The Warriors have made LeBron James, himself a man of unreasonable limits, out to be somehow inadequate. Only in this series could 29 points, 14 assists, and 11 rebounds be so painfully lacking. The best player in the world strung perfect possessions into perfect stretches into perfect quarters. He threw rewind-worthy passes and drove relentlessly, finishing 12-of-18 from the field. Yet in the end, LeBron’s every effort was undone by a humbling need. No matter how many times he drove or how many runs he propelled, his Cavs were at the mercy of a game that felt like a matter of time.
As is customary, Golden State decided upon the third quarter. There is nothing that can be done to beat back the wave after wave of matchup-destroying offense that stems from Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry. At one point deep into the fourth quarter, Durant and Curry collaborated on an off-ball exchange on the left wing—just the sort of screen-and-re-screen clutter that fills out every team’s basic offense. It ended with Durant bolting out the back door and into a dunk, deserting James behind him. Curry had already spun James around in a cathartic remix of 2016. Durant had previously shot over the top of him and run him into screen after screen. James has played Herculean basketball in a losing effort before, but never on a team quite this stacked that was still so bewilderingly outclassed. The Cavs team that lost on Sunday, 132-113, to go down 0-2 in the NBA Finals would in most circumstances be spectacular and unsolvable. Here Cleveland’s fireworks are subdued.
There is room for Curry to have a 32-point triple-double while Durant goes for a complete game (33 points, 13 rebounds, six assists, five blocks, and three steals) and Klay Thompson (22 points on 8-of-12 shooting) returns to form…all while the Warriors throw away 20 of their possessions through turnovers and endure Draymond Green’s foul trouble while still running the defending champions off the floor. Survive a Curry-led barrage in the third and you are treated to a Durant-charged blitzkrieg in the fourth. What is the best player of his generation to do when even his best efforts end in blowouts? Where can he turn when even his irrefutable elevation of his teammates can only keep things close for a half or so?
One could go down the list of supporting Cavs who could have played better, but isolating them in that way divorces concept from reality. It is precisely because of who they’re playing against that so many Cavs have come up short. When Kyrie Irving can’t comfortably find his spots, it’s because Thompson is making multiple efforts to stay in front of him at all times. That Kevin Love (who played a strong all-around game) had to force some things has a lot to do with the fact that Golden State is one of the best ever at closing out to perimeter shooters. Whenever a Cav makes a strange decision, they do so under duress. It’s not as if Channing Frye wants to roll hard to be blocked at the rim in his first minutes in the NBA Finals. He does so because the Warriors so deftly revoke whatever it is that most players do best and challenge the hell out of whatever else they’ve got left.
This predicament has left James, the league’s most brilliant problem solver, flummoxed as he stands. Nothing seems to make a difference once the jets turn on; no matter how many runs the Cavs manage in counter, they’ll always be at a disadvantage to the compounding pressures of Curry and Durant. Those two can be moved around the floor, with the ball or without, until Cleveland’s defense springs a leak. The personnel of this series might well demand the impossible of the Cavs on that end of the floor. Short of that, this is still a team whose habits are so clearly not up for the enormity of this task. There isn’t much that can be done when Curry pulls up to hit a moonshot over Love from the hash mark. There is quite a bit, however, that could better prevent Curry from getting so open on a scripted set that he’s able to stop, line up, and take a full beat before firing up a completely uncontested three. The trouble is that Golden State runs so many actions involving so many dangerous players that to even have a hope of containing them requires something nearing perfection.
And even then, the Warriors will grow loose with their passing, cough up the ball after driving too deep into traffic, and still rally back in punishing fashion. Just when they might seem vulnerable, Durant will step in to play center and obliterate whatever fledgling hope can be found. Typically, James is in some way the solution in moments such as these. His team will manipulate his matchup or tweak his usage in a way that flips the dynamic of a series. Cleveland will try, perhaps by slowing the pace. We have yet to see James operate from the post on any regular basis in these Finals, meaning that there are at least a few cards left to play. They might matter, too, if the Cavs weren’t playing against an opponent who had already stacked the deck so thoroughly in their favor.