The balance in these NBA Finals had seemed to fracture along with Kyrie Irving’s kneecap in the closing moments of Game 1. Irving had been crucial in smoothing out the deficiencies of a shallow Cleveland team. To win an NBA Finals series without him at the expense of Golden State seemed too outrageous an ask, even while the best basketball player in the world wore wine and gold.
LeBron James (39 points, 16 rebounds, 11 assists) and his teammates still have miles to go before claiming the title as their own. Yet on Sunday came their first significant act of defiance: An inconceivable, overtime win just when the Cavaliers’ circumstances seemed their most dire. This game looked first to be a likely rout of a team undercut by injury, and later an ill-fated collapse as the Warriors started slow and rallied back. It instead revealed itself to be a tribute to Cleveland’s mettle: 53 minutes of valiant basketball by a team that had already taken a punch in the gut with Irving’s fall. The Cavaliers built leads and lost them, put themselves in winning position and then played foolishly. Still they worked their way to a cathartic 95–93 win as James matched the sound of the buzzer with his own blaring scream.
The execution in Game 2 was far from pristine. Then again, beautiful basketball is the luxury of a healthier, more talented team. The current, injured Cavs can only scrape. They’re at their best when turning idyllic basketball to pulp—gumming it up and grinding it down until its form is barely recognizable. It was that level of control that gave Cleveland any chance at all to win on Sunday. One of the best offenses in the league was deprived of its trademark pace and rhythm, and from that came a margin winnable for even these shorthanded Cavs.
"It's the grit squad that we have. It's not cute at all. If you're looking for us to play sexy, cute basketball, it's not us," James said after the game.
Matthew Dellavedova, once a Cleveland benchwarmer, played himself to exhaustion in 43 minutes. His coverage of Stephen Curry (19 points, 5-of-23 shooting, 2-of-15 from deep, five assists, six turnovers) and stubborn physicality in defending the post were essential. Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson alternatingly anchored the paint for the Cavaliers to incredible success. Even Klay Thompson’s 34 points—many of which he had to create for himself—seemed strained at times. The Cavs to a man were wonderful on defense to the point that J.R. Smith’s late-game blunders on that end seemed uncharacteristic and fatal. Somehow, Cleveland survived those errors and more while shooting a painful 32.6% from the field.
What the Cavs lacked for efficiency they compensated for in variety. Rather than club the Warriors from the left block for possessions on end, Cleveland unleashed James into a broader dynamism for Game 2. James is a perpetual mismatch in the post. Yet with the isolated manner in which Golden State had opted to defend him to start the series, he was forced to grind against quality defenders for difficult points. Iso LeBron may get buckets, but the version at work for long stretches of Game 2 gives life within the offense to players like Mozgov and James Jones. Cleveland doesn’t win if not for James wringing more value from what remains of this playing rotation.
There is no mathematical framework by which the sum of the Cavs’ parts spells out a Game 2 victory. Jones should not be a pivot point in the NBA season’s most important series. Dellavedova, while impressive and unflappable, shouldn’t be commanding this kind of an outsized role. Smith and Shumpert went a combined 3-of-10 from three-point range and Thompson was held to just two points from two free throws as a result of intentional fouling. James is so good that he smears the logical ceiling of what this team should be. On Sunday, that translated to an improbable victory. In the days to come it could result in even more intrigue and increasingly greater stakes.