- Nobody who overcame a 3-1 deficit will be fazed by 1-0, but the Cavaliers are in trouble. Despite the hype, Warriors-Cavs III got off to a lopsided start, and may not get any better.
OAKLAND — Over two merciless months, the wandering eyes of the NBA drifted to the first night in June, salvation for an empty spring. The stench of a putrid postseason, marked by inevitable outcomes and AAU-caliber competition, would lift over Oracle Arena. The casual fan, watching from Boise or Beijing, would not remember second-round box scores. They’d be treated to Warriors-Cavaliers, this generation’s Lakers-Celtics, and all the wreckage would be worthwhile.
That was the hope of league officials, and perhaps, the fantasy. Warriors-Cavaliers, as constituted a year ago, may indeed have been Lakers-Celtics. But with Kevin Durant on one side of the ledger, it becomes something else entirely. The Cavs, who added Kyle Korver, are better. The Dubs, who added Durant, are a monolith on a level the modern era has never seen. For one night, June looked no different than April or May, a new foil succumbing to the same ruthless result. Durant’s presence, the Cavaliers discovered, does not simply tilt the balance of this rivalry. It threatens to crash the scale.
Last season, Cleveland dropped the first two Finals games at Oracle by a combined 48 points, a figure that should provide solace for the Cavaliers as they withstand the latest wave of overreaction. The Cavs can handle deficits. Whether they can handle Durant, in addition to his three starry wingmen, is a separate matter. After another Game 1 landslide, James was asked to pinpoint a difference between the Cavs and Warriors. He could have cited transition defense, rim protection and ball security, all technical difficulties for Cleveland and not Golden State. But those issues seemed insignificant against the backdrop of the bigger picture.
“K.D.,” James replied flatly. “I mean, you take one of the best teams that we had ever assembled last year, that we saw in the regular season and in the postseason, and then in the off-season you add a high-powered offensive talent like that and a great basketball IQ like that. It is what it is.” Durant and Curry form a pairing so potent that Klay Thompson and Draymond Green can chuck 28 bricks in a game, the Warriors can blow 15 layups in a half, and still break out their bludgeons before the midpoint of the third quarter. That was the formula Thursday night, as Golden State won for the 13th time in 13 tries this postseason, a perfect playoff record never appearing more attainable.
“They’re the best I’ve ever seen,” Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue said, some possible sarcasm in his voice. “I mean, no other team has done this, right? They constantly break records every year, last year being 73-9, this year starting the playoffs 13-0. So they’re playing good basketball. But we can play better.” James, accustomed to the meager resistance offered by Boston and Toronto, found his usual crosscourt passes deflected or intercepted. Not that there were many places to dish. J.R. Smith made one shot. Tristan Thompson, Deron Williams and Korver didn’t make any. Kevin Love was 4 for 13, prompting flashbacks to the last two Finals, when Green put him in match-up misery.
The Cavaliers were dedicated to smothering the three-point line—a sound strategy when facing arguably the best collection of marksmen ever—except defenders literally ran away from the paint when Durant was racing full speed down-court. Allowing dunks instead of threes remains a terrible tradeoff, even against the Warriors. The Cavaliers could not have played much worse, which is a source of reassurance, until they consider what happens if Klay Thompson finds his lost stroke or Green sinks a couple Js. Every sliver of consolation is offset by anxiety.
The NBA hype machine, on full blast this week, cranked up the case for a Warriors-Cavs thrillogy. After all, these teams played to a virtual tie the past two seasons, but that was before one of them exchanged Harrison Barnes for the second–best player in the world. James needed a series of unforgettable individual performances, plus the greatest comeback in Finals history, to capsize Curry, Thompson and Green last June. The implication that he could somehow tap into his bottomless reservoir of superpowers, and vaporize Durant as well, was unfair to both of them. James is the only Cleveland defender physically qualified to guard KD, but the Cavs also need him to command their offense. For the first time all playoffs, James looked leg-weary at times in the second half Thursday night, nearly scraping the rim on a dunk.
Few would have even noticed by then, as Rihanna was capturing most of the attention with her playful taunts of the Oracle crowd, Durant included. The NBA needs whatever unexpected sideshows it can get, given the predictability of the product on the court. When Commissioner Adam Silver held his annual Finals press conference before Game 1, the first question was about competitive balance, or lack thereof. “Sure, the fan in me would love to see more competition at times,” Silver said. “(But) I think that people are also inspired by seeing such tremendous play, by seeing teams come together the way they have.”
He was referring to both the Warriors and the Cavaliers, who split the last two titles and breezed through their respective conference playoffs. All spring, it was Golden State, Cleveland and everybody else. Then they met Thursday and the Warriors made the Cavaliers look like another hopeless member of that ineffectual mob. The Cavs are kings of chaos, they will remind you, and nobody who overcame 3-1 will be fazed by 1-0. They won’t be rattled or embarrassed or intimidated.
But like 28 others, they may have to confront the reality that they’re no longer as talented.