The Cleveland Cavaliers had their shot to seize the series in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, and they missed it.
In Game 2 on Sunday night, Stephen Curry connected on his.
The shot in question, Curry’s desperation rainbow heave with 7:44 remaining in Golden State’s 122-103 win, was a perfect illustration of why the Cavs’ missed opportunity now looms critically large. It signaled to Cleveland and everyone watching that a good plan, even when well-executed with admirable effort, doesn’t matter against these Warriors.
Curry, stymied on the left wing, bobbled the ball before draining a twisting, fallaway fling over Love. It was part accident, part metaphor and all Steph.
And it was not remotely surprising.
Curry set a Finals record with nine made treys, scoring 33 points and leading Golden State to a 2-0 series lead. He hunted knockout blows all night, firing off deep and difficult threes in the second quarter before burying that decisive dagger over Love in the fourth.
Whoever’s in charge of putting Curry’s name on the Finals MVP trophy might want to fire up that little rotary engraving thingy.
LeBron James was predictably brilliant, registering 29 points, 13 assists and nine rebounds on 10-of-20 shooting. He flung passes from impossible angles, hit shooters for clean looks and did everything (super)humanly possible to give his team a chance.
Cleveland fought valiantly, actually winning the third quarter and stifling several would-be Warriors runs in the second half. Golden State spent the majority of the contest with a single-digit lead.
But with Curry playing H.O.R.S.E., Kevin Durant scoring 26 points on just 14 shots and Klay Thompson (20 points on 8-of-13 shooting) showing no ill effects of a left ankle injury that earned him a “questionable” designation until two hours before tipoff, James and the Cavs’ best efforts were for naught.
Everything that happened in Game 2 underscored the magnitude of Cleveland’s blown opportunity in Game 1. The Warriors’ overwhelming talent advantage was on full display, embodied most obviously by Curry, but illustrated nearly as well by Durant, Thompson, Draymond Green and even JaVale McGee’s perfect 6-of-6 effort in a spot start at center.
Love performed well, scoring 13 of his 22 points in the third quarter. George Hill put up 15 points and defended ably. As he always does, Tristan Thompson made an impact on the glass.
Everyone started complaining that this season would be a foregone conclusion approximately three seconds after the Warriors beat Cleveland for the 2017 title last June. That narrative was a mistake, as both the Cavs and Dubs were pushed to the brink in postseason rounds before these Finals. It’s actually something of a shock these two teams delivered on expectations by meeting for a fourth time.
But now we’re here after all. The Warriors are up 2-0 after making some key adjustments (slipped screens, anyone?) after Game 1. They’re getting contributions up and down the bench. Their stars are performing. They’re a confident bunch by nature and can now only be emboldened by their advantage in the series…and Curry’s fugue-state shooting.
It feels like the end is inevitable.
There’s a flip side to this—a way for Cleveland to avoid total emotional resignation.
The Cavs should have won Game 1. They could have taken Game 2 if a few more of James’ pinpoint passes had turned into converted threes—or if Curry hadn’t been so mean.
The Warriors could hit the snooze bar again. In fact, we should expect that for at least a quarter or two of Game 3. It’s their standard operating procedure and has been all season: Establish dominance, relax, re-establish dominance. There’s room for a Cavs victory in that cycle.
Cleveland can tighten up its switches, get Kyle Korver more involved on offense, continue to emphasize Love as a spacer and keep Jordan Clarkson in warm-ups for the balance of the series. The Cavs can still win a game or two. Anything’s possible, which we know because these same Warriors (minus Durant) lost three straight in the Finals to the Cavaliers just two seasons ago.
Normally, the Cavs would be right to look at the first two entries of this series and see positives. To expect a few more of those Curry shots to go awry. To bank on McGee and Shaun Livingston missing even one of their 11 combined shots.
But the sample size shrinks now with every game. Opportunities missed do not rematerialize. Makes and misses don’t necessarily even out. In an inversion of the norms we’ve come to accept across all NBA analysis, results now matter more than process.
So the Cavaliers head back home forced to ask themselves a brutal rhetorical question: Even if we scheme, execute and perform the way we want to, and even if Golden State gets lazy or goes cold, can we beat these Warriors in four of the next five games?
Time is running out, and Curry just showed the Cavs that’s when he’s at his most dangerous.