, which is playing with pace and pushing when possible. To some extent that’s what they did.
However, that didn’t persist. Maybe they slowed down by design, maybe they just got tired of putting up all those points, however, the pace of the game has slowed with each successive game in this series, highlighted by second halves that are 15-20 possessions slower than the first.
The night started out at a 113 possessions/game pace (vs. 112 for the first half Wednesday) in the first quarter but dropped to 105 in the second, and was 91 in the second half (compared to 94.7 in Game 3).
The Cavs may start playing the Warriors speed, but they’re slowly lowering the tempo, which they can do a lot easier when they make shots and don’t commit turnovers. But while they say they want to play with pace, it’s hard to escape the evidence, even if that doesn’t really clarify their intent.
While Thompson played very well in the first half, it might be a mistake to expect him to replicate that in Golden State. He was pretty miserable in the second half managing an offensive rating of 79.8 while on the floor versus 119.6 defensive rating while playing 18 of 24 second half minutes. Somehow LeBron played 20 minutes in the second half and had a 120 offensive rating and 108 defensive rating.
Not even sure how that’s possible, but suffice to say that Thompson was unable to replicate the 155 off/123 defense first half, and it’s stark difference doesn’t bode well. Again, not sure how one puts up a -40 in a half the team won by 3, but it underscores the difficulty of playing Thompson long minutes. At the very least Lue should consider not playing Thompson when James is not on the floor.
Overall the Cavaliers played with much greater intensity but also poise and focus. They got into the Warriors physically but didn’t overreact, and let them be the frustrated ones, as with Pachulia who took a shot at Shumps nuts (or low hanging oversized NBA shorts, as the case may be).
We’re not going to say anything more about Draymond Green’s ghost technical, because what can you really say? Nobody is treated with kid gloves in the manner Green is, such that you begin to wonder if he’s related to Adam Silver somehow.
It would be wrong to say anything other than that the officiating was a complete shitshow. Not sure what one has to do to get [Game 3 refs] Ken Mauer and Monty McCutcheon back for Game 5, when at those moment we're still in mortal fear of that Brothers/Foster crew. That said, can’t imagine but that the NBA would like Game 5 to go to the Cavaliers after noting their treatment of Green last year. Perhaps as a nod to how poorly the refs handled that game the NBA will give Pachulia a suspension for his groin shot at Shump. Would be sorta poetic, right?
Video Killed the Radio Star
One of the uncommented wrinkles the Cavaliers used was having Thompson play centerfield off Draymond Green. He was outfront help to corral Curry, sometimes picking him up in transition. (Presumably you aren’t as concerned about giving Green free driving lanes.) It was effective in the early going.
All night the Cavs dared him to shoot. Green hit his first three and missed his next five. (He finished 6-16, 16 pts.) Meanwhile having Thompson help out front (note that Green is more of a high post player and the valve on the Warriors sided actions) allowed Love and James to patrol the backline more, where they’ve played very well of late.
It was quite a nice start to have Love, Irving and Smith (twice) hit threes in the first four minutes. Three offensive boards and two turnovers gave the Cavaliers five more possessions in the early going letting them jump out to a quick lead. It seems a bit that the Warriors are so confident of their ability to comeback that they let themselves be sloppy at times. Cavs really used this to put them in an early hole.
It was nice to see them running some screens and offensive plays instead of endless pick-and-rolls. On this screen, Klay Thompson goes over top so Kyrie drifts to the corner while Love delivers the screen. Kyrie goes along the baseline and Draymond covers him until Thompson can recover but Love has popped out for the three.
Here it is in action:
As we said the ball was moving and the Cavaliers were not only able to get into the heart of the Warriors defense, but were able to make good passes that their teammates converted. This was one of three Love threes in the first quarter when he had 14 points, and as you can see RJ made this play happen.
The ball was moving all over as James went to the whole on a pretty give-and-go. The Warriors were dumbfounded. They’d never seen the Cavaliers move like this without the ball so consistently. Nobody had.
We saw the Cavs continue to use Thompson as a screener for three-shooters, since his man is less likely to come out and challenge. Korver gets the shot here, though he missed. The Cavs made much more concerted effort to get Korver and Smith open with positive returns.
The Warriors are so concerned about Kyrie’s penetration, they will (unintentionally) leave James wide-open to have two men defending against him. (Tristan does nice job of rolling to basket to suck up another defender.
Cleveland's Third Quarter Rock
The Warriors took it to the Cavaliers in the third quarter at Oracle, but the Cavaliers outscored Golden State by 11 on Wednesday. It was a little sloppy at times on Friday in the third as well, as the Cavaliers surrendered six offensive rebounds and made four turnovers while the Warriors made one turnover and surrendered one offensive board. That netted them seven more shots than the Cavaliers, but the Wine and Gold turned the Warriors weapon on them, making 7 of 11 threes.
Golden State had actually closed to within 12 – as close as they’d get in the second half – when the reserves stepped up, notably Deron Williams, living up to his “Overdue” moniker by scoring five during and 11-4 run at the end of the third pushing the lead back to 19. The game had gotten awfully scrappy at this point and these threes by Williams and Korver bookended the loose ball/jump ball featuring the Pachulia nut slap. The quarter had featured a bit too much ISO (Irving had only one bucket), and only 4 assists on 8 buckets before these two dimes.
By the fourth quarter both teams were worn down. The Cavaliers shot 8-23 (4-12 from 3pt land) while Golden State was 5-20 (3-14). The only player to make more than one basket all quarter was Kyrie Irving who sunk two threes and another bucket to help maintain the lead. (James was 1-5.) Kyrie was 3-9 in the fourth and finished 15-27 including 11-14 in the first. He seems to have grown comfortable with Klay Thompson’s coverage judging from how he went by Thompson, and the Warriors may need to further tweak their coverages to contain him.
He’s looked pretty locked in. The Cavs will need him.
It was important that the Cavaliers role players finally step up. The Warriors bench has been beating Cleveland handily, and while they still trailed (32-23), it wasn’t because they weren’t producing it was because the Cavaliers finally did a decent job on the Warriors backcourt. They trapped Curry, tried to deny Thompson, let Draymond shoot, and encouraged Durant to go one-on-one. And it worked.
The Cavaliers play has improved with each game, as though the growing familiarity, comfort and confidence was taking root. But let’s be serious. They won at home. They still need to beat the Warriors in Oracle. Twice.
But first things first. The Warriors seem to be a little shaky when pressure comes. It’s mainly because there hasn’t been too much. They get hot so easily and play so hard all the time that they just haven’t had too many truly frustrating situations. Because of this there’s a subtle tendency to lose their composure. Curry and Thompson kind of become passive and don’t contribute to the offense’s flow. (They finished 8-24, 6-19 from 3.) Durant tries to do too much.
But it’s much easier for role players and others to get through the pressure supported by the home crowd. Game 5 will undoubtedly be the most hard-fought game of the series. However at least guys like Smith, Williams and Korver have enjoyed some success at home, on which to build on for Game 5.
As Lue said, they’re coming home anyway, they might as well come home to play. It won’t be as easy as that, but it won’t be as hard as Games 1 and 2 either, when everyone was coming in cold and the gameplan was untested.
Let’s give Lue some credit. He stuck to his guns and the team’s looked great. The Cavaliers have barely played in the post and last night got beat in the paint, but it didn’t matter because the Cavaliers are just as explosive as the Warriors, and last night played even better defense. They’ll have to keep moving the ball and playing with the same level of physicality, force and focus. They showed the poise to withstand the Warriors runs and it should get easier with time.
Like a blitzkrieg, much of the Warriors ‘power’ come from their explosive scoring and how that can disconcert the other team. By now the Cavaliers are much more accustomed to this and are showing signs that they can rally their focus for a full 48 minutes. They aren’t intimidated and the Warriors seemed just a bit unnerved by that last night. Maybe they've been reading their own clippings.
It’s still a long shot, but if they can win Game 5 (difficult but doable) then this series is going seven. In a certain sense, the Cavs are playing with house money chasing instant immortality should they succeed. What can you say, worked last time.
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, out book. If you can’t make it you can visit our site, cavschampions.com