Twelve days ago the Golden State Warriors were down two games in the conference finals.
Their chances of winning the series looked bleak, but the overwhelming consensus was that if any team could come back from a 3-1 deficit, it would be the historic 73-9 Warriors, the NBA’s defending champs.
On Monday, the Cavaliers find themselves in a similar position trailing 2-0 in the NBA finals and not playing their best basketball. Only it seems hard to find a single soul alive who believes they can beat the Warriors. In fact, in the wake of two dominating performances by the Warriors that saw Golden State outscore Cleveland by a combined 48 points, it’s difficult to even come up with a scenario that gives the Cavaliers the series as part of a fanciful thought exercise. A Cleveland championship is a sports unicorn. George RR Martin could use all of his fantasy powers and probably only get this series to six games.
“They just beat us at every ... we didn’t win anything,” LeBron James after Game 2. “No points of the game did we beat them in anything. Even when we had an early lead.” LeBron looks to be close to losing a fifth NBA finals, but he’s clearly a championship-level analyst because there are truly zero positives to draw from the Cavs’ trip to Oakland, maybe short of reminding fans that Richard Jefferson still plays in the NBA and can be a solid contributor offensively.
The 35 year-old Jefferson had 12 points and five rebounds in Game 2 after being forced into additional minutes when Kevin Love left the game due to concussion symptoms. Love was supposed to team with Kyrie Irving to give Cleveland a legitimate shot to erase the memory of last year’s finals when LeBron had to take on the Warriors alone. But that shorthanded Cavaliers team looks superior to the one getting embarrassed now.
Love was just 2-for-7 from the floor in the game before exiting and is 9-for-24 in the series overall. His defense has been subpar, as well. Irving has been no better, hitting on just 33% of the 36 shots he’s hurled at the rim so far and providing five assists. Total. In two games. As a point guard. LeBron opened the series hoping to get help from his sidekicks and play a team game, but with Love and Irving MIA, he’s been forced to repeatedly take the ball to the rim where he’s been swarmed by Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green and anyone and everyone else on the Warriors, resulting in a series leading 11 turnovers. His 19 points in Game 2 were the fewest James scored in any game in the 2016 playoffs.
“I’m not disappointed in our guys or frustrated, we’ve just got to do a better job,” said James after the defeat. OK, but the terrifying fact remains for the Cavaliers that the Warriors can also do a better job. Cleveland’s struggles and the blowout margins in Games 1 and 2 conceal the fact that Steph Curry and Klay Thompson haven’t even been near their best scoring the ball. They haven’t much needed to with the Warriors playing a beautiful team game on the offensive end with ball movement and spacing that has seen Green, Barnes, Leandro Barbosa and Shaun Livingston all take turns picking up the scoring slack. Golden State’s offense has been such a sight to behold that JR Smith has spent most of his time on the defensive end just standing and watching. Yet Thompson has just 26 points in the series and Curry 29, a point below his per game average in the regular season. Sure, LeBron, Love and Irving could all suddenly raise their level of play, but what if Curry and Thompson do, too? How do LeBron and company possibly bridge the 48-point gap?
The Cavaliers turning it all around in time for Game 3 Thursday night seems a monumental task. Maybe they steal one in Cleveland behind the energy of the home crowd – assuming the Cleveland fans still have energy and haven’t already given up, and who could blame them after decades of disappointment? – but beating the Warriors four out of five? Unicorns.
“I just thought when they went to the small line-up, their small line-up was a lot faster than what ours was,” Cavs head coach Tyronn Lue said after Game 2. “Being faster and being longer and athletic gave us some trouble. It gave us some problems. We have to figure that line-up out.” That line-up and much more. It’s impossible to see where Cleveland gets the answers against a team that dating back to last year’s finals has now beaten them seven games in a row and by a combined score of 747-617. Well, short of acquiring Steven Adams, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant before Thursday night.
And that brings us to free agency. The destruction of the Cavaliers has been so thorough and convincing through two games – or their last seven against the Warriors, if you prefer – that there will be serious discussion if LeBron decides to stay on after this season concludes. The plan was to make a triumphant return to Cleveland and deliver a championship, yet less than two full years in it’s looking like a hopeless endeavor. The Cavaliers are in win-now mode, but simply aren’t and don’t appear capable of doing so. A year ago the Warriors arrived seemingly out of nowhere to steal the King’s crown and they remain better and, even worse, younger. If Irving and Love aren’t enough to help LeBron beat Golden State this year, there’s zero reason to believe they will be next year or the year after. James could decide to remain in Cleveland, but barring a massive roster overhaul, it would have the feel of choosing loyalty over chasing championships. It would mark the beginning of the final stage of LeBron’s career, an all-time great player winding down his career in his hometown on an also-ran team.
Even George RR Martin would struggle to pen a demise that bleak.
This article was written by DJ Gallo, for theguardian.com on Monday 6th June 2016 14.30 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010