This time a year ago I started writing my Cleveland Cavaliers season obituary. The Cavaliers were down 2-0 in the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors. They shot under 40% from the field in the first two games, and the most any Cavalier had scored in either of the games was Kyrie Irving with 26 on 7-of-22 shooting in Game 1. The Cavaliers seemed listless, and I didn’t want to give up hope, but I just couldn’t believe that what I had seen in the first two games would change. Here we are again a year later, and the Cavaliers are facing a two-game hole against the same Warriors (well, plus Kevin Durant). Maybe I’m a prisoner of this moment, but this doesn’t feel the same at all.
The Cavaliers played pretty poorly in Game 1 when the Warriors blew it open in the third quarter on their way to a 113-91 win. They outscored the Cavaliers by 13 in that quarter alone, and that’s where the game was lost. The Cavaliers shot about 35% from the field and just over 35% from three. The Cavaliers could play far better. While Game 2 was far from perfect, the Cavaliers did play reasonably well and still found themselves on the wrong end of a lopsided score.
LeBron James went 12-for-18 from the field and scored a 29-11-14 triple double while committing just four turnovers. Kyrie Irving struggled a bit going 8-for-23 from the field, but Kevin Love was really good with 27 points on 12-for-23 shooting. The Cavs put up a respectable 113, and the big issue was that they shot only 27.6% from three. Still, it was a marked improvement over Game 1, but the Cavaliers still turned a three-point halftime deficit into a 14-point deficit to begin the fourth quarter.
The Cavaliers can play better, but I’m unsure if the Golden State Warriors are capable of playing worse. That’s not to say they played poorly. Quite the contrary. The Golden State Warriors are playing phenomenal basketball, and if it were any other team, I’d be looking for a regression to the mean. It’s just so hard to imagine happening to these Warriors with the names we grew to detest so roundly over the past two years and the addition of one of the top two basketball players on the planet, Kevin Durant.
Despite playing on a team with a unanimous MVP, Kevin Durant has played the most minutes of any Golden State starter in the first two games of the Finals. He’s scored more than 70 points while playing the kind of defense that both shows up in the box score and is simultaneously understated by mere statistics. He had five blocks in Game 2, but if you told me he had 17 after the game, I might have believed it.
It feels like the Cavaliers did a better job on Durant in Game 2 when they fed him a steady diet of Iman Shumpert, but he still dropped 33 points while putting up an offensive rating of 133 for the game. His defensive rating was an impressive 93. By contrast, LeBron’s offensive rating for Game 2 was a healthy 131, while his defensive rating was 117.
It’s tempting to compare this year to last year and insist that everything’s not lost yet, but this feels different. The Cavaliers have a chance to turn things around if Kyrie Irving catches fire and looks more like the Kyrie Irving who can single-handedly win a playoff game. The Cavaliers have a chance if their bench and role players become more effective at home, which isn’t outside the realm of possibility. A year ago, J.R. Smith’s best games of the Finals came at home in Game 3 and Game 6. In addition to Smith, the Cavaliers could potentially get a crazy shooting game from Kyle Korver.
LeBron James is the best damn basketball player on earth. It’s just the Golden State Warriors with Kevin Durant might not only be the best damn basketball team on earth, and the first two games of the NBA Finals offered no glimpse of anything different. I’ll stop short of beginning to write any obituary for the Cavaliers because I’ve experienced the Cavaliers defying the odds. Even with that acknowledgment, this year does not compare to last year as an inspiration of hope. The Cavaliers are in the same position they were a year ago when they won the title. However, this is a totally different animal. It’s still possible that the Cavaliers will defy the odds and find a way to beat the Warriors four times over the next five games and keep the crown in Cleveland. If they do, it will be even more impressive than erasing a 3-1 lead like they did a year ago.