1. Kevin has put the D in Durant: No one would suggest, after 10 seasons, eight All-Star appearances, four scoring titles, one Most Valuable Player award, one Finals trip and his arsonist role in starting the biggest brush-fire of the 2016 offseason, that Kevin Durant needed any sort of coming out party in these playoffs. And yet, Durant’s ability to be more than Batman to Russell Westbrook’s Robin all those years in Oklahoma City -- to be, in fact, the star of stars with Golden State -- has demanded a look with fresh eyes.
Especially defensively. The fellow who gets buckets by the bushel prevented them that way against the Cavaliers in Game 2. Already gumming up Cleveland’s attack with his wandering-albatross wingspan encroaching into the passing lanes, Durant got pressed into duty at center by Draymond Green’s foul trouble Sunday. That put him into position for even more encounters -- such as Kevin Love’s overexuberant post-up in the fourth quarter. Durant appeared to take it personally, blocking Love’s shot, corralling the ball and heading directly to the rim at the far end for a basket.
Said Steve Kerr, who mostly disdained his bigs in this one: “It’s a small game and you’ve got shooters everywhere, and you have to be able to protect the rim with LeBron [James] coming downhill, with Love posting up and Draymond’s on the bench. So that’s a pretty scary proposition for us. I thought Kev’s defense was unreal, and it was proaby the key to the whole game.”
2. Warriors -- A team for their times: That Steph Curry dribble-fest that had James moving every which way, leading to a layup by the Warriors’ point guard? OK, that probably should be Exhibit A, since Curry did double-dribble. But it did make LeBron look a little like Michael Jordan infamously thrown sideways by his early encounter with Allen Iverson’s crossover. There have been other such instances of James and his teammates looking overmatched or occasionally overwhelmed through the first 96 minutes of this Finals.
You’ve seen it when Love, James, Kyrie Irving or another Cavs player with the ball seemed suddenly to realize that his defender -- Durant, Green, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala -- might be tougher to beat then the crepe paper versions it faced through three rounds of the East bracket. They stop in their tracks and look to pass. Or, worse, Irving tries to force a shot anyway.
You’ve heard it after Game 1, between the two contests and since the end of Game 2 again: subtle suggestions that Cleveland’s roster is outgunned or lacking in defensive versatility. There was even a bit of a woe-is-LeBron vibe in the air, that the NBA’s best player suddenly doesn’t have enough help -- from a roster he largely signed off on, starting in the summer of his return to The Land right through GM David Griffin’s midseason maneuvers (Kyle Korver, Deron Williams).
The problem is, Golden State is both defining these times and of these times. Adding Durant to the core of last season’s 73-victory team was the broad stroke. But coaching them, sharpening them, into a pointy, unpleasant defensive unit came courtesy of work by Kerr, Mike Brown, Ron Adams and the rest.
The Cavaliers goosed the offensive horsepower of their roster without paying nearly as much attention to the defensive needs.
3. No one can afford to lose Game 3: This remains The Finals in which we know nothing, because the championship series last year turned so dramatically four games in. Cleveland surely wants to avoid falling into an 3-0 hole, because no matter how many “Greatness” shirts LeBron wears on the off-days (like Saturday), he’d be tempting fate to try to outdo last June’s comeback from 3-1.
But Golden State has its own issues with Game 3, having lost it not just in 2016 at Quicken Loans Arena but in 2015 as well. The Warriors survived the first time, climbing out of their own lesser hole of 2-1 by winning the next three. After last year, though, they would face a whole ‘nother layer of pressure, fans and media ready to fit them for the 2016 collar.
And even without waking ghosts, Golden State would see its perfect postseason record -- currently 14-0, aiming for a never-done 16-0 -- spoiled.
4. Ready for your close-ups, Cavs role players?: One of the most alluring things about the NBA’s first-ever rubber match Finals was the idea that two juggernauts, battle-tested in two previous championship showdowns, would be able to hit the hardwood running. The rosters are loaded with guys who have performed well in critical postseason moments, up to and including The Finals.
And yet, here we are, hoping -- for competition’s sake, along with a reluctance to focus full-time on pitch counts, strikeouts and NFL training camps -- that Cleveland’s vets-who-haven’t-played-like-vets can start to do so.
Korver has made one of his six 3-point attempts in a total of 43 minutes. Deron Williams has missed all nine of his shots. Channing Frye can’t stay on the floor because there’s no one for him to guard. Richard Jefferson has hustled and banged but looks out of sync.
Even a few starters have looked like role players: Tristan Thompson has been duly attended to by the Warriors’ defense, grabbing five offensive rebounds but only eight total. Irving has missed 27 shots in the two games, with nine assists and seven turnovers, cut off by multiple Golden State defenders.
Then there’s J.R. Smith, whose lack of offense in the first two rounds didn’t matter thanks to his defensive work against the Indiana Pacers' Paul George and Toronto Raptors' DeMar DeRozan. Now he’s a scrambling, fouling liability, unable to meet his team’s challenge to shoot more.
That’s why, per an ESPN.com report, Iman Shumpert might find himself starting in Game 3 at The Q. He has the defensive chops to mess with even Durant, as he did in spurts Sunday, and thus give James a few extra breathers at that end. Shumpert reportedly needed an IV for cramping after logging 22 minutes in Game 2, but if the Cavs don’t find more defensive counters against the Warriors, their entire postseason will cramp up.
5. New meaning to ‘podium game’: James raised eyebrows for the second straight day by eschewing the postgame podium, instead conducting his interviews after the loss from one side of the visitors’ dressing room at Oracle Arena. One day earlier, he made a beeline to a media station on one corner of the practice court, normally used for non-stars while the marquee guys work from the interview room.
What did it mean? Might there be trouble afoot in The Land? Apparently, James -- who confirmed he had a reason for this behavior but declined to share it -- did not like having to wait, if ready, to do his postgame media while Golden State players were on the podium. He decided to make a point to the NBA’s communications staff or just handled it his way.
It was a silly sidebar to the Cavs’ defeat, and James specified it had nothing to do with winning or losing. But if Cleveland takes Game 3 and he’s back at the head table, it sure will look like it. As far as shortening up his wait time, he might not like the fix: Players from losing teams typically get to the podium quickly at the Finals’ end, because winners are busy with those pesky trophy presentations.
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