OAKLAND – Five things we learned from the Golden State Warriors’ 122-103 victory in Game 2 against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2018 Finals Sunday at Oracle Arena:
1. A killer D, including Draymond and Durant
It’s only natural to get caught up in oohing and aahing at the pretty pyrotechnic parabolas, all those Stephen Curry 3-pointers that wreak such havoc on the scoreboard and on an opponent’s psyche. But Golden State’s defense, top 10-ranked during the season, has been essential to its success through these Finals runs and was on display Sunday.
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The Warriors dialed up their intensity and initial resistance against LeBron James, sending an extra man early to force decisions on the Cavs’ superstar. The Warriors’ versatile and enveloping Draymond Green was the point of the spear but he had lots of help.
“We at least made him somewhat uncomfortable at times,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said. “I mean, you've got to do your best. You've got to pressure him. You've got to know he's going to end up with 30 points and a triple-double and all that stuff because he's that good. But we just made things a little more difficult for him tonight.”
The “we” included a strong defensive performance from Kevin Durant, who’s normally lauded more for his scoring prowess. But Durant was a cul-de-sac for Cleveland as far as second chances, glomming onto nine rebounds, all defensive.
“Just activity,” Kerr said of Durant. “He was getting after it. Game 1, I didn't think he played his best defensive game. Kevin is going to probably have 26 points whether he plays well or not. That's how talented he is. So he's always going to score. It's not about scoring, it's about the defensive intensity, it's about his work on the glass. I thought he set a really good tone for us with his defense early in the game.”
Said Durant, who also hit 10 of his 14 shots and passed for seven assists: “We’re doing a good job with making second and third efforts. We did a better job of boxing out. I think the offensive rebounds that they grabbed this game weren’t back-breaking like last game.”
2. Ankle to Klay: I’m kinda important
There was a comic moment in the middle of the Klay Thompson-Curry postgame podium interview when Thompson shared a light-bulb moment with his audience. “I didn’t realize how much you use your ankle until you hurt it,” he said, “but...”
Interrupting, Curry said: “You should have asked me.” The Golden State point guard had four ankle injuries this season, and his early years were marked by some serious ones.
Thompson on Saturday was moving as gingerly as an octogenarian. But Sunday, after spending what he said felt like the three entire off days between games on the trainers’ table, he barely gave an indication of the high left ankle sprain suffered early in Game 1, and scored 20 points in nearly 34 minutes.
Said teammate Draymond Green: “I thought there was no chance he was playing tonight. I mean, I saw him walking in yesterday and saw his ankle and I was like, yeah, there's no chance he's playing. … But he came out there and gutted through it. That's just a microcosm of who he is, one of the toughest guys if not the toughest guy I've ever played with.”
3. LeBron looked, well, human
But he most definitely is human and it showed in specific stretches and in his overall stats line, which reached triple-double awesomeness without denting the record book as in Game 1.
In the second quarter, for instance, James missed five of his seven shots and was a minus-9, racking up half of his overall minus-18 for the night.
“I mean, he definitely had a more than decent game,” Green said. “But you've got to make things as tough as you can on him. He's already a great player, and then you give him the easy things and he's just getting into a rhythm and he's dialing everything up. At that point there is really nothing you can do. From the start of [this] game we played with more force.”
James looked fatigued at times, though he only copped to that once.
“They doubled me a few times when I caught the ball in the post, something they didn't do in Game 1,” James said. “So I got off the ball, trusted my teammates. But as far as working harder, I think I got tired once.”
4. Whose bench is less bad?
That was a storyline coming into The Finals, because Cleveland has a bunch of relatively new mismatched toys and Golden State is missing injured Andre Iguodala while leaning on a few unproven pieces (hello, Nick Young).
And yet, former knucklehead JaVale McGee -- whose reputation has been rehabbed since he joined the Warriors -- started, played 18 minutes and helped his team put pace into the game. He finished with 12 points on 6-for-6 shooting. Veteran backup Shaun Livingston took five shots and made ‘em all, continuing to pester Cleveland from mid-range. Then there was wily vet David West, a big man by trade who hit his first corner 3-pointer since, er, November.
“David West's three was probably the biggest three of the game,” Green said. “They were kind of making a run, and they wouldn't go away and then he hit that three from the corner right in front of their bench. It was a gut punch. He said, ‘Man, [assistant coach] Mike Brown has been telling me to shoot it.’ So shout out to Mike Brown.”
5. Cavs, you could have had home court ...
Every time these teams have met in The Finals, Cleveland has had to start on the road. That’s part of the reason for the holes the Cavaliers dig each spring, only one of which they managed to dig out from in the first three Finals series.
It’s probably not fair to expect Cleveland to have won 67 games as the Warriors did heading to their 2015 and ‘17 clashes. And, of course, 73 was off the charts in ‘16 -- and didn’t protect Golden State that year after all.
But the defending champs only pushed to 58 victories this season, a number that the Cavaliers could have reached if not for all their regular-season hiccups. Winning Game 7 at Oracle in 2016 might have given them the wrong kind of message about homecourt advantage. And they happen to be 8-1 at Quicken Loans Arena in these playoffs.
Oh well, that’s over and done with now. What’s left is for Cleveland to protect home court and try to stretch this into a best-of-three series.
“We want to continue to be uncomfortable,” James said. “Just because we're going home doesn't mean we can relax. This is the last team in the world you want to relax against.
“I will continue to stay uncomfortable, and I hope our guys continue to stay uncomfortable no matter with us going back home.”
Anything James can draw from three consecutive years of falling behind 0-2?
The Cavs star didn’t mince words: “No.”
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