CLEVELAND — The only thing this NBA Finals was missing, besides a victory by someone other than the Warriors, was a sense of the surreal that had shrouded the two previous meetings between these two teams. We had already consumed the requisite blowouts and enjoyed one well-played epic, but the element of the bizarre that seems to accompany the Cavs and Warriors during this trilogy? No, we had not seen that yet.
Game 4 checked every box on the freak scale, from shaky officiating to hard fouls, cheap shots, trash talk, and even a fan ejection. Unlike Game 3, it was not a well-played affair, and unlike the first two games at Oracle, it was not a blowout in the traditional sense. Sure, the Cavs enjoyed a double-digit lead for most of the night, but it felt tenuous.
That’s what playing the Warriors will do for a lead, but Golden State did itself no favors by leaving a ton of points on the floor. The Dubs missed nine free throws and 28 threes, with many of them coming from quality looks. They’re not likely to shoot that poorly again, but the Cavs couldn’t have been expected to keep chucking up bricks either.
When you cut through the chaos and look through the clear eyes of objective data, Game 4 was the ultimate regression to the mean. That it had to get weird was only fitting, given the history between these two teams. They don’t do normal this time of year.
And so, we’re right back where we were a year ago, with the Warriors heading home with a 3-1 series lead and everything in place to clinch a title in front of their fans on Monday night. It’s not quite the same scenario, of course. Steph Curry is healthy, Kevin Love isn’t in the concussion protocol, and Draymond Green isn’t facing a suspension.
The true difference, however, is the ultimate reason why we’re once again at 3-1 instead of heading back to Oakland all square. That would be Kevin Durant, whose shot at the end of Game 3 stood as the signature moment of these Finals until all hell broke loose on Friday night.
“You can tell, he knows this is his moment,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said after Durant’s shot stole Game 3. “He’s been an amazing player in this league for a long time, and I think he’s — he senses this is his time, his moment, his team. When I say his team, I mean it’s not literally just his team, it’s we got a group around him that can help him and create space for him with the shooting and the playmaking, and I think he’s having the time of his life out there.”
It’s honestly hard to tell how Durant feels about anything these days. He’s been reserved in media settings to the point of blandness throughout the Finals. After a year spent explaining his decision to ditch Oklahoma City for the Bay, he seems talked out by this point and it’s hard to blame him. How many more times can he rationalize the move when the reasons are as clear as the morning sun once the fog lifts over the Golden Gate Bridge?
“Basketball’s like a rhythm game,” Durant said. “It’s a free-flowing game, and you just want to be a part of it. That’s what makes it just even more and more fun. Guys are moving. You are working together. You’re communicating out there on both ends. You see it playing against them, and then you see it on TV. And then it’s a different feel when you’re around it every single day.”
I mean, who wouldn’t want this? He has space and freedom out here, not only on the court but off it, where he is merely a significant part of a larger machine. KD doesn’t have to do everything to help the Warriors win, even though he’s been their best player throughout the Finals. While everything else was disintegrating in Game 4, there was Durant keeping the Warriors within striking distance.
Even after shooting just 2-for-9 from behind the arc, KD had 35 points on 22 shots and just one turnover. He lived at the free throw line and was the only Warrior player who attacked the basket throughout the game. Without Durant, Game 4 looks a lot like last year’s Game 3, when the Cavs ran the Dubs right off the court. This was a competitive blowout for most of the night and that’s primarily because of Durant.
How he got to this place continues to be an object of much discussion and interest. Long after it’s been dissected, rehashed, and retold, it’s still one of the most serendipitous sequences of events in NBA history.
If the Thunder held on to their 3-1 lead in last year’s conference finals against the Warriors, then Durant probably isn’t wearing a Golden State uniform. And if the Warriors held on to their 3-1 lead in the Finals, then he really isn’t here.
Hell, if the television networks hadn’t decided to drop a bucket of cash on the league, and if the union had gone along with smoothing the salary cap jump slowly, and if someone had said the wrong thing in the Hamptons … we could go on like this all day, but none of it changes the ultimate outcome.
“In this job it’s hard enough to deal with reality,” general manager Bob Myers said earlier in the series. “I could spin out of control on hypotheticals. We lost. They beat us and we tried to get better. With Kevin we did.”
The Warriors clearly got better, but they didn’t improve this season so much as coalesce. They didn’t even try to challenge 73 wins, and at times it felt like one long extended practice session en route to this very moment. They needed to figure out how to blend Durant and Steph Curry’s scoring abilities and it took time to figure out just how good Durant was on the defensive end. (He’s really good on that end, as it turns out.)
At times the process has seemed seamless, and at others it looked like it didn’t even matter. Kevin Durant was on the freaking Warriors and there wasn’t much analysis or moments of discovery needed to understand the magnitude of the move. But maybe that was an illusion. It’s never as easy as it appears to fit talent into an equation like this. Maybe he didn’t get enough credit for making it look that way.
“He’s obviously unselfish as a person and as a basketball player when it comes to understanding how he can impact the game, every single night, and do it his way,” Curry said. “But that would fit right into our style and our identity. It took a while for it to kind of reveal itself consistently as the regular season went on, but once it clicked and the habits started to become second nature, it was kind of beautiful to watch and an amazing kind of style to play and watch unfold.”
Right up until the Cavs kicked their asses in Game 4, it’s been a treat. Lament the super-team concept all you want, and there’s validity to that recalcitrant stance, but the Warriors sure play a beautiful game of basketball. They may or may not be among the greatest teams of all time, but there’s never been anything like them and that’s an accomplishment that stands all by itself.
The Warriors have been so good they hadn’t lost in almost two months before Friday’s reality check, and that brings us full circle to the moment that has defined their run for the last year. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the Warriors blew a 3-1 lead.
Kevin Durant is here to make sure that never happens again. This is his moment. These are his Finals. All that’s left is one more game to complete the tale and exorcise those ghosts.
Game 4 sure was something. It was so hard to keep up with all the strangeness we had to limit this week’s List to its usual five elements. Otherwise we’d be here all day.
The tech controversy
When John Goble blew his whistle late in the first quarter to assess a technical foul, I assumed it was on Golden State coach Steve Kerr, who came racing out of the coaches box to protest a call like he was Usain Bolt exploding off the starter’s block. That he was defending a demonstrative Draymond Green added a layer of uncertainty to the chaos unfolding on the floor, and it was never entirely clear who got the tech. The refs’ subsequent explanation rang hollow and there’s no getting around the implication that they botched this as much as anything can get botched.
We have a situation
Oh it’s nothing, just LeBron James and Kevin Durant jawing with each other for what seemed like an eternity. Thank goodness they were both pulled away before it escalated into anything more. Where were the officials? We really, really didn’t need to spend Sunday on suspension watch with the two biggest stars in the game.
LeBron pulls a T-Mac
In an event seen only in All-Star games, LeBron James drove the lane, flipped the ball off the glass and slammed home two points. It was a brilliant play by James whose path to the basket was blocked and had no recourse other than improvisation. This was like the 27th most interesting thing that happened, by the way.
J.R. from way downtown
Not even Steph Curry could line up a 35-foot triple like it was a normal everyday occurrence the way J.R. Smith did late in the third quarter. What was he even doing out there? We’ll give Smith the benefit of the doubt and suggest that he was getting ready to get back on defense as the shot clock was winding down, but that might be giving him too much credit. Who knows, really? It’s J.R. It’s what he does.
Oh good, another nut punch
It’s a little unclear if Zaza Pachulia actually made contact with Iman Shumpert’s nether regions, but it is too much to ask for no more groin taps? Please, and thank you.
Turns out that people really do like watching excellence. Ratings for these Finals are up 12.4 percent over last year with an average viewing audience of just under 20 million when you account for people streaming the games. That’s good news for the NBA and for all of us, really. Perhaps we should stop lamenting the existence of super-teams and just enjoy the ride.
One of the features of Steve Kerr’s rotation plans is his willingness to split time between his four All-Stars. He often starts quarters with both Kevin Durant and Steph Curry on the bench in an effort to get them on the court together as much as possible. He’s run that lineup out there for 17 minutes, and in that time the Warriors are hemorrhaging 11.7 points per 100 possessions. That’s a big number even in limited minutes.
Speaking of on/off splits, the Cavs have still not found an effective way to buy time for LeBron James. His two and a half minutes of rest in Game 3 may have been the difference and while the Cavs survived in Game 4 while James rested, they didn’t exactly prosper when he wasn’t in the game. They are a minus-47.9 per 100 possessions during the Finals without LeBron. That’s absurd.
There isn’t much that can slow down the Warriors offense, but they are much worse when Steph Curry sits, averaging just 88.4 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the bench. There’s a rotation corollary at work here as the Dubs aren’t real great without Durant in the game either. Kerr doesn’t like to deviate much, but adjusting the lineup flow to get one of them in the game at all times would seem like a pretty good idea.
The Cavs have said from the beginning that they intend to run when the opportunity is there, but the numbers have shown that to be a tough sell. The games in Cleveland slowed down from their breakneck pace in Oakland and Game 4 produced the slowest paced game yet at just 96.1 possessions. That’s where the Cavs need to play. We’ll see if they can do so again in Oracle.
— Steve Kerr.
Reaction: Kerr wouldn’t be drawn into commenting on the officials, which was good for his wallet but we’ll answer for him. This was a poorly officiated game from start to finish. They did little to establish order and there were a number of blown calls. They weren’t tilting it one way or another. They just weren’t good. That can’t happen in a Finals game.
“It causes too much stress, man. I’m stressed out. Keep doing this every year. But listen, at the end of the day we just got some resilient guys. The Warriors have championship DNA, and we do as well. We’re battle tested, they’re battle tested. And getting swept is something that you never want to have happen.”
— LeBron James.
Reaction: We’re all stressed, Bron.
“It would have. You can’t hold on to it. It’s gone. It’s over with. Sixteen and one sounds pretty damn good anyway. Forget about that undefeated talk or whatever. It’s time to put on a show for our fans in Oakland and the rest of the Bay. Try to close out at Oracle.”
— Klay Thompson.
Reaction: The Warriors wouldn’t admit it beforehand, but yes: sweeping the postseason meant a great deal to them. A summer’s worth of 3-1 jokes will do that to a team.
“It’s the Finals. Guys are going to talk. We’re going to respond but they aren’t going to punk us. Not me. They’re not about to punk Tristan Thompson. You got the game [expletive] up with that one. You can talk all you want but I’m definitely going to bark back. That’s just how I’m built.”
— Tristan Thompson, obviously.
Reaction: Welcome to the Finals, we’ve been waiting for you to arrive.
“I don’t pay attention to people in Cleveland honestly. Don’t seem to be the sharpest people.”
— Draymond Green.
Reaction: Oh, Draymond. Can we be real about something? This has not been a good Finals for Mr. Green. He’s been in foul trouble in two of the three games and he’s been picking up technicals like a kid getting candy on Halloween. The Warriors can win without him this year, but it’d be a whole lot easier if he stayed on the floor.