By John Schmeelk
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With Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving out, by all rights the Cavaliers should be down two games instead of heading back to Cleveland with home-court advantage.
With the Cavs having so few offensive options, scoring with their high-powered Western Conference opponent should be impossible. But there’s a catch: the Golden State Warriors are not scoring like the Golden State Warriors.
Whether it is Timofey Mozgov, Iman Shumpert, Tristan Thompson, or Matthew Dellavedova, of all people, the Cavaliers’ defense has been wonderful so far. Cleveland shot just 32 percent during Game 2 on Sunday night. I don’t have the numbers, but a team’s record in a NBA Finals game when shooting less than 35 percent must be terrible. But since the Warriors shot just 39.8 percent from the field, including just 22.8 percent from 3-point range (8-for-35), the Cavs were able to hang in the game before eventually pulling it out in overtime.
The big key has been pace. The Cavaliers have turned this series into a half-court affair, using their plodding isolations to take the Warriors out of their running style. With their inability to get out in transition, Golden State has found far fewer wide-open shots. Cleveland has also tried to work the ball inside much more than its opponent, getting to the free-throw line 15 more times and therefore preventing long rebounds and run-outs. The Cavs also out-rebounded the Warriors in Game 2, 55-45.
This is a strategy that is going to have to continue because it doesn’t look like the Cavs are going to be able to figure out a way to score anytime soon. As Knicks fans can attest, the moment a team needs J.R. Smith and/or Shumpert to do more than they are capable of, both players have the tendency to fall apart. They shot a combined 7-for-24 for just 10 points in Game 2.
Smith committed a number of bad fouls and defensive mistakes in the fourth quarter that allowed the Warriors to come back and send the game into overtime. Though Shumpert hit the one big overtime 3, other missed shots from behind the arc and in the paint nearly cost the Cavaliers the game. Shumpert did, however, deflect Stephen Curry’s pass on the final possession to clinch the win for Cleveland.
As the Cavaliers have gone through these playoffs, the Knicks have been viewed more and more as a national joke for trading away those two players for two second-round draft picks. But Sunday night showed why the Knicks did what they did. The Smith and Shumpert that showed up were showing up routinely for the Knicks for more than half a season. Those two players are fine if they are your fourth-, fifth- or sixth-best players. The Knicks were asking Smith to be their secondary scorer, and Shumpert to be a top three or four guy. Neither can do that, as they’ve shown with Cleveland now that Irving and Love are out.
LeBron James is going to have to continue the other-worldly task of carrying an entire offense on his back. He did it again Sunday night, but got enough help in the first half from his teammates moving without the ball to set up passing lanes to get them easy looks. James made a great move at the end of regulation to win the game, but couldn’t finish through contact. I wonder whether or not fatigue of carrying the team will become too much for James. Was his 11-for-35 shooting performance an early sign of that? With only one day off between Games 3 and 4, we’ll know better Tuesday night in Cleveland.
As for the Warriors, they need their MVP to play better. If Curry was named LeBron James he would be getting destroyed on talk radio across the country for the way he has played so far in this series. In Game 2, Curry shot a horrid 5-for-23, including 2-for-15 from behind the arc. He was pretty much shut down by Dellavedova. Curry simply has to play better, and if he does the Warriors can still win the next three games in this series.
In addition, Draymond Green has struggled offensively in this series, shooting a combined 6-for-20 with 22 points. Klay Thompson carried the offense on Sunday, as the Cavs struggle to find a good matchup for him. Shumpert and Smith have never been great at chasing shooters.
After averaging 110 points per game in the regular season on 48 percent from the floor and 39.8% from 3-point range, while averaging 27 assists per game, the Warriors have averaged a little more than 100 points per game in two overtime games in this series, while shooting 42 percent from the field and 29 percent from deep on just 20 assists per game. A lot of that can be attributed to Cleveland’s defense, but it has also been the result of bad Golden State shooting and offensive execution.
If the Cavaliers could ever figure out how win Game 3 at home, this series will take on a whole new outlook. Can their defense continue to slow down the best offensive machine in the NBA? Will the Warriors live or die by the 3? We’ll find out Tuesday.
Follow John on Twitter at @Schmeelk