CLEVELAND — Between how agonizingly close the Cavs were to winning Game 3 and the way that absolutely everything worked for them during a comfortable, wire-to-wire victory in Game 4, it’s tempting to think Cleveland may have found something that works in this series.
Members of the Cavs’ Big 3 all had it going in Friday’s win. The role players, invisible early in the series, finally came to life and were difference-makers in the game. And, like in last year’s NBA Finals, Cleveland seemingly got under Golden State’s skin by being more physical.
But as impressive as their last two showings have been, and despite what we know about the Cavs’ ability to make a huge comeback, we aren’t ready to sound the alarm for the Warriors, who still hold a 3-1 edge in the best-of-seven series.1 That’s because it’s unclear how much of what Cleveland did in Friday’s 137-116 outburst is repeatable.
For starters, Cleveland hit 24 triples on the night, the most in NBA Finals history. The Cavs were the beneficiaries of some truly awful calls early in the contest2 and got to the line 22 times in the opening quarter en route to scoring a Finals-record 49 points in the first period alone. They had an All-Star-Game-like 86 points at halftime, and they had logged 115 points — more than they’d had in any full game this series — through the end of three periods. None of these numbers figure to show up again.
Yet the one thing that could prove to be sustainable is the dominant Batman/Superman act that LeBron James and Kyrie Irving have shown us they’re capable of pulling off. Irving had a game-high 40 points on Friday, while James finished with a 31-point triple-double. We’ve grown accustomed to seeing these two play their best when they absolutely have to, given that James averaged 36 points and Irving posted 30 a night over the final three games of last year’s series, after Cleveland fell behind 3-1. So if they managed to piece together three consecutive virtuoso showings last time, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that they could do it four times3 this year.
Yet the real bright spot for the Cavs was that they finally hit their open shots after some abysmal performances from deep earlier in the Finals. Cleveland hit just two of its 10 uncontested triples in Game 3, yet hit 12 of its 23 unguarded looks Friday. Those 12 uncontested makes in Game 4 were more than the Cavs hit in Games 1, 2 and 3 combined, according to ESPN Stats & Information Group.
Cleveland’s offense can also be an immense help to its troubled defense. The maligned Cavs defense ranked dead-last in transition D during the regular season. That same problem was on display in the first three games when the Cavs surrendered a combined 99 points in transition to the Warriors. But after scoring a basket — which gives the defense time to align itself properly — the Cavs defense was actually good, and tied for 10th in the NBA in defensive efficiency, according to Inpredictable, a site that specializes in advanced stats and win probabilities. That explains how the Cavaliers held Golden State to just seven points in transition on Friday.
The Cavs’ best rebounder finally makes an impact
If you had said before these Finals that Stephen Curry would have more rebounds than Tristan Thompson through three games, it would have been a good indication that the Cavs were getting slaughtered. If you had said Curry had more boards in Game 3 alone (13) than Thompson had in Games 1-3 combined (11), it would have been a good time to ask about the state of the Predators-Penguins series.
Thompson came out with great energy on Friday, though, and looked more like his normal self, despite the Warriors’ efforts to continue neutralizing him on the glass. He finished with 10 boards, including four on offense. All four of those second chances resulted in scoring plays for the Cavaliers, including these two putbacks.
He also set up a bucket each for James and Kevin Love, who caught fire, hitting six of eight from deep.
An engaged, productive Thompson would go a long way toward potentially making this a real series again, given that the Cavs won last year’s title by harassing the Warriors with their physical play. Outside of James, Thompson is the most physical player Cleveland has.
After looking like an MVP early in the Finals, Curry has struggled
Though the Warriors still managed to score 116 points, they didn’t get anywhere near their usual scoring production out of Curry, who finished with 14 points on just 4-of-13 shooting.
Much of that stemmed from Iman Shumpert and his teammates doing a much better job of staying with him and limiting his open looks after losing him behind screens and on second-chance opportunities earlier in the series. In Games 1, 2 and 3, the two-time MVP got 11, six and three uncontested attempts, per ESPN Stats & Info. In Game 4, Curry saw just one unguarded look.
The Cavs’ willingness to run hard at Curry did make them vulnerable in other ways: The Warriors shot 71 percent (10-of-14) off the point guard’s passes, up considerably from the 41 percent they shot after when receiving a pass from anyone else.
But in a series where Curry and Kevin Durant had their way early, the Cavaliers may have decided they’d prefer to take at least one of those two guys away and force the other Golden State players to beat them instead.