OAKLAND — The Midwestern guys ran into a few too many talented West Coast cool cats Thursday night.
Six years ago, LeBron James drove his RV onto the grounds of the NBA Finals, and he has camped out here ever since. This week, he rolled into the Bay Area with his Cleveland posse, ready for a Finals showdown. He had Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson, guys who won 57 regular-season games and who lost just two games this entire postseason.
The Cavaliers’ regular season was drama-filled; the coach was fired and players were rumored to have demanded trades. But their postseason dominance had been thorough. The Detroit Pistons? Please. The Atlanta Hawks? Legs-up roadkill. The Toronto Raptors? Coach Tyronn Lue opined before the game Thursday that it was good the Raptors had beaten his team twice, as those losses spared his Cavaliers the fate of growing rusty while waiting for the Warriors to defeat the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Then the game started in Oakland and nearly 20,000 Warriors fans wearing mustard-colored T-shirts went berserker crazy. For the first time this postseason, James’ mates looked taken aback. The Cavaliers’ defensive rotations rotated until they did not — a striking number of Golden State Warriors had time to exhale and take cool aim at the rim, their putative defenders trapped in another ZIP code.
The Warriors come at you in great rushes, a river flowing fast to the sea. Late in the third quarter, the Cavaliers finally took a lead. Their relief was eye-blink brief.
At the start of the fourth quarter, the Warriors’ lead stood at six points. A dozen minutes later, the lead had expanded to 18 points, and the Cavaliers lay in a deep ditch. They lost 104-89.
James walked into the postgame news conference, a dapper dude in tie and prepster jacket. He was in no mood for the obvious. What happened to your bench?
He scrunched his nose and peered at the reporter. “What happened? They scored 45 points, we scored 10. That’s what happened.”
This Warriors’ bench, another reporter offered, looks different this year.
James shook his head. The Warriors were champions last year. “It’s kind of hard to answer that question because it’s not really true.”
This is the drama of LeBron James. He’s an analytic genius, offering a breathtaking combination of savvy passing and downhill rushes to the hoop. He’s gotten to the Finals six times and won twice. Somehow that remarkable feat plays as defeat in the mind of news media, who note that Michael Jordan won six championships. Magic Johnson won four.
It’s inane. Yet this math consumes James. Last year, when the Cavaliers lost the Finals despite James’ heroic performance, he said it might have hurt less not to make the playoffs. “It’s never a success if you go out losing.”
“I don’t enjoy being as nonefficient as I was,” he said at the time. “I don’t enjoy dribbling the ball for countless seconds on the shot clock and the team looking at me to make a play.”
I can dig that. To watch him this playoff season is to see an orchestra conductor exercising all his skills. He plays with the ball, figuring whether to dish or spin to the hoop. As he ages, his lineage owes less to that feline killer Jordan and more to Johnson, the captain at the wheel of great teams.
James has a marvelous touch near the hoop, but his long-range shooting has grown shaky. He tends to fall backward as he shoots, or moves sideways, which is not recommended if drawing a bead on a basket 25 feet away. Why this is so, in this age of film and analytics and two dozen assistant coaches, is a bafflement.
His teammates are imperfect. Kevin Love has been a bit exposed in Cleveland. He has a sweet stroke, and a nose for rebounds. He also has the lateral quickness of a statue. If you want an emphatic rebound in traffic, better to look for James or Tristan Thompson.
The young guard Kyrie Irving can call to mind a young Earl Monroe, a nervous breakdown collection of jiving sidesteps and spins and jukes. But he grows intoxicated with his moves and forgets four men share a court with him. Thursday night, he shot an unsightly 7 for 22.
He also blew a crucial layup and trotted back on defense, as the Golden State Warriors ran far ahead of him.
This Cavaliers team is loaded with former New York Knicks. There’s Iman Shumpert, the rawboned defensive guard with a hairdo piled so high it calls to mind Lincoln’s stovepipe hat. Then there’s J.R. Smith, a perpetual adolescent who has found stability in the shadow of James, who has taken the role of older sibling.
Smith had a fine shooting season. Thursday night, he was 1 for 3 for three points. Did you need to be a touch more aggressive? He replied like a child development expert: “It’s a process.”
If the Cavaliers were worried, they weren’t about to let you know it. Were you aware, reporters asked coach Tyronn Lue, that your bench players were barely shooting? He peered at the reporter, eyes icy. “Yes, we were aware of it.”
The Cavaliers said the ball, that ornery instrument, refused to go into the basket.
Playoff series are about parries. It should surprise no one if the Cavaliers roar back Sunday. The Cavaliers would do well, however, to pay heed. The attention on this much-hyped team revolves around Klay Thompson and Steph Curry, and their disconcerting habit of shooting and floating back down court with their wrists curled, as though they’d just put a check in the mail.
Thursday night, however, it was the Warriors’ defense that devastated. Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green and Thompson have the sure hands of hubcap thieves. Even Curry, who Green calls “the mouse in the house,” plays a scrappy defense.
What about that off shooting night for the stars? Curry, the loose-jointed hip cat, shrugged. The Cavaliers wanted to stop him and Thompson, so they kept swinging the ball. “You take the defensive aggression,” Curry said, “and kind of work it against them.”
That was Zen enough to make Phil Jackson smile.
James eschews talk of the metaphysical. He is 31, with hundreds of thousands of miles on his odometer. He can feel mortality’s breath on his neck.
“We’re not a team that loses our composure,” he said. “I’m looking forward to seeing the film session and seeing ways we can get better.”
It’s impossible not to admire his passion, just as it’s easy to see that this player and his fine team face a climb up an imposing cliff wall.