There were two main reasons the Cavaliers were able to claim two games from the Warriors last season despite the injuries to Love and Irving. The first was the Warriors’ unpreparedness for the spotlight through the opening three games of that series, something Klay Thompson admitted last week before this series began.
“I think we’re much better,” Thompson said. “I think we know what to expect on this stage, first off, and I don’t think anyone’s going to be nervous out there like we were last year. I think including myself, a lot of guys were probably nervous for the first game. There’s obviously unfamiliar territory, but now we know what to expect.”
The second reason, though, has become increasingly obvious through Golden State’s two comfortable victories to begin this best-of-seven series: The Cavaliers were a far superior defensive team with Irving and Love on the bench.
Last season, Cleveland used a physically imposing front line of LeBron James, Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov to attack the Warriors on the glass — a tactic the Oklahoma City Thunder also utilized during its battle with Golden State in the Western Conference finals. But the presence of Thompson in place of Love and Matthew Dellavedova in place of Irving meant the Cavaliers went from having subpar defenders playing at point guard and power forward to having above-average ones.
The difference between having Irving and Love on the floor through these first two games — at least before Love left in the third quarter of Game 2 with dizziness following an inadvertent blow to the head by Harrison Barnes — has been startling. Golden State shot 49 percent in Game 1, despite terrible games from Stephen Curry and Thompson, before shooting 54 percent in Game 2.
Golden State has been able to get whatever it wants offensively even without getting to the foul line, converting 16 of 20 free throws through the opening two games.
“I would say we’d like to get to the free throw line a little more,” Curry said. “We’re probably going to need to do that in Cleveland. But some things, the way they guard and what might be open, you know, shots-wise, might cater to that lack of a lot of free throws.”
In other words: If the Warriors keep consistently getting wide-open looks like they have through the first two games of this series, they don’t even need to get to the line.
Therein lies the challenge for the Cavaliers. In the time between Sunday night’s 110-77 massacre in Oakland and Game 3 in Cleveland on Wednesday, the Cavaliers have to figure out a way to slow down the Warriors enough to give themselves a chance to win. Cleveland was able to get this far by outscoring its opponents in the Eastern Conference — none of whom had anywhere near enough balance to consistently take advantage of the Cavaliers’ defensive frailties.
Not surprisingly, facing off with the team that set an NBA record with 73 regular season wins — one that continues to pile on evidence as to why it should be considered the greatest team of all time — has led to a stress level that appears to have the Cavaliers near a breaking point.
“It’s hard for me to pinpoint what’s not working, and what could work right now,” James said. “We can’t have as many mental lapses. . . . These guys put you in so many mental positions where you have to figure it out, and they make you pay for it when you don’t.”
Through the opening two games of the Finals, the Warriors have made the Cavaliers pay dearly. And, as the series shifts to Cleveland, what’s at stake now isn’t just the state of this series, but the future of this roster. If the Cavaliers go down in four or five games, there will be a groundswell for changes in Cleveland — beginning with calls for Love and/or Irving to be traded.
None of that can happen, though, until the offseason. For now, the Cavaliers must work with their current pieces and find a way to play enough defense to make this a competitive series. If the first two games are any indication, that solution will not be an easy one.