After Golden State’s grueling Western Conference finals series with Oklahoma City, there was no mystery about how a team COULD go about beating the Warriors. The formula was plain: Crush them on the offensive glass, force turnovers (they are susceptible to turnovers), and make some 3-point shots.
It’s not a fool-proof plan, of course, because even if you do all those things right, well, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson are transcendent players who, on any given night, can simply shoot Golden State out of danger and into glory.
Still, the blueprint for beating the greatest regular-season team in NBA history was publicly unveiled. If the Thunder had made just a few more 3-pointers it’s almost certain that they, not the Warriors, would be booming in the Finals.
The question for LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals then is simply this: Are you good enough to execute the plan? The first two games, they were very clearly not. There wasn’t a moment of the first 96 minutes of this series when the Cavaliers seemed on the same level as Golden State.
And then came Game 3, and suddenly the Cavaliers had the plan down.
Crush them on the offensive glass? Check — the Cavs got 17 offensive rebounds, out-rebounded Golden State by 20 in total.
Force turnovers? Check. Golden State had 18 turnovers and just seemed discombobulated all night long.
Make some 3-pointers? Check. Cleveland made 12 — their 3-point gunner J.R. Smith awoke from his slumber to make five of those.
And after executing all that, winning was the easy part. The Cavaliers beat Golden State by 30, the first time the Warriors have lost by that much since an off night in Portland back in February. It was such an overwhelming destruction that even when Curry, the unanimous MVP, tried to make a harmless layup during a timeout break after a foul, James jumped up and swatted the ball away. No sir. Not on this night. Not even if it doesn’t count.
When it ended, the only thing to ask was: Was this real?
Who knows? Basketball is such a weird game these days. In the last two series, Golden State has won six games and lost four. The average margin of victory and defeat? Seventeen points. None of the games really came down to the final minute. Cleveland has won five games and lost four, and the average margin in those games is an even more ridiculous 24 points. None of the games really came down to the final minute. What gives? Where have all the close games gone?
One possible explanation for the wicked disparity in games is that 3-point shooting has come to overpower the rest of the game, and the team that shoots the long-range shots the best on any given night tends to run away. In Game 2, Golden State made 15 3-pointers, Cleveland made five, and that 30-point difference more or less matched the final score difference of 33.
In Game 3, however, Golden State shot just 27 percent from 3-point range (the Cavaliers made 48 percent of theirs). All those misses lead to long rebounds and, as we know, Cleveland got the vast majority of those (the Warriors managed just eight offensive rebounds all night). That combination spelled doom for Golden State.
But there is something else. Every night, it seems, one team just plays with more energy than the other. Golden State played the first two games with fury, switching aggressively on defense, going predator-style after loose balls, pushing the Cavaliers around. Meanwhile, Cleveland seemed to be sleepwalking.
J.R. Smith has been the touchstone of the series. In Games 1 and 2, he shot the ball nine times total. Nine. Anyone who has watched Smith play basketball through the years knows that it would normally take something biblical like a plague of locusts to get the guy to shoot that rarely. This is a man who has shot FOUR THOUSAND 3-pointers over the last 10 years, far and away the most in the NBA.
And yet — he wouldn’t shoot the ball. It was plain weird.
Then, in Game 3, he was J.R. Smith again, firing up long shots with abandon. He tried 10 3-pointers (11 if you count the halfcourt shot he nailed just after the buzzer). Now, what happened there? Was Golden State’s defense looser in Game 3? Undoubtedly. But let’s be blunt: Smith was never one to let tight defense discourage him. He could be in one of those old vaudeville gag cars that seem to hold a hundred clowns and still think he was open. For some reason, he just didn’t have much life in Games 1 and 2. He was full of life in Game 3.
The reverse is true of Curry. He only played 25 minutes in Game 2 and it was not exactly a memorable Steph game — he only scored 18 points, had four turnovers and four fouls. But he was high-energy, in the flow, he made four of eight 3’s, and he grabbed nine rebounds, and he dished four assists. The team was plus-25 when he was on the floor.
In Game 3, he seemed sickly. His decision-making was so shaky that he was actually benched for a moment. His six turnovers could have been 10 if the ball had bounced differently. He had a face-saving third quarter where he made a few shots, but that first half he looked just about as lifeless and helpless as a great player can look.
How do we get such wildly divergent games? The home crowd undoubtedly helps boost a team’s energy. A sense of desperation helps too — Cleveland had to win on Wednesday night just to keep the series interesting. Golden State, at least for the moment, is playing with house money.
Much of it, though, remains mysterious. Matchups? Sure. A lot will be made of the fact that Kevin Love did not play for Cleveland on Wednesday — he suffered a concussion in Game 2. Was Love’s absence a net positive for Cleveland? Many think so. The move pressed Cavs coach Tyronn Lue to start Richard Jefferson, who is a better defender than Love and someone who doesn’t take up nearly as much oxygen in the Cavaliers offense. Basketball is a game of match-ups and it’s certainly possible that Love’s various strengths and weaknesses do not match up well against Golden State.
And a lot will be made of Steve Kerr’s decision to start center Andrew Bogut, who was minus-21 in just 12 minutes.
You wonder if maybe Love and Bogut will just play one-one-one outside while Game 4 is going on.
But, in the end, forgetting the crowd and the matchups and all that, the Cavaliers were just a different team with a different vibrancy on Wednesday … and so were the Warriors. Was it an anomaly? A trend? Who knows?
Then, it’s the same story, game after game in these playoffs. One team pushes to a higher level of energy, and the other simply cannot rise up to meet it. We’ve seen it again and again, blowout after blowout. There is a lot of emotion swirling around Game 4. The Warriors (you expect) will be fully activated. The Cavaliers will be at home and will know what needs to be done.
This intersection could give us, gasp, a good game. Dare to dream.