OAKLAND, Calif. — Only a masochist would, in defeat, subject himself to his opponent’s glee for longer than necessary, and so LeBron James did the sensible thing: he took his lumps, he put on his sunglasses and he fled the scene as quickly as possible.
The Warriors smashed the Cavaliers 110–77 in Game 2 of the Finals at Oracle on Sunday, a humiliating sequel to their blowout victory in Game 1. For James and Cleveland, there were so many necessary adjustments, and yet instead of yielding improvement the second act only exposed deeper flaws.
“We’ve got to be better at all facets of the game both offensively and defensively, both physically and mentally,” James said. “We didn’t win anything."
He took to the postgame podium before all of Golden State’s starters rather than going last, as is his general custom. This was James’s second early exit of the night. With Cleveland down 20 points to start the fourth quarter, he watched the final 12 minutes of garbage time from the bench.
Any thought that Golden State’s 15-point win in Game 1 was simply a product of a hot night for its bench went out the window on Sunday. Even though Stephen Curry sat for long stretches of the game due to foul trouble, the Warriors squelched the Cavaliers’ offense and dissected their defense with ease. This was, as James concluded, a total and thorough defeat.
Cleveland failed to create more space for James, who finished with 19 points but who managed just 7-of-17 shooting and four free-throw attempts while committing seven turnovers. Cleveland failed to engage its offensive X-factor, J.R. Smith, who managed only five points in his second straight dud. Cleveland failed to tighten up its perimeter defense, giving up 15 three-pointers, including five to Draymond Green, who finished with a game-high 28 points. Cleveland failed to communicate effectively as Golden State’s offense moved the ball, sacrificing easy bucket after easy bucket on back-cut misdirection plays.
Along the way, James appeared fatigued, frustrated and flummoxed, tugging at his shorts with waist bent, bouncing the basketball hard into the stanchion after one defensive breakdown, and arguing with the officials following multiple travel calls. He struggled mightily to crack Golden State’s overloading scheme, and his impatience showed when he settled for a three-pointer in isolation against the much smaller Leandro Barbosa.
“I got myself in a lot of trouble tonight personally. Turned the ball over way too much,” lamented James, who added eight rebounds and nine assists to his 19 points. “I’ve got to be better. I’ve got to be better with the ball.”
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James has been in similar spots before—swept by the Spurs in the 2007 Finals, overwhelmed by the Spurs in the 2014 Finals, dominated by the Warriors late in the 2015 Finals—so he understands that if he can’t save the day he must shoulder the blame.
But this series has been about more than just Golden State’s savvy approach to defending James, his miscues and his wayward jumper. The Warriors won the first two games by a combined 48 points, the largest margin in Finals history, and they did it without signature efforts from Curry (18 points on 7-of-11 shooting) or Klay Thompson (17 points on 6-of-13 shooting). What’s more, Golden State has now won seven consecutive games over Cleveland dating back to the 2015 Finals, prevailing by an average margin of victory of 18.6 points.
Rather than closing the gap, the Cavaliers continue to fall further and further behind, leaving many at Game 2 wondering if the Warriors would need to return to Oracle for Game 5 or whether they would complete a sweep in Cleveland.
Golden State, for its part, is playing and acting like a team that can taste it. Offensively, the Warriors moved the ball better in Game 2, registering 26 assists and keeping momentum when Curry went to the bench for much of the third quarter with four fouls. The three-point line was very profitable, and so too was a high-low passing game that set up the Warriors’ big men for high-percentage looks over smaller Cavaliers defenders after switches.
It’s also increasingly clear the Cavaliers have no strong response to the Warriors’ small-ball look that utilizes Green at center. Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue tried multiple approaches, including using James at center, to no avail.
“Their small lineup was a lot faster than ours was,” Lue said. “Being faster and being longer and athletic gave us some trouble. It gave us some problems. So we’ve got to try to figure that lineup out.”
Don’t hold your breath waiting on a quick-fix solution.
Meanwhile, the Warriors, after surviving the Thunder in the West finals, seem to be breathing much easier. Before the game, Curry danced his way onto the court for warmups and then fell to the ground like a bowling pin after Ian Clark rolled a ball in his direction. During the game, ABC’s cameras caught him pretending to play with an invisible video game controller. After the game, Brazilian soccer star Neymar visited the Warriors’ locker room, handing out jerseys to Green and others.
Then, long after James made his hasty retreat, Curry stayed late, breezing through softball questions about his favorite nickname (“Baby-Faced Assassin”), his exchange of jerseys with soccer star Lionel Messi, and whether Green was qualified to join Curry and Thompson as the third Splash Brother.
The whole show had an inherent lightheartedness to it, one borne of immense self-assurance. If Golden State acted like a team that knew it was better than Cleveland in the second half of Game 1, it carried itself like a team that believed it could get whatever it wanted, whenever it wanted, during much of Game 2.
That lightheartedness was never more apparent than when Green and Thompson were quizzed about the 73-win Warriors’ standing among the greatest teams of alltime.
“We’ve got two more wins before you can even consider saying that,” Green said, diplomatically. “It’s all subjective. To say we’re better than the Showtime Lakers, how can you say that?”
Thompson cut in right on cue: “We’re better than the Showtime Lakers.”
The pressroom erupted in chuckles. Thompson’s punchline was delivered with one target in mind—his father, Mychal, who played for those Lakers—but the jab hit at the Cavaliers, too. The question wouldn’t have been asked and the answer wouldn’t have been given if the Finals had gotten off to a more competitive start, or if Cleveland had shown some promise in achieving its desired adjustments, or if James seemed capable of reasserting control over the series.
So, instead of “LeBron or Steph?” the leading question through two games has quickly become whether the Cavaliers will muster up any intrigue. James pledged to improve his decision-making, Lue said he expected a better effort level and the Cavaliers’ role players all looked forward to returning to Quicken Loans Arena.
If this series is going to tighten up, though, Cleveland will need to play like a completely different team, one that’s far more disciplined, far more potent and far more balanced. The Cavaliers may need to do all of that without Kevin Love, who is listed as “day-to-day” and in the concussion protocol after experiencing dizziness from a blow to the head.
Where Cleveland finds real cause for hope in this is anyone’s guess, as the 2006 Heat are the only team to come back from a 2–0 deficit to win the Finals during the three-point era.
A few weeks ago, Golden State was down 3–1 to Oklahoma City and dealing with the inevitable talk of asterisks. Now, the Warriors are now threatening to sweep James and conclude their record-setting season with an elegant exclamation point.
“It’s a trap to think that we’ve figured things out and that we have the perfect formula to beat Cleveland and they have no chance in the series,” Curry said, preemptively. “That’s probably going to be the chatter the next 48 hours, but we have to stay in our own little bubble and worry about what we’re doing and how we’re going to go out and win Game 3.”
Curry was delivering the right message, but there’s really nothing little about the Warriors bubble now, not with James looking so mortal and so anxious to be free of their grasp, not with Neymar and Messi angling for a piece, not with Thompson feeling comfortable enough to throw public darts at his dad, not with mammoth television ratings game after game and not with the historic end suddenly so close.