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NBA Finals: JaVale McGee holds LeBron James in check again, adds scoring punch against Cleveland Cavaliers

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Golden State Warriors center JaVale McGee slams the ball in against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game two of the NBA Finals at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif. on June 3, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

OAKLAND — Before Game 1 of the NBA Finals, Golden State Warriors forward JaVale McGee had played a grand total of three minutes in the Western Conference Finals against the Houston Rockets.

It was unusual for McGee, who served as head coach Steve Kerr’s starting center 17 times throughout the regular season, and averaged 9.5 minutes in 65 games. After holding LeBron James scoreless for a six-minute stretch of the third quarter in Game 1, though, head coach Steve Kerr told him he’d be starting Game 2.

“That’s my job, to stay ready,” McGee said. “I wasn’t necessarily surprised. I was honored.”

Without 2015 Finals MVP Andre Iguodala, Golden State needed to find a way to keep James in check after his 51-point performance in the series opener, and McGee had the most consistent success. Putting him on James early would allow Kevin Durant to conserve energy for offense. The move was a resounding success in the 122-103 win.

“I think I mentioned yesterday that he was very comfortable in Game 1. I thought we at least made him somewhat uncomfortable at times,” Kerr said. “I mean, just, you’ve got to do your best. You’ve got to pressure him. You’ve got to know he’s going to end up with 30 points and a triple-double and all that stuff because he’s that good. But we just made things a little more difficult for him tonight.”

James — who shot the ball 32 times over the course of Game 1 — went 5-of-11 in the first half, including a 2-of-7 second quarter. Outside of James, Cleveland shot 11-of-35 before halftime. 

“We had the same approach [as Game 1],” McGee said. “Be aggressive and try not to let him get a full head of steam.”

McGee made James work, even on plays where he allowed James to score — including a lay-up on an outside spin move with 7:03 left in the first quarter.

“I think I only got tired once tonight,” James said. “So, I mean, they doubled me a few times when I caught the ball in the post, something they didn’t do in Game 1. So I got off the ball, trusted my teammates. But as far as working harder, I think I got tired once.”

With Durant freed of much of his defensive responsibilities against James in the first half, he rebounded from an 8-of-22 performance in Game 1 by going 5-of-6 with three rebounds and four assists, all coming largely within the flow of the offense instead of on isolation plays. Durant finished 10-of-14 for 26 points.

While McGee was once again able to slow James down, the decision to start him was based, Kerr said, on offense.

“It was just to get more scoring at that position,” Kerr said. “JaVale is so explosive, and just with the way he runs, it gives us some pace, it gives us some energy. So I thought he did a great job.”

Other than his flubbed dunk in Game 1 of the Finals, McGee has been perfect. Including his 6-for-6 night on Sunday, he’s 8-for-9 in the series. In fact, McGee’s 6-for-6 came over the course of the first 28 minutes, during which James was 6-for-13.

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