Even in the midst of hanging a massive L on the Golden State Warriors in Game 3, the Cleveland Cavaliers gave a preview of what would ultimately be their undoing in Game 4: After a scorching first quarter, they lost the second quarter of that game 27-18 as the wheels of their offense ground into a parade of isos and standing around watching. Cleveland's been most threatening to Golden State when they've been flying at them on defense and then turning that energy into movement on the offensive side of the ball. Game 4 reminded us just how hard it is to keep that kind of work up game after game.
Now of course, Steph Curry showing up big with 38 points after slumping his way through the first three games was important. Andre Iguodala reverting back to last year's Finals MVP form in the fourth, where he stopped everyone and rebounded everything helped. Draymond Green whacking James in the LeBrons without somehow getting ejected (and receiving an automatic suspension in kind) helped, especially given how unhinged James looked for the rest of the game. But when all those things started happening, when Golden State got on a 12-1 run early in the fourth quarter, Cleveland fell back into bad habits just as they did in the second quarter two nights ago. Kyrie Irving taking contested 3-pointers with just a few seconds gone on the shot clock. James setting up for a drive while everyone else stood around.
Head coach Tyronn Lue has to bear some responsibility for it, not just in terms of what he was calling but in the decision to play Irving and James the entire second half. James, in fact, played all but 2:26 of the game, while Curry caught a key breather to start the fourth. As Curry found his rhythm down the stretch – his 38 was one more than the 37 he'd scored in the last two games combined, plus his seven 3-pointers made up the bulk of the Finals record-setting 17 3-pointers the Warriors made – he and LeBron started getting into it.
Referee between Steph & LeBron looks like he's watching a tennis match https://t.co/e99iFyR4s7— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) June 11, 2016
It was, frankly, unnerving to see James this rattled. Through all the ups and downs of his career, he's never been a heart-on-sleeve player, always appearing as though he sees himself and what he does from a third-person perspective. When he's faltered, as with The Decision, it wasn't because he didn't see what he was doing, but just that he saw it from the wrong angle. But in the wake of Green's busy hands and the Cavaliers' protracted slump to the finish line, James looked genuinely peeved. Miffed, even. Instead of seeing himself, of seeing how he could return to Cleveland and end their decades of postseason suffering, he was maybe seeing the Cavs and the Warriors as they are for the first time.
Cleveland poured so much into that third game, put so much into defending Curry and knocking him off his already unsteady game. Perhaps James & Co. were hoping that the stories the NBA veterans had been spinning about the Warriors were true: They were soft, a jumpshooting team that couldn't take one real, hard shot to the chops. But as the fourth quarter of the fourth game opened, LeBron saw them come roaring back to life after they scratched and bit their way back into the game in the third.
And I say scratched and bit because much of the spark that got Golden State going in the third came from Anderson Varejao, the first NBA player to play for both the teams in the Finals in that same season. Varejao – who was traded by Cleveland to Portland before being waived and signed by the Warriors – has mostly looked like a liability in the playoffs. When he came in with 4:07 remaining in the third, the Warriors had just broken a tie with a Curry 3-pointer, but in a single possession that lasted 70 seconds, Varejao corralled two rebounds to keep it alive. The Cavaliers didn't exactly die on that possession, but it wouldn't be a reach to say that was the wound that eventually bled out for them.
Although Cleveland would take the lead a few times after that, there was clear momentum building in Golden State's favor as they began to suddenly look a lot more like the team that won 73 games in the regular season and less like the one that seemed shockingly gun shy, even at times in this game when Draymond Green passed up wide open 3-pointers. The ball began to snap and the Cavs looked spent.
By the end of the night, people were Photoshopping Steph Curry's widely-lambasted "Chefs" (which honestly look kinda like something a chef cooking up 75 tilapias to feed wedding guests might wear) onto LeBron's face.
They were calling Warriors in 5. They were having a grand old time. But if the league somehow sees fit to hand out a retroactive flagrant for Green's nutshot, it could change the complexion of Game 5 mightily. Some of the chippiness of the game toward the game has to be hung on the referees, who called an inconsistent game overall. At first, it seemed like there were a lot of calls, then too many and then suddenly not enough, as Andre Iguodala launched a 3-pointer to end the first half where he clearly got fouled by J.R. Smith and the ref swallowed his whistle. In the second half, they seemed loathe to call anything, and that set the stage for Green's shenanigans to go unchecked. That kind of constant dial twirling by the refs in terms of how closely they're calling the game can preoccupy the players and for a heel like Green, it's an invitation to test the boundaries.
Golden State has shown that it can get by in stretches without Curry – they do have, after all, probably the game's second best 3-point shooter at the other guard position – but it's not entirely clear what they would be like without Green. Tristan Thompson feasted on the offensive glass once again, only tailing off when the ball stopped moving down the stretch because good motion creates those openings and mismatches that allow Thompson to get those second chance points.
If Green is gone for Game 5, the Warriors' championship will be far from a fait accompli, no matter how sweet it would be to win that last game on their home floor.