This is a safe space. Here, you can feel free to admit that you had no idea how we got here, to a 2-1 Cavaliers lead through three games of the NBA Finals. You probably thought the Cavs couldn’t do it when Kevin Love became Kelly Olynyk’s personal Stretch Armstrong action figure. And you definitely thought the Cavs couldn’t do it when Kyrie Irving went down with a fractured kneecap in Game 1. Sure, they had LeBron, but at 30 and in his fifth straight Finals, how much damage could he possibly inflict on his own? People that now say they knew the Cavs would be up 2-1 under these circumstances are liars. It’s alright, you can admit you were wrong. We all were.
It had to be a sweep. Maybe a five-game series, if Cleveland stole one at home in front of an emotional crowd that would again be left disappointed and distraught, without a championship to call its own. The Warriors were just too good, had too many two-way weapons, to falter now. The Splash Brothers would knock down impossible three-pointers (though, who would guard them both, what with Irving’s injury?), Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut would impose their defensive will and the bench would supplement any of the empty spaces in an airtight rotation.
Losing two key offensive weapons against a 67-win Golden State team left J.R. Smith as Cleveland’s second-best scoring option. That sort of thing kind of worked for the 2012-’13 season, when the Knicks won 54 games, but that team is not this team. James Jones became the most consistent three-point shooter, and we know LeBron is at his most effective when he has spacing surrounding him. Iso-ball could not last against the Warriors.
So how do we explain what has happened through the first three games of this series? It flies in the face of analytics, and efficiency for both teams is at a season-low. The Warriors, who finished first in the league in defensive rating and second in offensive rating, suddenly became a college basketball team, chucking ill-advised threes and settling for long two-pointers instead of charging at the two-headed monster of Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov. After the first game, NBA MVP Steph Curry went Arctic from the field, and though Klay Thompson picked up enormous slack in Game 2, his 6-16, 14-point performance last night was wholly dissatisfying.
For all his defensive wizardry, Draymond Green has looked lost on offense, shooting 2-10 last night. Harrison Barnes has similarly fallen off the face of the Earth, going entirely scoreless and netting only one positive offensive statistic, his three offensive rebounds. When Steve Kerr put David Lee in the game, it looked more like a last gasp for air than a definitive adjustment – when was the last time anybody thought of David Lee as the key to the Warriors’ offense? – but it ended up paying off, particularly in pick-and-roll situations with Andre Iguodala, who accounts for Lee’s lacking defensive awareness on the other side in spots. Lee scored 11 points in 13 minutes off the bench, solidifying Golden State’s interior right when Curry began to hit his stride, and finished with a game-high plus-minus of +17. I have a feeling we’ll be seeing more of David Lee in Game 4, and earlier, as a way of combating Cleveland’s big men.
A word, for a moment, on the officiating: in every game of every sport, there are bound to be missed and blown calls, rulings which affect the flow and, possibly, the outcome of the game. We tend to amplify such calls when they a) involve the sport’s biggest stars b) on the biggest stage, when a championship is on the line. Yes, star calls are a real thing, and stars tend to get the benefit of the doubt. Make-up calls exist as well, for less egregious offenses happening after a missed call earlier in a game. This is reality, and we would all be better off if we acknowledged that sometimes things happen beyond our control, and though everyone is getting better at compliance, there are still cracks through which to slip.
Game 3 was a microcosm of what this series has been up to this point: the Warriors, appearing as yellow rather than gold, and the Cavaliers, shining far beyond their given means. Before, LeBron was the leader of another Big Three, gaming the system to his advantage in order to line up and knock down easy championships – as if such a thing exists – like they were bowling pins. Now, he is the King of the Grit Squad, Leonidas trapped in Thermopylae with a battered army and J.R. Smith.
Watching him operate under these circumstances has been nothing short of breathtaking, even for the legions of detractors hiding anonymously behind eggs on the Internet. His 40 points in Game 3 lowered (!) his series average, yet his stats remain almost unfathomable: 41 points, 12 rebounds and 8 assists per game, including the most points ever scored through the first three games of an NBA Finals. For all the vitriol a phrase like the following might inspire, Jordan never did that.
But, again, bringing up Michael Jordan with regard to LeBron right now is merely fodder for trolls and, frankly, idiotic, at least until the series finishes. Remember for a moment that the Cavs of a version before – the one with Kyrie Irving – was a drive and an Iman Shumpert so-near-as-to-be-touching-the-sun-miss from being up 3-0. Though, even that loses context when one considers the impact Matthew Dellavedova has had on Steph Curry’s shooting. Fellow TwH writer Tyler Lauletta brought up this interesting point, one which others are debating this morning across social media platforms near you:
Here is the full explanation from Bill Simmons himself, but essentially, the Ewing Theory boils down to a team losing star players and then being written off as hopeless. The original theory posits merely losing one player, however, whereas this Cleveland team has lost its entire starting lineup from the beginning of the season, and only Dion Waiters is not actually on the roster anymore. Anything is possible, even a Shawn Marion sighting.
We’re only three games into what has the potential to be the Greatest Finals Ever™. What LeBron is doing with this team of spare parts and broken pieces is superhuman, and anyone left criticizing him now is foolish, misguided or maybe just doesn’t know what basketball is. Which, for the moment, is perfectly alright, because the very foundation of the sport is being rocked every single game. It could very well end up being that the Warriors find themselves, that David Lee lives up to his contract, and that Cleveland buckles under the weight of expectation and Thibodeau-like minute counts. For the moment, however, Cleveland rocks.