Draymond Green overshadows Christmas headliners
Neither Stephen Curry nor LeBron James delivered a signature performance in a game that never truly opened up in the Warriors’ typical carnival-like fashion. After leaving the game briefly in the first half with a calf injury, the reigning MVP returned to score 19 points on 6-of-15 shooting and dish seven assists, but he managed a season-low one three-pointer. While James posted a game-high 25 points and nine rebounds, he missed three of four free throws and airballed a three-pointer in the game’s final two minutes to cut short Cleveland’s comeback attempt.
Christmas brought back memories of less-than-joyous moments from last year’s Finals. Curry faced attentive defensive marking throughout and spent most of Friday bottled up, in part because Harrison Barnes was injured and therefore unable to help fully space the court. This was the Curry early in the Finals: attracting plenty of attention and sucking in help defenders, but not delivering his trademark kill shots. With Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving ice cold from deep, James resorted to bulldozer mode, a strategy that, much like last June, worked at times but ultimately proved unsuccessful. On the evening, James made just one basket outside 10 feet and he never quite got Cleveland’s ball movement where it needed to be.
Combine a contained Curry with a constricted James and that’s a recipe for a choppy contest. Thankfully, Draymond Green emerged from the muck as the best player on the court from start to finish. In his typical do-it-all fashion, Green finished with 22 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists to help Golden State get out in transition and make the Cavaliers pay when they tried to trap Curry on the perimeter.
Green’s impact plays were many: he connected with Andrew Bogut on an early alley-oop, he overpowered J.R. Smith in the post for an and-one that he punctuated with a flex, he threaded a backdoor pass to Curry for a pretty layup, and he slipped into the open space behind Cleveland’s perimeter defense on multiple occasions, including one car-crash-slash-layup over Tristan Thompson.
For Green, a surefire first-time All-Star and strong All-NBA candidate, it was another strong performance in a season full of them. His lead role was also emblematic of Golden State’s striking completeness: Curry can deliver the prettiest of wins, but Green can help secure ugly ones just as easily.
Stephen Curry’s late layups
If there is a lingering point of frustration for the Cavaliers, it will be the fact Curry freed himself for back-to-back layups in the final 90 seconds with precious little resistance. Both shots came with a small-ball lineup of Curry, Klay Thompson, Shaun Livingston, Andre Iguodala and Green on the court for Golden State. Both shots came with Golden State holding a slight lead and Cleveland in “must get a stop” mode.
On the first one, Curry used a high screen from Green to get James switched onto him. Then, he drove straight to the hoop, going right, and tossed up an easy running chip-shot past James.
On the second one, Curry unleashed a nice crossover to beat Matthew Dellavedova at the top of the key before gliding in for an uncontested left-handed layup.
Both shots came against a small closing lineup for Cleveland that utilized Love and James as the two bigs with Iman Shumpert, Smith and Dellavedova on the perimeter. Both times, Curry badly exposed the Cavaliers’ lack of rim-protection. Both times, Love seemingly had an opportunity to step across to provide help defense, but he wound up being a bystander on the play. After the second one, the camera briefly panned to James and Love exchanging words on the sideline.
Keep in mind: Livingston, a non-shooter, was in the game during that sequence in place of Barnes. If this lineup from the Cavaliers struggled to defend the three-point line and the rim simultaneously, it will only have a harder time once Golden State has its full, preferred small lineup at its disposal. One major question entering Christmas was how, exactly, Love might alter the matchup between these two teams after he missed the entire Finals due to injury. The first round of crunch-time evidence suggests his presence on defense could be an exploitable liability.
Cleveland’s moral victory
Even in defeat, the Cavaliers will leave the Bay Area will plenty of cause for optimism. Not only did Cleveland hold Golden State to a season-low 89 points, it succeeded in dictating the general pace and style of Friday’s game. The euphoria that has come to define the Warriors’ record-setting start was almost entirely smothered. The Warriors managed just five three-pointers, a season-low, and the result was a game in which the Cavaliers never trailed by more than 10 points. That’s important: the first step in beating the Warriors is never losing contact. Although Cleveland didn’t look particularly smooth on offense itself, it certainly wasn’t shaken by the thought of playing Golden State and it never wilted in a showcase game played in front of a rowdy crowd.
What’s more, Cavaliers coach David Blatt can look up and down his roster and find areas of potential improvement on offense. Irving, who recently returned from a long absence due to knee surgery, had a few flashes in his 26 minutes, but he never really got rolling. Love missed all five of his three-point attempts, contributing to a 5-of-30 night from beyond the arc as a team. Timofey Mozgov was simply awful. He missed all five of his shots, including multiple point-blank looks, during a scoreless night and he didn’t play in the fourth quarter as Cleveland opted to go small.
Much like last year, Cleveland’s title formula involves slowing down the game, prioritizing defense and keeping things close enough that James can exert his will late. Here, it succeeded in giving James a chance to win it: he missed two free throws with 1:32 left that could have made it a two-point game, he missed a three-pointer with 49 seconds left that could have made it a two-point game and he missed another free throw with 20 seconds left that could have made it a three-point game. Things could be a lot worse, as the Cavaliers found out in three straight double-digit losses to close out the 2015 Finals.