OAKLAND, Calif. — Many comparisons in the coming days can and will be made between this year’s NBA Finals and last year’s series. As in 2016, the Cavaliers got pasted in their first two games on the road. And similar to last time, the Cavs will try to find some footing in Cleveland in hopes of bringing the series back to Oakland for at least a fifth game.
But aside from the painfully obvious observation — that Kevin Durant is an absolute monster who makes a comeback far more difficult than the one Cleveland pulled off a year ago — the Cavs have another problem: After a relatively poor showing in last season’s finals, Stephen Curry appears to have returned to form.
The 29-year-old logged the first triple-double of his postseason career, finishing with 32 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds on Sunday. His game was far from perfect, as he had eight turnovers to go with those gaudy numbers. But as reckless as he was at times, it was hard not to notice how fast and healthy he looked compared to last year’s Finals, where he didn’t have the burst to both dazzle past defenders and finish over them at the rim.
In the 2015 Finals, Curry was dangerous when he controlled the ball inside the arc for seven dribbles or more, hitting 55 percent of those shots. But that number fell to 35 percent last year on the biggest stage, as he faltered late in the deciding Game 7, unable to get around Tristan Thompson, Richard Jefferson and Kevin Love — all respectable players, but guys that a great scorer like Curry should be able to put in the blender in 1-on-1 scenarios.
That has not been a problem in this series, which is part of the best postseason of his career. He’s not only getting a step on bigger defenders, he’s also knocking down 50 percent of those looks inside the arc once he does.1
There have been other great indications for Curry. Even with all those turnovers, he’s creating a ton of looks for his teammates — 13.5 potential assists per game in this series, up from 8.4 last year.2 He’s been the fastest offensive player on the court3 by far. And, so far, he’s been getting considerably more accurate with his shot as he gets deeper into each game, much the way he did in 2015.4
Following the game, Cleveland star LeBron James was asked whether the Cavs were still trying to feel out the new-look Warriors. “They’re a different team. You guys asked me, ‘What was the difference?’ And I told you. They’re a different team.”
James was referring to the addition of Durant. But with Curry playing this well too, even James might not be able to do enough to allow Cleveland to turn things around.
Durant is defense-proof
When the Warriors signed Durant, much was made about how much more space he would have to work with on offense now that he was surrounded by shooters. Game 1 showed how deadly that works out to be in practice. But the other thing Durant adds is the ability to Go Get A Bucket, to take and make tough shots when the defense tightens up in critical moments of the game. That came out in Game 2.
Durant had 33 points, 13 rebounds, six assists, three steals and five blocks Sunday night, and he played as well defensively as he has all season. That’s an outstanding line all on its own, but he was also 10-for-15 on contested looks in Game 2, bringing him to 17-for-29 for the series. The Cavs tightened up their defense considerably from Game 1, but with Durant hitting everything he threw up regardless of coverage, it hardly mattered. And strange as it sounds in a game decided by 19 points, the Warriors needed Durant to carry them with those tough shots.
“Tonight was a game based on talent,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after the game when asked about Golden State’s 13 first-half turnovers. “We had a lot of guys play great individually.”
Durant was right in the the middle of it, especially early in the game, when he was hitting contested step-backs and keying fast breaks with his defense. And he pretty much put the game away in the fourth quarter when he blocked a Kevin Love post-up on one end and hit a twisting, falling fadeaway over two defenders to put the Warriors up 18 with seven minutes to play. It was an incredible 1-2 sequence that only a few players in the league are capable of putting together. But creating offense out of nothing is Durant’s specialty, especially on contested attempts like that.
Coming into the season, our colleague Ben Morris mapped out how Durant adds as much value to the average 2-point shot as Curry does to a 3-pointer. But in Oklahoma City, Durant had generally been getting bad looks and turning them into good ones. In Golden State, he’s finally been getting good shots, but he has shown that he still has the chops to turn bad ones good.
That’s a skill the Warriors don’t necessarily have. Even with Curry playing like his old MVP self, he was just 4-for-11 on contested looks in Game 1 and 2-for-7 Sunday night. But that has hardly mattered. With Durant on the roster, this is no longer the team that couldn’t find a way to score in the final 4:39 of the fourth quarter of Game 7 last year. It’s a team that can go get a bucket whenever it needs one.
LeBron may be tired
It never quite seemed like LeBron and the Cavs were about to run away with the game, but for a while at least, things looked like they were going to work. Cleveland was running and gunning, and the offense was working in all the ways it hadn’t in Game 1. James was 8-for-12 for 18 points and 10 assists in the first half, mostly on drives that produced good shots around the rim or open looks for teammates. Throw out a few what-were-they-thinking fouls on Curry in the first quarter, which gave him eight of his 10 free throw attempts in that period, and they might have taken a lead into halftime. But even when they wound up down three at the break, it seemed like we had a game on our hands. Then the Cavs ran out of gas.
The first half was played at a pace factor of 119, meaning the full game would have seen 119 possessions if play had kept going at that speed. That’s staggeringly high, and while the game did slow down after halftime, the final pace rating was still 106.4, making it the second-fastest game Cleveland played all season. (The fourth-fastest was a January matchup against the Warriors that Golden State won by 35.) The pace proved to be too much.
After his strong opening half, James shot just six times in the second half and just once in the fourth quarter. He was also much less involved overall, letting other players initiate the offense instead of hammering on the drive-and-kick game that had kept Cleveland in it early.
But James isn’t simply carrying the offense — he’s also guarding Durant for long stretches, and that hasn’t worked out so well. When James is guarding him this series, Durant is 10-for-17 for 23 points with just one turnover. On the whole, when James is the primary defender, the Warriors are shooting 63 percent against him and scoring 21.5 points per game.
James hasn’t been a disaster on defense — the highlight-reel moment where he gets spin-cycled by Curry seems likely to have been a reaction to a double dribble — but he’s also clearly no longer the man-eater he was at his height, when he both carried the offense and was one of the most fearsome perimeter defenders in the league.
The Cavs are rich in top-tier role players, but they don’t have a true defensive stopper on the perimeter; Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith have both looked overmatched in the series, which makes James’s job even more demanding than usual. He might just need a breather. So while it was nice to see the Cavs offense operating at a high level again, Cleveland may want to consider slowing things down.