- The Cavaliers' offense poured in a historic shooting performance on Friday night, forcing a dramatic Game 5 in Oakland.
CLEVELAND — The Cavaliers live for this. The playoffs would not be complete without their involvement in some extracurricular commotion, the kind that their first three series weren’t quite competitive enough to allow. For a moment, it appeared as though the Finals might pass in quiet; the 3-0 series lead the Warriors took on Wednesday night has never been overcome in the history of the NBA’s championship series. Regardless of whether Cleveland can make a real run at history (again), they survived to the weekend by making all kinds of noise.
“This is who we are,” said Cavs coach Tyronn Lue.
In the end, Game 4 turned out to be the sort of affair in which the most explosive first-half performance in Finals history almost became a footnote. Draymond Green was ejected upon receiving two technical fouls…until he was un-ejected. Zaza Pachulia reprised the kind of groin violence that sent the 2016 Finals into infamy. There were flare-ups, taunts, and the sort of perpetual tension that comes with basketball at its best. And all of it was underlined by one of the league’s greatest displays of shot-making—a variety of Cavs converting damn near everything they attempted.
The opening salvo alone was historic: Cleveland scored 49 points in the first quarter between seven different players, in all scoring points on 23 of the team’s 28 possessions, according to John Schuhmann of NBA.com. “That's part of who we are,” LeBron James said. “We set a lot of records since we kind of assembled this team the last couple years, and that's just part of who we are.” This is an offense of incredible potency that, when working at its best, is close to untouchable. Hot shooting stretches further when passes are flying off the fingers of James. Smooth execution can break open a game when Kyrie Irving’s creativity becomes an incisive instrument. A physical screening game knocked the Warriors out of comfortable rhythms, allowing shots to fly and drives to gut the defense. Desperation fouls mounted to make a bad start worse.
By halftime, the damage came out to 86 points and effective shooting (eFG) of 75%. Golden State’s 68 points, a scorching mark in most any other contest, barely kept the game within 20. Their steady flame looked like nothing next to Cleveland’s roaring wildfire.
The game was all but decided then and there. No lead is safe so long as the Warriors keep their stars in play, but the Cavaliers made their most meaningful separation in the first half and then spent the rest of the game working to maintain it. One fundamental difference from the first three games of the series: Cleveland worked relentlessly to create quality three-point opportunities. Those losses were not without their open looks, but the Cavs of Game 4 were a different beast, dedicated to a non-stop churn of inside-out playmaking. LeBron, as he often does, gave the offense a propulsive starting point with hard drives and smart reads. Yet from his plays came the next one; a behind-the-back feed to Tristan Thompson turned into a wide open corner three for Richard Jefferson. Jefferson, too, was able to corkscrew his way out of seemingly doomed drives to set up wide open teammates on the perimeter.
“I mean, when we're hitting threes, we're a different team,” Irving said. “And we understand that. But when we take the threes that are in rhythm and we're getting guys to their spots and we're unselfish as we were tonight, then our three-pointers are a little bit different, and it makes the difference.”
No team has ever made more three-pointers in an NBA Finals game than the Cavs (24) did on Friday. Irving delivered seven makes, Kevin Love (who was punishingly reliable) offered six, and J.R. Smith hit five. James, just to round out his 31-point triple-double, sank three long-range shots of his own.
“We haven't been making shots,” Lue said. “We haven't been shooting the ball well. We shoot the ball well, these are the type of explosives we can have offensively.”
As responses to dire circumstances go, Cleveland delivered everything it could: containment of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson through intelligence and physicality; proof positive that they have the mechanics to overwhelm Golden State’s masterful switching defense; and the kind of comprehensive performance that shows every Cavalier on the floor as some kind of threat. No team wants to go down 3-0 to the Warriors, wearing whatever thin margin for error existed down to dust. But now that they have, the Cavs can only settle into a familiar resistance to improbability. This series lasts only as long as Cleveland can execute to near-perfection. Irving declared his team's intentions: "We're ready to live in it."