If the series opener of the NBA Finals showed how much impact the best player in the world can have when he’s at his peak, Game 2 exhibited just how demoralising the best team in the world can feel when they’re clicking.
Golden State didn’t need Cleveland to shoot themselves in the foot or have to pull it out in overtime this night as they took the initiative by playing their brand of basketball and playing it well.
The Warriors were hyper-efficient scoring the ball on one end of the floor, while on the other they forced players not named LeBron James to beat them, which the Cavaliers couldn’t do for the most part.
Of all people, JaVale McGee set the tone after Golden State coach Steve Kerr inserted him into the starting lineup over Kevon Looney.
The change didn’t improve the floor spacing from a conventional sense, but McGee’s ability as a roll man burned Cleveland over and over again as they struggled to stop his dives to the rim after he set a screen for the ball-handler. McGee had the first two buckets of the game off dunks and finished a perfect 6-of-6 for 12 points.
His defence was also significant as his length provided more rim protection and made life a little bit harder for James on drives.
The Warriors’ defence as a whole was much better than in Game 1, when James ran roughshod on them for 51 points and torched in isolations. This time around, Golden State weren’t shy about doubling and bringing their help defenders a step or two closer to the paint to deter James’ drives. For almost every other team, that strategy would potentially backfire, but because the Warriors have so much collective length, they can bother James while also rotating quick enough to run the Cavaliers off the 3-point line or contest their looks from deep.
Offensively, Golden State couldn’t have shot better as they hit 57.3 per cent from the field and 15-of-36 from beyond the arc. Stephen Curry was unconscious towards the end and finished with an NBA Finals record nine 3-pointers, but even outside of him, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Shaun Livingston and McGee were a combined 29-of-38.
Such is life against the Warriors that when they’re on, they’re really on, and that can leave opponents feeling defeated. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter how well you play on defence because one of Golden State’s deadly shooters can make it a moot point with a difficult make, like Curry did with his ridiculous 28-foot fadeaway over Kevin Love in the fourth quarter.
Cleveland can take some solace in the fact they were within reach for most of the game despite taking the Warriors’ best shot on the chin. But unless James’ supporting cast plays better, it won’t matter.
LeBron gets little help agian
With the way Golden State’s defence was geared to slow down James in Game 2, that put even more pressure on his teammates to step up as many more possessions ended with them shooting.
George Hill came out with an attacking mindset and had 12 points in the first half, but was just 1-of-4 after the intermission as his aggressiveness seemed to fizzle out.
Love, meanwhile, topped 20 points again but was 7-of-18 from the field as he left makeable shots on the court for the second straight game.
After catching so much heat for costing the Cavaliers in the series opener, J.R. Smith carried over his struggles into Game 2 as he had five points on 2-of-9 shooting.
Through two games, Cleveland are 8-of-32 on 3-pointers off James’ passes, including 5-of-16 on uncontested looks, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Role players typically perform better at home in the playoffs, so the Cavaliers will hope their shooting woes turn around when the series shifts to Quicken Loans Arena for Game 3 and 4.
Otherwise, there won’t be any need for Cleveland to return to the Bay Area.
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Stephen Curry hit a Finals record nine 3-pointers and had 16 of his 33 points in a scintillating fourth quarter to cap off a strong showing by the Warriors as a whole.
LeBron James, meanwhile, didn’t come close to matching his 51 points from Game 1, but had another near triple-double.
Here are player grades for both teams.
Golden State Warriors
Stephen Curry – Was scorching the nets with ease from beyond the arc near the end, when he was in one of his unstoppable zones. A
Klay Thompson – Didn’t look at all bothered by the high ankle sprain he suffered in Game 1 and contributed 20 points. B+
Kevin Durant – Wasn’t the focus of the offence but took his opportunities when they were there to shoot an efficient 10-of-14. A
Draymond Green – His defence on LeBron was exemplary and he did his usual playmaking as the trigger man on the other end. B+
JaVale McGee – Was a difference-maker in his 18 minutes as the roll man, while his length provided rim protection on defence. A-
Shaun Livingston – Still hasn’t missed a shot in the series after hitting all five of his attempts off the bench in Game 2. B+
David West – Did some of the dirty work but also hit a corner 3-pointer for some found money. B
Jordan Bell – Was solid off the bench in his 11 minutes to hold down the fort while the starters got a breather. B-
Nick Young – He let it fly in his 14 minutes but was 0-of-5 from the field, including misses on all four his triples. C-
George Hill – Started the game with an aggressive mindset but his offensive impact faded as the night went on. B+
J.R. Smith – Didn’t make up for his costly blunder at the end of Game 1 as he missed several open shots to finish 2-of-9. D+
LeBron James – Had a tougher time scoring than in the opener but was fantastic at finding his teammates, who could have done more. A-
Kevin Love – Even though he had 22 points, Love shot inefficiently again and was burned several times on the other end. B
Tristan Thompson – Was much better as a finisher than in Game 1 and did his part by chipping in 11 points. B+
Jeff Green – It was another rough game for Green, who seemed allergic to catch-and-shoot chances. C-
Larry Nance Jr – Provided some energy off the bench but also got cooked several times by Curry in switches. C
Kyle Korver – Didn’t make a single shot and was tied with James with a team-worst plus-minus of minus-18. D+
Jordan Clarkson – He’s nearly unplayable right now and Tyronn Lue decided to barely use him after a bad start. D
LeBron James may not be able to play any better than he did in the opener of the NBA Finals, but the rest of the Cleveland Cavaliers certainly can – and that should give them some optimism heading into Game 2.
There was a sense after Cleveland fell in overtime of Game 1 despite James’ 51 points that the Cavaliers had wasted a masterpiece by their leader and that winning in the rest of the series will only become harder.
While they definitely let the Golden State Warriors wriggle out of their grasp – in large part due to George Hill’s missed free throw and J.R. Smith forgetting the score in the final seconds of regulation – Cleveland showed enough to suggest the series may not be as lopsided as originally thought.
“Listen, we’re not broken. We lost a game,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said. “You got to win four in this series. We understand that and it was a tough game for us. We played well enough to win but we didn’t, so now we’ve got to move on.
“They guys’ confidence is not shaken. We see what we need to do and how we need to perform to win. We have the blueprint and now we need to execute at a higher level.”
Though it was largely the work of James, the Cavaliers offence managed to keep up with Golden State’s prolific attack in spite of an off shooting night.
Cleveland shot just 10-of-37 from long range, including 2-of-12 on open 3-pointers (closest defender is within 4-6 feet) and 6-of-20 on wide-open looks (closest defender is 6-plus feet away). It’s not like the Warriors also struggled to hit shots they normally make as they were 6-of-15 on both those types of looks.
Throughout the playoffs – and all season – 3-point variance has been a barometer for the Cavaliers’ success. They’ve made 37.7 per cent from deep in their 12 playoff wins and 27.2 per cent in seven losses as their nights have often come down to one simple question: are they hitting shots or not?
The shot opportunities will continue to be there as long as James is around and especially if he continues to attack like he did in Game 1, when he took a page out of the Houston Rockets’ playbook and heavily utilised isolations. According to Second Spectrum, James had 28 direction isolations and 30 direct drives in Game 1 – seven and nine more, respectively, than he’s had in any game over the last three seasons (including playoffs).
James is going to be aggressive, that much is known. Golden State will have to choose between sending extra help defenders his way to slow down his scoring, which will open up shots for his team-mates, or to let him keep feasting.
Looking ahead to Sunday...— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 1, 2018
LeBron James has scored at least 40 points in all 3 of the Cavaliers' Game 2s this postseason.
He has scored nearly as many points (131) as the rest of the Cleveland starters combined (135). pic.twitter.com/WLFWQ7uOtK
Though James may not have to play better than he did in Game 1 for Cleveland to win, Lue isn’t putting any limits on his superstar.
“I hope so,” Lue said with a laugh when asked if James can be better. “I know it’s asking a lot, but we need him to lead by example, being aggressive, attacking the basket, and we know they’re going to come and help [on defense]. They’re a helping team and guys are going to get shots. If you don’t have a shot, put it on the floor and make another play. He did that last night and he’s got to keep it up.”
As disappointing as the end of Game 1 was for the Cavaliers, they’re still in position to shift the balance of power by stealing one on the road before the series moves to Cleveland.
One game in, they’ve already proven they can hang with the defending champions. Translating that to a win is the next step.