Don’t expect the rest of the NBA Finals to play anything like the first two games.
The Cleveland Cavaliers have consistently looked like a shell of the team that lost only two total playoff games before the championship series. After averaging 107 points per game through 14 Eastern Conference postseason contests, the Golden State Warriors’ defense has frustrated and limited LeBron James and company to an average of just 83.
After a complete beatdown put the Dubs up 2-0, both teams view Game 3 today in Cleveland as “pivotal.”
The Warriors haven’t won a Game 3 this postseason and could take a likely insurmountable lead with a win. The Cavs need to show something — anything — that indicates they’re worthy contenders for an NBA title.
“Doesn’t matter if you win by 25 or lose by 25, it’s one game in the series,” Golden State head coach Steve Kerr said at practice Tuesday, dismissing any meaning from his team’s dominant start to the series. “… We know we’re playing against a great team, they’re coming home. They can change momentum around with just one win.”
If the Cavs are successful doing just that, it’ll be because their non-stars return to form. Through the first two games of the series, J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Channing Frye — shooters who thrived in the earlier rounds of the playoffs — have barely contributed to the offense at all, shooting a combined 5-for-15 from the floor.
Role players play better in front of a home crowd, but for a reeling Cleveland team — that could be without all-star forward Kevin Love if he doesn’t clear the league’s concussion protocol — they will be absolutely essential in avoiding a sweep.
The Warriors’ dominant performances in Games 1 and 2 weren’t simply a product of the Cavs’ failure to move the ball, but also a clear validation of Kerr’s strategy to switch defenders on the perimeter in pick-and-roll situations, putting his long players in position to disrupt passes and force difficult shots.
“Mainly, it’s just not having any breakdowns,” Stephen Curry explained. “They rely on some action that gets [Smith] free — especially for 3-point shots. Always having a body as close as you can on him. You can’t let him get open 3s and get a rhythm. We need to stay locked in and focused on where he is at all times.”
There are several hints from Game 2 that suggest this series won’t end 4-0: The Dubs’ struggles to take care of the ball, Curry’s foul trouble, and 35-year-old Richard Jefferson’s success attacking the basket, scoring 12 points on 4-for-6 shooting.
The NBA Finals are regularly referred to as a chess match, and the Cavs haven’t had an answer for any of Kerr’s advances. But they’re convinced a return home — combined with an offensive game plan that includes more attacking and fluidity — will change the board.
If it doesn’t, the series will end in a checkmate from an embarrassingly few moves.