With 8:37 remaining last night in the fourth quarter and the Golden State Warriors up 29 on the Cleveland Cavaliers, Cavs head coach Tyronn Lue put in 35-year-old James Jones. A reasonably productive shooter on LeBron James’ Miami Heat teams, Jones played in 48 games for the Cavs this year, averaging 9.6 minutes, 3.7 points and 1 rebounds per contest. In the playoffs, he’s averaged less: 4.6 minutes and 1.1 field goals attempted per game, and no other per game stat crests a whole number. Was the spindly Jones going to turn the tide for Cleveland?
No. Jones was there to lay the wood on Steph Curry and that he did – picking up a personal foul within a minute. Warriors head coach Steve Kerr’s response was simple: He took Curry out of the game. It didn’t ultimately matter, and the Warriors waltzed to a 33-point depantsing of Cleveland.
They did it, significantly, with defense instead of offense. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson went 4-for-12 from the arc in the first half and ended with 18 and 17 points, respectively. Draymond Green carried the offense through the first half, going 3-for-6 from distance and notching 18 points in just the first half, but it was the defense in the second half that stood out. The Warriors allowed 18 points in the third quarter and then just 15 in the fourth while scoring 30 and 28 in those quarters.
It’s often said that basketball is a game of runs, and while the Warriors had theirs – including a 20-2 run that started with Curry on the bench – the Cavaliers also had theirs, including 6-0 and 7-0 runs to close out the first and second quarters. But the Warriors make these runs feel less like pushback and more like the inhaled breath before concerted effort. They can’t hit on all cylinders at all times, so these runs will happen. But when Golden State looks like they did tonight, it’s Iron Man sloughing off bullets and missile fire.
It’s tempting to say that everything tonight turned on the injury to Kevin Love. In the second quarter, Love took an elbow from Harrison Barnes as Barnes flew in for a rebound.
Cavaliers’ Kevin Love elbowed in the back of the head pic.twitter.com/JwXMVNouzF
— Kenny Ducey (@KennyDucey) June 6, 2016
Love lay crumpled on the floor for the whole next play, and eventually went to the locker room where he was diagnosed with a concussion – a result that means he’ll be out until he fulfills the requirements of the NBA’s concussion protocol. He’s not definitively out for Wednesday’s game in Cleveland, but he’s far from guaranteed. The truth about Love, though, is that the Cavs weren’t looking all that great when he went down. They looked worse after, but the rest of the game made Love’s injury look more like the nail in the coffin than a turning point.
So what does that mean for the Cavaliers? And how do you bounce back from a 33-point drubbing?
Oddly, the Cavaliers looked better against the Warriors last year when they were a M.A.S.H. unit of injured players and subs playing over their heads than they have this year with a full-strength roster. Of course, Golden State are better this year than they were last, especially coming off a win-or-go-home stretch against the Oklahoma City Thunder that saw them winning three consecutive games when they needed it most.
But it’s possible that the Love injury is the kind of push the team needs to come together and disrupt their own gameplan and their opponents. So far, the Cavaliers simply haven’t exhibited any real chemistry, at least not in contrast to the Warriors. Based strictly on individual talent, does a bench of Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, Leandro Barbosa and Festus Ezeli seem inherently that much better than Richard Jefferson, Matthew Dellavedova, Iman Shumpert and Channing Frye? Iguodala likely gives Golden State the edge, but it doesn’t seem like it shouldn’t be close. Yet those four players for the Warriors were a +63, while those four for the Cavaliers were a -51. In fact, no player for Cleveland was a positive in plus-minus and no player for Golden State was a negative.
Whatever LeBron James is doing, it’s not enough, but it will have to be even more with Love out. In a sample size as small as a single series, it often comes down to those supporting players making that crucial contribution to keep an opponent at bay – performances like Barbosa’s 10-for-12 shooting through the first two games or Andrew Bogut blocking four shots in the first quarter of last night’s game after being basically unplayable in this same matchup last year.
The thing about those kind of performances is they come and go. It’s odd, but in the regular season, role players make their living on being dependable for x number of points or y number of rebounds, while the superstars explode occasionally for truly epic games. In the playoffs, the stars have to show up night in and night out – even in defeat James flirted with a triple-double with 19 points, eight rebounds and nine assists last night. It’s the role players who suddenly have to step up with big games, and that’s the precisely the kind of thing that Gregg Popovich is preparing his players for when he rests the starters.
Kerr might not have spent much time leaning on the bench in a season that ended with a historic 73 win total, but the supporting players on Golden State know their roles in a way that the same kind of players on Cleveland don’t. The series, though, is not over, no matter how impressive these first two wins have been for the Warriors. The old saying goes that it’s not a series until someone loses at home, but if Cleveland does just that on Wednesday, don’t look for the Warriors to come back to Oakland as anything other than champs.