Heading into Game 2 of the NBA Finals at Oracle Arena, we still lived in a world where the Warriors had an otherworldly home winning percentage of .940, where John Starks still held the all-time record for most missed threes in an NBA Finals and where maybe some people still had doubt that LeBron James is a transcendent athlete not entirely of this planet.
Now, after Cleveland’s 95-93 overtime win in Game 2, who knows what to believe anymore? What looked it might become a laugher and a Golden State sweep after Kyrie Irving broke his kneecap in overtime of Game 1 is fast becoming an all-out slobberknocker where each team has a legit chance to win it all. That was nearly unfathomable 24 hours ago, but welcome to this brave, new and slightly-still-in-flux reality.
First, let’s talk about LeBron. Even just by stat sheet standards, game footage unseen, James was a marvel. A hilariously splendid line of 39 points, 16 rebounds and 11 assists was just enough to lift the Cavs in the end, but the visual treat of watching him command a basketball court is the thing I’ll tell my grandkids about. Player-tracking data shows LeBron played 50 of 53 minutes and had the ball for a whopping 131 out of 412 Cavs touches; essentially, the ball went to LeBron one out of every three times for the entire game. No other Cav had more than 69 touches; Steph Curry led Golden State with only 94.
Oh, Curry. To say this was simply a poor performance for the reigning MVP would be a kind, almost ignorant understatement. The box score says he made five field goals, but they were sporadic and immemorable and simply insufficient to pull Golden State ahead for good. As Klay Thompson enjoyed his finest game of the playoffs with 34 points, Curry could only scrounge up 19 points on 23 shots and was 2-for-15 from downtown, smashing John Starks’ 1994 record for most missed threes in an NBA Finals game. (For Knicks fans, the night terrors still haven’t stopped after 20 years. I can personally attest.)
By any metric, Curry was outright dreadful. His player-tracking data says that on contested field goals (which means a defender is within 3.5 feet of him), Curry shot 4-for-15, or 26.7 percent. But on uncontested shot attempts, Curry was a face-palming 1-for-8 (12.5 percent). It may have been an aberration of the highest order on the biggest stage, but to know now that such a performance can even exist is startling at a core level. And even though it was his driving layup that capped off an exhilarating 15-4 run that ended regulation and wiped out an 11-point Cavs led with 3:14 to go, Golden State needed more in the overtime and there was nothing he could offer (0-for-4 from the field).
“I don’t expect to shoot like this,” a stunned Curry said in the interview room at Oracle Arena. “I’ve got to play better, find better shots and be more in a rhythm throughout the course of the game for us to really assert ourselves as a team.
“I doubt this will happen again.”
Except, who’s to really say? We never really thought 2-for-15 would happen, or that James could elevate from superhuman to something truly omnipotent, or that a 24-year-old Aussie named Matthew Dellavedova, who had started all of 17 games over his two-year career coming into these playoffs, would crash the boards like a Marvel superhero, get fouled and calmly swish two free throws with 10 seconds left in overtime to win in an arena where teams just do not walk out as winners. Everything we thought we knew about how this series might develop is being put straight to the shredder, and with three or four or (dare to dream!) five more games like these past two, basketball fans will forever remember this fortnight.
To be clear, there is still a great – and maybe even likely – possibility that Golden State dominates the next three games and wins its first title in 40 years next Sunday at Oracle Arena. That would surprise no one. But the idea of the Cavs bringing home Cleveland’s first championship in a half a century is slowly becoming believable, too. Maybe not likely, maybe not probable, but it all feels a lot more hopeful than Cavs fans were feeling a couple of days ago.
All we know for sure is that, after two exhausting overtime affairs, we now have a best-of-five series and that Curry has played his worst and LeBron has played his best; whatever comes next should be both welcome and unexpected and perhaps even dumbfoundingly cool.
James was asked after the game how he helped prepare the team’s mindset for Game 2, in the wake of Irving’s injury and the Warriors’ tenuous status as über-prohibitive favorites.
“Just letting them understand and telling them about…the moment that we’re in, not about the game,” he said. “I think the game is such a small thing, when you think about the moment…We have a chance to be a part of history, but it’s the small steps that you take to get to that point.”
Each game from here on out is its own small step toward something grander. And if you thought you knew how either of these exceptional teams would get there, now you don’t.