CLEVELAND — The Cleveland Cavaliers were frustrated.
Just like 28 other teams in the NBA, they were frustrated trying to figure out a way to stop the Golden State Warriors and their barrage of threes. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson combined for 11 from beyond the arc and the Warriors as a team had an NBA Finals record 17 of them. The too-often undisciplined Cavaliers defense couldn’t stop them.
The Cavaliers were frustrated that with the game — and maybe their season — in the balance they slipped back into the bad habits of Kyrie Irving and LeBron James isolation basketball. Which against a good defense like Golden State’s comes complete with a lot of contested shots.
And they are frustrated that now they are staring a second-straight runner-up finish in the face.
“I thought we competed. I thought we played hard,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said after Game 4 Friday night. “Some defensive breakdowns giving Steph and Klay some open shots. This is the first game where they really got going tonight, and it was hard to stop them. But I thought we played hard. I thought we competed. I just thought we made some defensive mistakes that cost us. And every time we made a mistake, they made us pay.”
Of the 22 three-point shots Curry and Thompson took, 12 were uncontested, according to the NBA’s tracking stats. There were too many Cavaliers breakdowns that left the two best shooters in the game with clean looks. Some those came in transition, which the Warriors were able to get more of late in the third quarter and into the fourth because they got stops against a predictable and stagnant Cavaliers offense.
“But our offense did stall a little bit in the fourth quarter,” LeBron said. “We played a little bit too much random, trying to dribble drive, get guys looks, and then we started settling a little bit for the three-point shot when we kind of got down.”
The Cavaliers know the stat — no team has ever come back from being down 3-1 in the NBA Finals. Teams are 0-32 in that spot.
But they also know the Warriors were down 3-1 to Oklahoma City last series and found a way to come back. They said all the right things about fighting back.
“If you don’t think we can win, don’t get on the plane,” Lue said of the trip back to the Bay Area for Game 5 Monday. “I just think we’ve got to come back anyway, so we might as well come back and play. We’ve got to come back to Cleveland, don’t we?”
“My mindset is get one,” LeBron said. “You know, we’ve got to go out there and play obviously better than we played tonight. Better than even we played in Game 3. But we’ve got to get one. It’s not about overlooking this. It’s about getting one on their home floor where they’ve been very successful.”
The problem is, the Cavaliers need two in Oracle.
“We have to be extremely confident; it’s do-or-die,” J.R. Smith said. “We have to play with desperation, play to exhaustion and figure out how to win….
“It just sucks to be in this position. I don’t think there’s any doubting that we can do it. It’s just a matter of us going out there, putting in the effort for 48 minutes, and we just got to ball out.”
The 48 minutes part is the challenge — not that the Cavaliers will not play hard for a full game with their backs against the wall, they almost certainly will. The challenge is mental — outside of Game 3 the Cavaliers have not been able to maintain the defensive focus and discipline needed to beat the Warriors for a full 48 minutes. And Lue is right, slip up and the Warriors make their opponent pay.
We will see if the Cavaliers can channel all that frustration into the best performance of their season on Monday night. If not, it will be their last. And they know it.