Unless you watch a metric ton of basketball, it can be difficult to appreciate just how different the postseason overall and the Finals especially are from the regular season. As teams go from game to game throughout the year, facing a different opponent each time out, spending a week or more on the road at a time, they obviously rely on scouting reports, recent trends and other intel, but more often than not, the contests are rough drafts. They test, they probe, they see what works and doesn’t, they (hopefully) learn things.
When it gets to the playoffs and teams face a single opponent game after game with comparatively large swaths of time in between, there’s ample time for preparation, for rethinking matchups. You’re probably expecting me now to say that the Cleveland Cavaliers smartly made those kind of adjustments in order to blow out the Golden State Warriors by a score of 120-90 to make the series 2-1, but in fact, the decision was more or less made for them when Harrison Barnes’ elbow met the back of Kevin Love’s head in Game 2, keeping him off the floor.
Sure, you can point to the fact that Love is a minus defender and that Cleveland has never truly been able to unlock the prodigious offensive chops he displayed with the Minnesota Timberwolves. You can note that the Cavaliers’ defense was truly stifling in a first quarter that saw the Cavs more than double up the Warriors 33-16. Golden State shot 35% from the field, 10% from 3-point range to Cleveland’s 71.4% and 50%, respectively. There are, for sure, mechanical reasons that the Cavs without Kevin Love are a tougher matchup against this particular team.
But there was also a distinctly different feel to the Cavs right out of the gate. Maybe it was playing at home, but maybe it was also getting pushed out of their comfort zone by Love’s injury. Although that implies that they ever looked completely comfortable with Love playing against the Warriors. Let’s just call it the “uncomfort” zone, an area the Cavs have gotten to know well over the past couple years as they’ve spent more time trying to figure out what they’re supposed to be than what they are.
Because for all the obvious talent on the roster, Cleveland – especially in the first two games of this series – has looked like Ikea furniture: a box of pieces with instructions that generally get everything to fit together decently but won’t impress anyone. Meanwhile, Golden State has looked like a pillow fort, somehow both meticulous and organic, a hand-built structure at once flexible and intricate and above all, just a shit-ton more fun.
In the first quarter last night, however, the Cavs played with a little of the abandon they so sorely needed. Kyrie Irving shook and juked Steph Curry on his way to 16 first quarter points, while Curry sat with two quick fouls and zero points. Tristan Thompson racked up three rebounds on his way to 13 total, and although he only scored two points, it was on an emphatic putback after a driving Richard Jefferson drew Andrew Bogut away from Thompson on a layup attempt. And Jefferson himself did his best 2015 Andre Iguodala impression on the night overall, scoring 9 points, grabbing eight boards and adding two blocks and two steals.
Troublingly, though, Cleveland came into the second quarter much flatter. The ball movement stopped and although the Warriors could never erase the gap, they did win the quarter 27-18, turning a 17-point lead at the end of the first into an 8-point lead at the half.
With Curry not looking at all like himself (2 points on 1-for-5 shooting, three fouls in the first half), there was a lot riding on how the Warriors would attack the beginning of the second half, but head coach Steve Kerr decided to stick with his usual starting lineup with Bogut at center. Within a minute-and-a-half, the lead had ballooned back up to 15. Halfway through the quarter, it was 22. The last real shot the Warriors had was when Curry cut it to 15 points with his first made 3-pointer of the night with 3:51 remaining in the third, but that was as close as they got for the rest of the game. Kerr is certainly going to take a lot of flak for keeping Bogut in the game to start the second half, but it’s also possible he’s playing a longer game.
What’s defined the Warriors all season long has been a mix of continuity and flexibility, an ability to absorb and redirect other teams energies through their own template of multi-faceted players moving the ball quickly and crisply into good (or, in Steph Curry’s case, bad for anyone else but good for him) shots. It’s possible that at the half, Kerr already sensed that with Curry completely out of sorts (at one point when Curry was on the bench, Kerr asked him “You alright?” in a way that no one has ever asked a person they actually think is alright that question) the game was at best a 50/50 proposition. He could try to shift the playing field at that moment, or he could stick with his starters. Making a shift at that moment could work brilliantly as it did in last year’s Finals when he inserted Iguodala into the starting lineup or it could backfire massively. But if they play it straight, get punched in the face and take the L, it could bring back the energy that Golden State was so sorely lacking.
And that’s the thing about the kind of preparation and mechanical foresight that the playoffs affords. As the focus gets tight, the line between technical and emotional adjustments gets blurred. Unexpected things like Love’s injury shift the gameplan for the Cavaliers in a literal way, but they also shift the underlying tides that run through a team. And we’ve seen the Warriors get knocked down before by the Thunder, then come roaring back to win three consecutive games to get to this point. It’s still the case that it’s not really a series until someone loses at home, and no one has so far.
The shifts and adjustments that happen in the regular season are vanishingly difficult to track because so many other variables are changing around them. But in the playoffs, we can see them more clearly – even if we ultimately struggle to understand them until the whole thing is over. What we can say without a doubt is that tomorrow, the conversations about Kevin Love and his role on this team for the rest of this series are going to be difficult and awkward, and that the series is definitively headed back to Oakland eventually. Let’s hope we get an actual good game out of it at some point.