OAKLAND, Calif.—Their fast attack ground up, their swished threes replaced by loud clanks, their rhythm assists outnumbered by unsightly turnovers, their raucous crowd rendered silent, their charmed comeback attempt unsuccessful for once. On Sunday, the Warriors were stripped of their recognizable components by an injury-riddled Cavaliers team that previously appeared to have one foot in the grave.
Golden State coach Steve Kerr spent the last two days cautioning against a letdown, in the wake of a Game 1 overtime victory and Kyrie Irving's season-ending knee injury, only to watch his team unravel in a startling breakdown. A group that has specialized in making the difficult look easy this season was suddenly making the easy look impossible. In the night's definitive sequence, Warriors center Marreese Speights coasted in for an uncontested dunk, flubbed the finish, chased the loose ball almost to midcourt, and crashed to the hardwood with such chaos that he wound up knocking over referee Zach Zarba, too. Golden State's orchestral elegance had suddenly given way to bowling alley brutishness. That was fitting, because Stephen Curry spent the entire evening in the gutters.
This slow, defense-first, junky, haphazard Game 2 was just what the Cavaliers had been seeking without their All-Star point guard. Cleveland claimed a 95–93 overtime victory on Sunday, evening the Finals at 1-1 and pushing back hard against the notion that the loss of Irving had doomed them. LeBron James was sensational, again, but the Cavaliers return home for Tuesday's Game 3 with the split because their defensive effort confounded a Warriors team that has had an answer for everything.
"It's the grit squad that we have," James said, after posting 39 points, 16 rebounds and 11 assists, marking the 13th triple double of his postseason career. "It's not cute at all. If you're looking for us to play sexy, cute basketball, it's not us."
The sexy, cute way for the Cavaliers to have won Game 2 would have been for James to have squeezed in his lefty layup try on the final play of regulation, giving James a little redemption for his missed game-winner in Game 1 and giving him an answer to Michael Jordan's "spectacular move" hanging double-pump against the Lakers in the 1991 Finals. Instead, the shot rattled off, as did a putback attempt from Tristan Thompson, meaning the undermanned Cavaliers were headed to overtime, where they had perished in Game 1.
And there's nothing particularly sexy or cute about a point guard with 37 offensive rebounds all season deciding to crash the glass, but it still proved to be the deciding play. Down one with less than 15 seconds remaining in overtime, Cavaliers forward James Jones lined up a three-pointer from the right corner. The shot missed but Matthew Dellavedova, Irving's starting lineup replacement, came up with the offensive rebound, his only one of the game, and drew a foul in the process. The Australian guard then buried both free throws, his only free throws of the game, to give Cleveland a lead it wouldn't relinquish. The Warriors might have been totally off beat all night, but Dellavedova's timing was perfect.
"He's a guy that's been counted out his whole life," James said of Dellavedova. "People have been telling him he's too small, he's not fast enough, can't shoot it enough, can't handle it good enough. He's beaten the odds so many times. ... For Delly to be able to crash in and get that and go up there and knock two free throws down, that was huge."
Even bigger was Dellavedova's persistent defense on Curry. Too small to switch onto Klay Thompson (who led Golden State with 34 points) or Harrison Barnes for long stretches, Dellavedova must hang with the MVP for as many minutes as possible if Cleveland is to triumph in this series. He did more than that in Game 2, helping to hold Curry to 19 points on 5-for-23 shooting (21.7%), which amounts to the worst shooting night of his postseason career.
While Dellavedova had plenty of help from his big men, thanks to Cleveland's aggressive approach to handling high screens, he nevertheless deserves full marks for handling such a tough matchup in this pressure cooker. Curry said afterward that his shooting touch "didn't feel right," and he often looked to be pressing, in part because Dellavedova did well to stick with him tightly off the ball, deny easy catches, and consistently contest his shots.
"He did what he has been doing every time that we've put him in that position," Cavaliers coach David Blatt said of Dellavedova. "He's a courageous kid that plays right. He just plays hard, heartfelt, and tough. He's always there for his teammates. ... I thought we kept most of [Curry's] shots tough, and a lot of them didn't fall. We just tried to be attached and we tried to be close and tried to disturb. Fortunately, fewer of his tough shots went in."
Kerr, for his part, credited Cleveland's defense and suggested Curry simply endured a "bad night."
"I've seen it from Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan," Kerr said, referencing two former teammates that have won a combined 11 championships. "It doesn't matter who you are. Nobody is immune from a tough night."
Still, the Finals' much-anticipated showdown between the superstars—James vs. Curry—was no contest. James again took his game to places the modern NBA hasn't seen. His 39/16/11 triple double hasn't been matched, in all categories, in the playoffs since 1985. (One of the best comparisons: James's 37/18/13 triple double in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals against Atlanta.) His 83 combined points in Games 1 and 2 have been topped just once since 1964. (Jerry West scored 94 combined points in Games 1 and 2 of the 1969 Finals.) James attempted at least 34 shots for just the third time in his postseason career. (As it so happens, he also attempted at least 34 shots for the third time in his last four games.)
Even though he shot just 11-for-34 and missed a potential game-winner, James was here, there and everywhere, logging 50 minutes, his most in any game since the 2013 Finals. He found Timofey Mozgov on multiple occasions early, aiding the center's excellent 17-point, 11-rebound showing. He then scored or assisted on 21 of Cleveland's 33 points in the fourth quarter and overtime, and he cleared the defensive rebound when Curry missed a potential game-winner in the closing seconds of overtime.
After the Cavaliers conceded a 15-4 run late in regulation, thanks in part to a series of bone-headed fouls by J.R. Smith, and James missed his potential game-winner, it seemed like Game 2 might be headed the same way as Game 1. Rather than running out of gas, Cleveland struck first in overtime, building a five-point lead thanks to—what else?—a James assist for an Iman Shumpert three-pointer and two James free throws.
Somehow, despite his team shooting 29-for-89 (32.6%) on the night and his fellow starters combining to shoot 10-for-34 (29.4%), James managed to lead the Cavaliers to a win at Oracle, dealing the Warriors just their second home loss of the postseason and their fourth home loss of the season.
"I can [only] think of a name or two [from] the whole history of basketball that can give you the kind of all-around performance and all-around leadership that LeBron does for his group," Blatt said. "He really willed his guys to win that game. That's what a champion does, and obviously he's a champion."
James celebrated the exhausting victory —the Cavaliers' first ever Finals win—by pounding the ball hard on the court and releasing a scream to end all screams. Later, more composed for his press conference, James let off a quip directed at those who suggested his 44 points in Game 1 were merely a product of the Warriors' defensive strategy.
"Once again, I was knocking on the 40 door," he said. "So they 'let me' score 40 again."
So many things about Game 2 were inverted compared to expectations and precedent: the Warriors' smooth offense was clunky, the unstoppable MVP couldn't shake free from a relatively anonymous undrafted guard, Cleveland's rag tag bench unit outscored Golden State's deep pool of reserves, and the Oracle masses left quietly shaking their heads rather than joining together to shake the concrete with their "WARR-IORS" chant. On a disorienting night that often felt upside down, like Speights and Zarba, James remained right side up, up above the rest, up in the clouds of basketball history yet again.