Despite it only being two games in to the Finals, popular opinion states that the Cavaliers have zero chance of coming back. What happened?
Let's start with the obvious: Cleveland's best bet in this series was/is to dictate speed and size by playing the unbelievably effective groups that played in the first three rounds of the playoffs. Some of those lineups decimated opponents, ultimately vaulting the Cavaliers into the Finals with only the two losses to Toronto on their record.
For Golden State, all they needed was for Curry to be healthier than he was at the beginning of the Thunder series.
As it turns out, they didn't even need that to dominate two games.
The Cavaliers have a lot of issues right now. First and foremost, basketball games are hard to win when you're not scoring points. With the way Cleveland played in the first 3 rounds, allowing 104 points in game 1 should have still brought a victory. With the way Cleveland played in the first 3 rounds, forcing 20 turnovers should have brought a victory (by a landslide). With the way Cleveland played in the first 3 rounds, limiting Curry and Thompson to a combined 55 points through two games should have brought a 2-0 lead.
Spoiler alert: didn't happen.
Offensively the Cavaliers have looked like a team that has never played together before. The offense was so bad in game 2 that, of the 16 clips posted to streamable.com last night in the basketball section, 4 were Cavs offense and two of those were questioning whether LBJ's drop-step layup was a travel or not. Here's what the other two clips looked like.
The only clip-worthy offense the Cavaliers had was when LeBron drove to the basket in semi-transition. Otherwise the offense was basically "look at each other, wait for the other guys to move, realize they're not moving, and then try to go 1-on-5." You can see why LeBron's two early drives worked and got dunks: The defense doesn't get a chance to sag into the paint, partly because the Cavs went super-small and there's no need for anyone in the paint, but partly because the shooters stayed around the arc allowing James some freedom inside. Even as Thompson comes in for help (poorly, I might add) he's leaving the corner wide open. It's worth noting that neither Shump nor Smith floats to that open area. Anyway, the ease of the drive might make you think that this would be a nice lineup for the Cavaliers, which brings me to my 2nd point.
Ty Lue is coaching himself into the D-League.
The playoffs are about finding what works and exploiting it. They're also about figuring out what doesn't work and avoiding it. Ty Lue has not done either of these. Early in the 3rd quarter, Richard Jefferson came in for Tristan Thompson. This move was fine, as it was a little different and an effort to find a wrinkle. RJ did OK in the first half so Lue went for it. TT was ineffective and committing fouls, so Lue's answer was to try a smaller lineup with lots of shooting.
That lineup had played less than 30 minutes together this season, according to basketball-reference.com, but OK, sure, try something new. 11 seconds later Kevin Love left the game with concussion symptoms and Iman Shumpert checked in. Cleveland was down by 9 when each of these subs happened.
4 minutes later the Cavaliers were down by 14 at a timeout. No subs were made. 1 minute later the Cavaliers were down 16 at a timeout and no sub was made. This lineup played the entire remaining 9:54 of the 3rd quarter, ultimately trailing by 20 at the end of it. They had previously logged about 30 seconds together in the playoffs. This time they went 10 minutes and were outscored by a rate that would equal 63 points over 100 possessions. They scored 16 points in their ten minutes. How hard was it to figure out that this lineup wasn't working? Kudos, Coach, you tried something new. I 100% support putting that lineup in the game. I 100% oppose leaving them in for 10 minutes as they're getting annihilated.
This is what it looked like to watch that lineup play defense together.
Green passes up an open three because LeBron and JR aren't sure if they're switching on the screen. Livingston finds an open Barbosa, who is open because James ducked into the paint to double on Iguodala (who got position on Shump when RJ covered for LeBron). Barbosa kicks it to Thompson because JR Smith has to guard both of them.
It was almost as if they didn't communicate well because they never played a single second together in the regular season and had only logged (I think) 18 seconds together in the playoffs, per a cross-check of nba.com/stats and basketball-reference.com.
Again, I'm not bashing him for trying this new lineup, I'm bashing him for not recognizing that it was failing. Related, Channing Frye was an enormous success in previous rounds and has played 11 minutes through two games. He was a +4 in game 1 and a -4 in game 2. That's notably better than almost anyone on the team. I admittedly don't think he's going to win Cleveland the next four games, and he might be totally worthless, but it seems as if Lue hasn't considered trying what worked previously. Instead he's reacting to what Golden State is doing.
One more time, an NBA coach's job is to motivate his players to play good basketball, whatever that means to them. In this case it has meant moving the ball, not isolating players, and finding open threes. Basically, the exact opposite of what's happened in the Finals.
Can you imagine the blow-back if David Blatt was still coaching this team? What would people be saying if he got the Cavaliers to the Finals on a 12-2 record and then laid back-to-back eggs where the offense turned back into "give it to the big kid on the playground"? He would be laughed out of the league instantly.
I don't know if the Cavaliers have any chance to come back in this series, but it's feeling like winning the series would be in spite of the coach instead of because of him.