LeBron James played well again in Game 2 on Sunday night against the Golden State Warriors. The Cleveland Cavaliers star followed up his 51-point performance in the Game 1 with a near triple-double of 29 points, 13 assists, and nine rebounds.
Still, it just wasn’t enough.
Despite double-digit contributions from three other starters and reasonable shooting percentages throughout most of the game, the supporting cast for the Cavaliers could not measure up to the intensity brought by the reigning world champions. Even worse, three players attributed with 49 of Cleveland’s most vital bench minutes combined for just nine points. Those players — Kyle Korver, Jeff Green, and Larry Nance — collectively shot 2-of-11 with 10 rebounds and three assists.
Meanwhile, despite lacking Andre Iguodala, the Warriors’ supporting cast was what you’d expect from such a disciplined squad. David West grabbed a few rebounds, dished a couple assists, and had three blocks in 11 minutes. Shaun Livingston went 5-of-5 from the field. JaVale McGee, who started, scored 12 points and didn’t miss a shot from the floor.
The differentiation in play between Golden State’s and Cleveland’s role players was not just the story of Game 2, but it’s what sets them apart fundamentally in roster construction and organizational strategy.
It’s a running joke on Twitter at this point, but the idea that Nick Young and McGee are contributing minutes to Golden State (they combined for 36 on Sunday) is wild beyond our NBA-watching dreams. It’s something you’d only expect to click for the Warriors or perhaps the San Antonio Spurs. But while that meme runs its course on social media, the reality is that Cleveland is running out a roster of players with similarly historically low expectations with very different results.
Jordan Clarkson looks like he’s not ready to be a rotation player; Rodney Hood nearly got DNP-CD’d again (he played garbage time on Sunday); Green looked extremely Jeff Green-y; Tristan Thompson didn’t contribute to his salary level; Nance got eaten alive against Warriors starters.
The gap between the stars on the Warriors and the stars on the Cavaliers is expansive. But the benches and role players, on paper and with Iguodala sidelined, are closer than we think. That’s doubly so when McGee and Young are getting significant run. It’s the execution that sets them apart, and as the rotation mixes over the game, how the stars are able to cover for their lesser teammates.
Cleveland isn’t the kind of team that’s going to be able to hide that many holes in a Finals matchup. They need their role players not just to fill in, but to push past their expectations in some kind of consistent manner. After Game 2 Tyronn Lue said as much, specifically with regard to Green.
“Jeff could be more assertive, I think,” said Lue. “[He needs to] be more aggressive offensively, not just settle for threes, [and] attack the basket.”
Green was important during Cleveland’s series against the Toronto Raptors, and vital to their Game 7 win over the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals. But for the most part, Green hasn’t been able to handle his share, particularly when opponents have zeroed in on Love and Korver. That rang true again on Sunday when Green finished with six points, two rebounds, and one assist on 28.5 percent shooting.
In these NBA Finals, we’re seeing the truths our facts, figures, and theorems can teach us when we put them into a real life experiment. The result, for the Cavaliers, isn’t good. Outside of the record-breaking 3-point makes by Stephen Curry and the high-scoring of Kevin Durant are guys like Livingston, West, Kevon Looney, and even Jordan Bell, grinding away and playing their part. Cleveland hasn’t been able to find the same spark from their bench.
Golden State has been able to suppress the effectiveness of Cavaliers starters outside of LeBron, limiting Love’s shooting or keeping Thompson off the boards. That should naturally leave space for players with smaller roles to step up, but with the way the roster is constructed and the continual failure to get just about anything out of their bench, the reality of Who the Warriors Are vs. Who the Cavaliers Are is here, and it’s clear.
LeBron can play as hard as he can. He has, really. Game 1 was a masterpiece, and Game 2 was an efficient, superstar kind of night. But no matter the effort from James, the averages always come to bear during a playoff series. That’s especially true during the Finals, and it’s not just Golden State’s stars that are better than Cleveland’s.
It’s their bench, too.