OAKLAND, Calif. -- On Sunday night in Game 2 of the NBA Finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers didn't just lose. They didn't just stumble into a 2-0 series hole. Even pointing out the 110-77 beatdown doesn't do justice to what actually happened.
They got owned.
They didn't belong on the same floor.
The old joke, of course, is that when you say Steph Curry and the Warriors look like they're in a whole other league, some wise guy quips, Yeah, the Western Conference.
But in the joke sits the truth, or at least a good chunk of it. As do tough realities that add another burden to the back of LeBron James, his title hopes in Cleveland, and any chance this series doesn't continue exactly as it's begun.
As the Cavs rolled through the Eastern Conference, the idea got sexier and sexier: They're brimming with confidence, they're rested from two sweeps, they've found their three-point groove, LeBron was amazing last year and now he's got a healthy Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love to buttress this, his moment.
Hot, hot garbage.
Grit, gumption and a sense of how to fight, unite and survive when the real bombs start falling is a critical and overlooked part of NBA championship alchemy. Klay Thompson told us at the start of the Finals, but few listened, when he said, "I don't think anyone's going to be nervous out there like we were last year."
Or put this way: The Warriors know how to take punch after punch after punch. LeBron, and this Cavs team, were too soft, too unable to respond, too ready to be tilted and then tossed aside. Which, so far, is exactly what's happened. Even LeBron, who barely played (figuratively and literally) in the second half has had no real answers.
The Warriors aren't just great. They're able to understand and exploit the NBA Finals for the mind-game and street-fight that it is.
Because Golden State is a vastly better team than last year, despite a championship already in the ledger, with 73 wins, with all those doubters and naysayers and with the 3-1 series comeback against the Oklahoma City Thunder after too many wrote the Dubs off for dead.
All of that stuff I just mentioned isn't glitz, or moments that'll make for a good "30 For 30" 10 years from now, or even worthy accomplishments all by themselves. Most fundamentally, and from a basketball sense in terms of what will and won't happen on the floor during the 2016 NBA Finals, they are the things shaping this series.
The Warriors have been through the wars to get here. LeBron and his Cavs took a leisure walk through the decidedly weaker Eastern Conference (don't listen to anyone who tells you the East has become the stronger conference, or, for that matter, has even closed the gap in any meaningful way), and, based on their collective play and lack of togetherness in this series, apparently allowed themselves to believe that leisure walk was some kind of great victory. It wasn't. In truth, anything they supposedly proved in losing only two combined games to the Pistons, Hawks and Raptors is looking like, in the grander championship scheme, largely smoke and mirrors.
Let's start with the Cavaliers' three-point shooting. In their romp through the East, they were lights out. They were the Warriors on the other side of the bracket, or so people wanted you to believe.
But the Warriors aren't just a three-point shooting behemoth. They're also the NBA's second-best team at guarding the three-point shot.
Here's a look at the Cavs' three-point shots, from the first two series (when they made more threes per game than the Warriors did in the regular season) up until now. Note the mirage, as it disintegrates:
- First-round series against Detroit: 57-for-138, 41.3 percent.
- Second-round series against Atlanta: 77-for-152, 50.7 percent.
- Eastern Conference finals against Toronto: 68-for-175, 38.9 percent.
- Two games into these Finals: 12-of-44, 27 percent.
In each series preceding the Finals, they were better than their 36.2 percent mark in the regular season. But all this was -- and my point in mentioning it is -- that the Cavs' three-point shooting, like the Cavs themselves, was an illusion when confronted with Golden State.
Before this series, Cleveland had allowed 100 points in just three of its 14 playoff games. Over that span Cleveland held its opponents to an average of 94.3 points per game.
Voila! A defensive juggernaut!
In two games the Warriors have racked up 214 points. And in Sunday's game, Steph Curry played less than 25 minutes.
Before this series started, the Cavs scored 100 or more points in 12 of those 14 playoff games. In this series, they've put up 89 and 77 points.
Down the list it goes. The Cavaliers dominated the rebounding game throughout their march to face the Warriors, and now they're getting out-rebounded in this series 87-81. Their shooting percentage has cratered. Their intensity and toughness have dissipated. And with these things, poof, their confidence and swagger have drifted away like smoke.
Think about that: Cleveland, with maybe the most gifted player we've ever seen, came into the Finals firing on all cylinders, playing great defense, and despite a game where Steph Curry and Klay Thompson combined for 20 points (Game 1) and a game where those two guys combined for fewer than five minutes in the fourth quarter (Game 2, all Curry) Cleveland has become a shell of itself.
Which brings us back to LeBron James, and the role he must play. He was awful Sunday night: 7 of 17 for 19 points. Forget the 19-8-9 line that LeBron fans are waving like a plea for mercy. He's LeBron James. This, as they say, is his job, his moment.
While he didn't play in the fourth quarter (white flag time), in the third quarter he was just 2 of 5 with five points and more turnovers (3) than assists (2). That, of course, is far from taking over. Or even trying to take over.
This isn't meant to bash LeBron. It is merely to point out that the Cavaliers came to a gunfight with a knife. They -- like everyone else -- utterly underestimated not just who the Warriors are, but who the Cavs could be against them if they came in like this was Detroit, or Atlanta, or Toronto.
This series, of course, isn't over.
But the loss here at Oracle in Game 2 was the seventh-worst in Finals history, a fact befitting the truth that, unless LeBron James does something Chosen One-like, the historical level of domination is only going to deepen.