Kurt Helin

Tough road through Oklahoma City to Finals has Golden State playing on higher level

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OAKLAND — There is no doubt Golden State is playing on a higher level than Cleveland through the first two games of the NBA Finals, having gone up 2-0 and winning by a combined 48 points.

There also is no doubt the Warriors faced a tougher path to the Finals — Oklahoma City challenged Golden State like no team had in two seasons. The Thunder led 3-1 in that series and pushed the Warriors to the brink, forcing Golden State to start executing at a much higher level just to have a chance. Cleveland rolled to a 12-2 record through a soft East, only dropping games when their focus went away for entire nights.

The Warriors are the sharper team because of it, and they are now carving up Cleveland.

“I think the Oklahoma City series definitely made us stronger,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “It wasn’t a whole lot of fun, and we barely escaped. But I think we were able to sort of capitalize on the momentum that we built during that series, and by winning those three in a row, we’ve been able to carry it over to this series so far.”

The Thunder defense — with the length and size of Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, and Steven Adams — forced Golden State to be more crisp on offense. And not just the stars, everyone had to play better. That has resulted in wins in the Finals led by Shaun Livingston and Draymond Green, not the Splash Brothers.

The Thunder’s athletic, attacking players also forced the Warriors to defend at a much higher level, something they carried over to this series. Kyrie Irving is just 12-of-36 shooting and 1-of-7 from three shooting through two games, with just five assists. LeBron James is facing a wall of switching defenders — and help defenders — and can’t knock down a jumper to make them pay.

“I think just last series really helped us with their isolation players, guarding [Russell] Westbrook and [Kevin] Durant,” Harrison Barnes said. “We had to have all five guys on the floor to get ready in a stance and play. I think coming into this series we were much more equipped for that.”

It’s also about knowing your opponents personnel.

“I mean, Kyrie and LeBron are two different players than Russell and K.D., but they all have, obviously, amazing strengths which have put them in the category they are,” Stephen Curry said. “So there’s no real comparison. It’s just you know what their strengths are and what our game plan is to attack them, and we’ve done a good job of just staying consistent with it in our game plan this series. That’s all you can ask for is try to make them take contested shots, tough shots, make them work to get open, and you live with the results.”

So far, the results are excellent. If the Warriors can continue this level of focus and execution in Cleveland, this feels like it will be a very short series.

Klay Thompson jokingly pokes fun at his father, says Warriors better than Showtime Lakers

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OAKLAND — Draymond Green was not going to get sucked into this trap. Much as he had avoided Cavaliers defenders all night, he avoided trying to answer the question about whether these Warriors — closing in on back-to-back titles and with 73 wins during the season — are one of the all-time great teams.

“I don’t really look at are you the best team of all time, are we the best team of all time?” Green asked. “Because I think it’s all subjective. To say we’re better than the Showtime Lakers, how can you say that? We never played them.”

“We are better than the Showtime Lakers,” Klay Thompson interjected while smiling, cracking up the room.

Klay’s father Mychael Thompson was a member of those Showtime Lakers. It was a family joke.

Of course, Green is right. Who is the best team of all time is subjective, and an argument you and your buddies can have over a nice Stone Brewing IPA.

But after the Warriors close out these Finals, after the two-year run they have had, they have injected themselves into that conversation. Which is an amazing feat in and of itself.

 

LeBron James struggles to solve puzzle of Golden State

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OAKLAND — Every time LeBron James would look down at the stat sheet in front of him, he would shake his head. It was involuntary.

LeBron and his Cavaliers had just been thrashed by the Golden State Warriors by 33, getting beat in every aspect of the game. The stat sheet was ugly — the 35.4 percent shooting by the entire Cavaliers team, the 17 turnovers (seven by him), the 33-point deficit in the score.

LeBron had seemed frustrated during the third quarter. He pounded the ball into the ground with his dribbles. He’s usually the guy figuring the other team out, exploiting weaknesses, and making them pay. Through two games he has been unable to find answers to anything the Warriors were doing. Golden State is quick to bring help defenders to him when he drives, trying to make LeBron a jump shooter and he is not that anymore — he was 6-of-8 in the restricted area in Game 2, 1-of-9 from everywhere else. Plus, LeBron is getting little help from the finally healthy Cavaliers — Richard Jefferson was Cleveland’s second-best player in Game 2.

After the game, LeBron the PR guy was at the podium saying all the right things, he just couldn’t help but shake his head when he looked down.

“I’m not disappointed in our guys or frustrated,” LeBron said. “We’ve just got to do a better job. We’ve got to be better at all facets of the game both offensively and defensively, both physically and mentally. They just beat us at every — we didn’t win anything. No points of the game did we beat them in anything. Even when we had an early lead, they beat us to 50-50 balls, they got extra possessions, they got extra tip-ins. They beat us pretty good tonight.”

They’ve beaten them pretty good for two games, winning by a combined 48 points. That is without Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson having a breakout game yet.

Part of the Warriors’ success has been keeping LeBron in relative check. The Warriors contested 11 of LeBron’s 17 shots, and he shot just 36.4 percent with a hand in his face. He shot 1-of-6 outside the paint.

“You just try to make everything tough,” Draymond Green said of defending LeBron. “Some of the shots LeBron missed, I mean, you’ve got to give a little credit to our defense. But some of them he missed, he just missed. It happens like that sometimes in the game of basketball. That’s why none of us is perfect. But I think we’ve got a good game plan that we’ve stuck to and that we have to continue to do throughout the rest of this series.”

“I’ve got to be better,” LeBron said, shouldering the blame, as he tends to do after losses. “I’ve got to be better with the ball. You know, trying to play make for myself and play make for my teammates at the same time, I’ve just got to be more solid.”

LeBron is struggling against the Warriors’ defense, but he also isn’t getting much help. Kyrie Irving is shooting 12-of-36 overall and 1-of-7 from three, with just five assists, through two games. Kevin Love has been a virtual non-factor and now may miss at least the next game due to a concussion.

It will lead to calls from some for LeBron to revert to his Finals form from last year and take over the offense. To run everything through himself as he did in last year’s Game 2 win by the Cavaliers (39 points, 16 rebounds and 11 assists). To be more selfish.

“Selfish is probably the wrong term,” LeBron said. “I got myself in a lot of trouble tonight personally. Turned the ball over way too much. And I said after Game 1 we just can’t turn the ball over against a great team and expect to win, and I had basically half of the turnovers.”

The problem is even when LeBron does take on more of the offense, the Cavaliers still lose to the Warriors. For reference, check out how last year’s Finals ended. Basketball remains a team game and the Warriors are the better team right now. The deeper team. The higher IQ team. The more locked in team. And they are focused on defending LeBron.

“We just tried to be as active as possible,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “We have a lot of speed on our team and like-sized players who we can kind of help and recover and switch. And it’s a very difficult job because LeBron is so smart that he sees everything before it happens, and sometimes if you switch, he’ll read that and find somebody for a lay-up or he’ll attack at the exact right time to expose our defense. And I just thought our guys did as good a job as we possibly could in terms of trying to cover him in penetration and stay with shooters at the same time….

“We’re not comfortable playing against LeBron, to be honest with you…. And I would say we’re confident that we can beat anybody. But we’re definitely not comfortable playing against LeBron. He’s obviously one of the great players in the history of this game, and we’ve had success the first two games, but there’s a lot of basketball left.”

What can LeBron and Cleveland do differently? LeBron’s not completely sure of the answers. Which is part of what frustrates him.

“We’ve got to get back to the film and we all have to figure out ways we can help the team be successful….” LeBron said. “Internally we have to figure out how we can be better. We have to figure out how we can help one another. We definitely have to figure out how we can get more guys involved. Fifteen assists, it’s not winning basketball, especially versus this team. We’ve just got to figure it out.”

They need to figure it out fast or this series will be over.didn’t

Warriors play fast, drain threes, blow out Cavaliers 110-77 to take 2-0 series lead

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OAKLAND — Cleveland’s plan going into Game 2 was to play faster to get easy buckets, move the ball, and score better in the paint.

Strike one. Strike two. Strike three.

While they are not out, the Cavaliers are now down 0-2 in the NBA Finals to a very confident Warriors team just playing at a higher level — particularly on defense. It’s hard to see how Cleveland wins four of the next five games.

“I thought early we did hit first. I just thought when they went to the small lineup, their small lineup was a lot faster than what ours was,”Cavaliers’ coach Tyronn Lue said after the game. “Being faster and being longer and athletic gave us some trouble. It gave us some problems.”

More than some. Golden State won Game 2 110-77, shooting 54.3 percent as a team and 45.5 percent from three. Game 3 is Wednesday in Cleveland.

This time it was Draymond Green who led the way with 28 points — including going 5-of-8 from three. Stephen Curry had 18 points but was limited by some foul trouble, while Klay Thompson added 17. Neither Splash Brother has had a breakout Finals game, and yet the Warriors are 2-0 having outscored the Cavaliers by 48 points.

Playing fast is the Warriors natural state of being, their comfort zone, and after a sluggish first quarter the tempo of the game picked up in the second just like Lue wanted — and that’s when the Warriors started to pull away. The Warriors defend better at pace than any team in the league. They are used to defensive cross matches and switches — they do it all season long — and they know how to protect the rim even while scrambling. It worked, Cleveland was 20-of-44  shooting in the paint for the game, and they again got bogged down in isolations when trying to exploit switching mismatches. The Warriors can defend isos if they see them coming, and Cleveland is telegraphing theirs. The result is this shot chart.

Cavaliers shot chart Game 2

And offense is not even the Cavs biggest problem in this series.

On the other end, Cleveland knows they should switch everything against Golden State (they saw Oklahoma City do it), but they lack the discipline and communication as a team to pull it off consistently, they lack the athletic defenders of OKC, and the Warriors eventually start to carve it up. There were moments where Cleveland defended in Game 2 like they will need to if they want to make any kind of comeback in this series. They simply can’t sustain it.

Then once the Warriors momentum gets rolling, it’s over.

“Whenever we make a run they stay the course, and whenever they make a run we get erratic a little bit,” J.R. Smith said. “They’re just a better team right now.”

LeBron James — 19 points on 17 shots — is clearly frustrated, in part with himself and his seven turnovers. Last season he tried to put the less healthy Cavaliers on his back in the Finals, and that was not good enough. This season he is supposed to have help, but the Cavaliers as a team shot 35.4 percent and only veteran Richard Jefferson showed the kind of fight this team needs much more of.

“I’m not disappointed in our guys or frustrated,” LeBron said. “We’ve just got to do a better job. We’ve got to be better at all facets of the game both offensively and defensively, both physically and mentally. They just beat us at every — we didn’t win anything. No points of the game did we beat them in anything.”

The Cavaliers may also have lost Kevin Lovehe suffered a concussion from an inadvertent Harrison Barnes elbow, which had Love in the locker room most of the second half. He is now in the NBA’s concussion protocol, meaning he has to pass a series of tests and levels just to be able to play in Game 3 (or any future game).

What ended being a Warriors blowout didn’t start that way.

There was a sluggish first six minutes to the game, with the Warriors missing threes (they started 0-of-5 from deep) and the Cavaliers not playing with the pace or ball movement Lue preached between games. Both teams shot less than 40 percent in the first quarter. The Cavaliers had a small lead early thanks to offensive rebounds giving them four second chance points, but the Warriors responded thanks to them taking over control of the boards — Golden State had seven offensive boards in the first quarter. The Cavaliers ended the first on an 8-2 run and led 21-19 after one.

In the second quarter the tempo picked up — and so did the Warriors. Cleveland was much more active defensively, which got them some transition buckets. But they can’t sustain that level of defensive focus, and when the breakdowns came the Warriors exploited it — Draymond Green was 3-of-5 from three in the second quarter, the Warriors liked the tempo and got into their natural state, and led by 15. The reasons the lead was down to 52-44 at the half was Curry picked up a third foul, and when he sat Lebron led a 7-0 run to end the quarter, a run fueled by the Warriors missing some wide-open threes.

While the game was still close, Golden State was getting good looks, winning the 50-50 balls, and it felt like they could blow it open at any point — and they did in the third outscoring Cleveland 30-18 behind 10 more points from Green and 9 from Thompson.

“I think our focus has been there,” Green said. “We’ve really locked in on the game plan. The intensity level has been there, and most importantly we’ve gotten it done on the defensive side of the basketball. To hold this team to 77 points, that’s a very good ballclub, that’s not something that’s easy to do. But we really locked in. We stuck to the game plan, and we’ve been able to do that.”

Once the Warriors’ train started rolling, Cleveland could do nothing to slow it.

Can slow it at Quicken Loans Arena is the big question? They need to in Game 3 or this series is all but over.

Cavaliers’ Kevin Love in locker room with concussion after elbow to head from Barnes

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OAKLAND — The play happened midway through the second quarter. Klay Thompson missed a three from the right wing; Kevin Love was under the basket for the rebound, and Harrison Barnes came flying in to get the offensive board. Barnes inadvertently elbowed Love to the head.

Love went down and stayed down for a minute after the play ended. However, he cleared concussion protocols at first and stayed in the game. He also came back out to start the second half.

But after a couple of minutes, he experienced dizziness and was taken back to the Cavaliers’ locker room for treatment. He has now been placed under the league’s concussion protocol, the team announced.

“Kevin did not exhibit any signs or symptoms during the first half, or at halftime, that would have caused him to be placed in the concussion protocol prior to now,” the NBA said in an official release.

He will have to clear a series of steps outlined in the protocol to play in Game 3 (or any others).