The focus, for whatever reason, has already shifted to assessing Golden State’s place in NBA history. The 73-win Warriors: are they better than the Showtime Lakers? How about Jordan’s Bulls?
A week ago, we might remember, fans and pundits had this same assemblage declared dead on arrival in the Western Conference Finals when the Oklahoma City Thunder had the Dubs in a 3-1 hole after a pair of blowout wins in OKC.
Funny how quickly the tides can turn. Same was true in the Eastern Finals, when Cleveland run-ruled Toronto twice at home to go up 2-0, then laid two eggs up north to send the series back to Believe-Land tied at 2-2.
Yogi Berra, rest his soul, may or may not have once said something about how it ain’t over ‘til it’s over. It’s just as true in playoff series that you don’t start declaring that you know what’s going to happen until somebody wins on an opponent’s home floor.
Now, that said, the way the Warriors eviscerated the Cavs in Games 1 and 2 speaks well to their ability to close this series out in four or five games. Cleveland has looked nothing like the juggernaut that tore through the East playoffs over the course of several weeks, attacking the lane with impunity, knocking down threes at a clip even Golden State would have to admire.
Golden State has taken basically all of that away, reducing LeBron James and Kyrie Irving into ineffective jump shooters who turn the ball over when they make forays in the lane, and Kevin Love and J.R. Smith into guys standing passively on the wing waiting for open looks that aren’t there.
Cleveland, for its part, has made it clear that it prefers not being beaten by the Splash Brothers, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, sliding help over to the shooters at all opportunities, in the process allowing Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston and Leandro Barbosa to do the damage, which they have done with ruthless efficiency.
If coach Tyronn Lue continues with the small-ball, spread-the-floor, up-tempo approach that allowed the Cavs to tear through the East, but hasn’t worked at all in the Finals, it would be insanity to expect a different result at this point. Basically, you’re not going to out-small-ball, spread-the-floor, up-tempo maybe the best small-ball, spread-the-floor, up-tempo team of all time.
Dictating pace, tempo and style of play on Golden State is easier said than done, of course. There’s a reason these guys are the defending champs with a big 73 on their resume; coach Steve Kerr makes you beat the Warriors at their game, and it can be done, but it’s not easy.
One idea would be to put LeBron in the post as a point forward, as Cleveland did out of necessity in last year’s Finals, when Irving and Love were on the shelf with injuries, run the offense entirely through him in the paint or just outside the paint, and drop everybody else back on offensive rebounds, basically playing a basketball version of hockey’s neutral-zone trap, the goal being to prevent Golden State from getting out in transition, and making them produce consistently from their sets.
Ugly the game up a bit, essentially, again, as the Cavaliers were able to do in last year’s Finals.
With home-court advantage, a few calls going your way, maybe you steal Game 3, and you don’t care if it’s ugly in the process.
I’m not saying it will happen, but it definitely can happen, and that until whatever happens happens, it’s silly to think about history, when the history is still being made.
Column by Chris Graham