Cavs-Warriors NBA Finals reset: Can Cleveland pull off the unthinkable again?
There's no way the Warriors really blow another huge lead two years in a row, right?
OK, let's take a deep breath and a step back.
The Cleveland Cavaliers' 137-116 victory over the Golden State Warriors in Game 4 of the NBA Finals shook the landscape. Had the Cavs won Game 3, it wouldn't have been quite so jarring. Had Game 4 not been so dramatic, controversial and explosive, it wouldn't feel like things had realigned. But somehow, someway, the Warriors find themselves up -- you guessed it -- 3-1 headed into Monday's Game 5 at Oracle Arena.
Let's get a grip on this series.
What is ...
Cleveland's tone after Game 4 seemed like anger and frustration, as opposed to relief or staying alive. The Cavs are still angry at losing Game 3 -- a tight game Cleveland could not close out despite plenty of chances. The Cavs feel this thing should be 2-2. The Cavaliers have hope for another miracle, but if the Warriors win Game 5, then Game 3 will be the one that got away.
There is now a tone of defiance that was missing. It seems the Cavs never truly respond until they absolutely must. If being down 3-1 was a worst-case scenario last year, they topped it. But instead submitting, the Cavaliers kicked out. Again.
The Cavaliers seemed to come out in Game 4 with the following mindset: "Let's throw up some shots, and if they fall, great, and if not, well, we're down 3-0." And then J.R. Smith got going and Kyrie Irving started dropping shots, and once LeBron James knew his teammates were there, he was locked in. If the Warriors win in five, it becomes a blip. But the Warriors had better win in five, because down 3-1, the Cavaliers are not lacking in confidence.
Golden State insistence
There are two ways to read how the Warriors reacted after Game 4.
- They know it took a series of disasters to lose Game 4 and once they get back to Oracle, they'll be fine. This isn't last year's team.
- Man, do they not want to go through another 3-1 collapse again.
There was a mix of confidence and apprehension when listening to the Warriors talk after their first playoff loss. They have Kevin Durant, this is a better team, they were up 3-0, not 3-1 and they lost their first game since April 10 on Friday. But "we won't collapse, we're the better team" is couched by the way they lost last year. LeBron said this week the Warriors have been the best team in the league the past three years, and he's not wrong. But Cavs still beat them last year when the Warriors imploded. With the techs and nonsense that went on in Game 4, a bit of that strain has been introduced.
Durant figures to be the difference, though Durant also suffered a 3-1 collapse last year -- to the team he plays for now. But if the Warriors just have an average game from Durant, and an average game from Curry, they can secure this in five.
The shooting situation
"I can't see them hitting 24 3-pointers in Oracle," Draymond Green said after Game 3, and the numbers say he's right. The Cavaliers hit that NBA Finals record number of shots from deep in Game 4. But the Cavaliers have shot poorly from deep overall. They went into Game 4 shooting 34.7 percent from downtown in this series, compared to 38 percent in the regular season. But in the playoffs, they've shot 41.8 percent from beyond the arc. You can read that as they've underperformed and are warming up, or that Game 4 was an outlier.
The Warriors' defense has a lot to do with this. They're one of the best teams in the league at limiting and contesting 3-pointers, which is why it was shocking that so many instances like this happened in Game 4:
The Warriors have to clean up a lot, and they can. But if the Cavaliers keep their shooters going, it changes the complexion of this series.
Let's talk about LeBron's greatness
James has four 30-point triple-doubles in Finals history, three more than any player.
It is important to note, given the way Kevin Love has struggled with the Cavaliers -- specifically against the Warriors -- that Love has played very well at both ends of the floor. Love has averaged 19 points and 12 rebounds with three steals (!) this series. And he was explosive in Games 2 and 4, though he faltered in Game 3 and it cost Cleveland. His play has been much more stable and consistent on both ends of the floor than Irving.
With Love and James on the floor, Cleveland's defense has been 3.2 points per 100 possessions better than with James on the floor without Love. The overall point differential is worse, which mostly gets back to the other Cavaliers (especially Irving) struggling to shoot in the first three games.
Love has had the best season of his career and has been Cleveland's second-best player in this series.
What was ...
Some highlights surrounding Game 4:
- LeBron .
- Durant and James, who once collaborated on a mixtape, got in each other's face.
- Draymond and it was all confusing, especially if you were at the game.
- Zaza Pachulia .
- The Cavaliers set a record for 3-pointers against one of the best defenses in the league.
- Smith hit a shot from somewhere near the middle of the lake.
- Durant had 35 points and did not play particularly well.
- Tristan Thompson had more assists than Green.
- In a game the Warriors lost by 21, Andre Iguodala was a plus-10.
- Shaun Livingston and Patrick McCaw combined for as many shots as Stephen Curry.
- The Cavaliers had 18 points off turnovers.
- The Warriors had only nine fast-break points.
- The Warriors blew their chance at history for the second-straight year, this time losing a shot at 16-0.
If the Warriors win Game 5, Game 4 is just a memorable game.
What will be ...
Both teams can play better. The Cavs did not play up to their standard the first two games and lost a winnable Game 3, which is why they are so confident. But a lot of things had to go wrong for the Warriors to lose Game 4.
For Golden State:
The Warriors have to go out and take this game. Steve Kerr even wore his "Super Villains" t-shirt to Sunday's news conference, perhaps to drive home the point.
Green needs to play better. Love has scored on him, and Green has missed shots and he has not had his usual impact. He wasn't going to shoot 47 percent from 3-point range forever, as he did through the playoff before the Finals. While that regression was to be expected, he has more to give.
Curry has had his best postseason yet, and going into Game 4 there was a strong case for Curry as the Finals MVP. Durant has been better, Curry has had more impact. But he vanished in Game 4, and it's not the first time that's happened. It's time to start getting him in situations to cook 1-on-1. Irving is a bad defender, but Curry never gets to exploit that because the Warriors use so many screens which allows the Cavs to switch and get better defenders on him. Meanwhile, Irving has burned Curry in one-one-one situations. Curry and Irving are capable of the same level of defense, Curry just gives way better effort.
The Warriors need to allow Curry to dominate on-ball, especially when he has the advantage. If they're going to close this thing out, it's going to be on the back of Curry. Durant's 35 points in Game 4 are indicative of that.
Defensively, they should keep the same approach. They've been wearing down the Cavs who play so much one-one-one ball, and it worked three games. Klay Thompson has played great defense on Irving. It's just that Irving made his shots in Games 3 and 4, which is going happen from time to time. Maintain the same approach.
For the Cavaliers:
Thompson's resurgence is huge. When he's getting loose balls and then flinging passes to Love in the corner with the defense scrambled, that's great offense. When he's containing inside, that's great defense.
James has been superb offensively, and he picked it up defensively in Games 3 and 4, but looked worn out by the end of Game 4. The Cavs cannot survive without him. They are a minus-26 in raw plus-minus with him on the bench and a plus-6 with him on the floor -- even after he was plus-30 in Game 4 (his highest in Finals history, by the way). He's just going to have to go the whole way and hope he has enough gas.
The Cavs. He needs to make shots. He has to stay aggressive and hope his (honestly pretty low-percentage) shots fall. Irving is a special scoring talent, so it's not that these shots are bad for him, they're just hard to hit at a sustainable rate. They need him to have huge scoring performances in every game going forward.
It going to come down to the Cavs hitting 3-pointers. While they don't need to hit 24 again, they better hit 18-plus in Oracle, or they'll sink. If they hit 3s and if their defense continues to play well, they can keep swimming.
It's worth noting how wild it is that we keep talking about how their defense is playing well while the Warriors hold a 115.4 offensive rating, but that's the truth. The Cavaliers played bad defensively in Game 1, but have played pretty well since. The Warriors just have so many weapons, so it's all about relative performance.
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