Three losses are three losses, and Cleveland Cavaliers are in a (probably) insurmountable hole against the Warriors. Has anything worked? Was this partly expected? What happens next?
Losing is not fun. It breaks us down as people and we dwell on our losses more than we celebrate our wins. We examine, re-examine, and analyze what went wrong. We come up with theories about why things couldn't have been as simple as losing. We create narratives to explain losses. We think about what could have been far more than we think about what is. We do this constantly.
The Cavaliers, defending NBA champions, are on the verge of losing in the 2017 NBA Finals.
Games one and two were pretty clear-cut. The Cavaliers showed that they could hang around in game two, but Golden State was just too much to handle. In game three, the Cavs had it. They really did. Cleveland led by six with 3:00 to play and the Warriors closed the game on an 11-0 run. It was painful.
It was the kind of game that the Cavaliers could use as a building block if it came in game one or two, but with a 3-0 deficit staring them in the face, there's not too much hope left here. In the interest of bucking the trend of dwelling on losses, let's learn something about this experience. What are the main things we've learned?
Golden State is ridiculously good
As much as I want to have mixed feelings about this (they were trailing by 22 to the Kawhi-led Spurs!), I've never seen anything like this. The Cavs ran through the east like a buzz-saw and Golden State is making them look mediocre. Wanna compare them to the '96 Bulls? Fine. The point-guard matchup would be Ron Harper vs. Stephen Curry. Next question.
But really, if you compare the teams, it doesn't matter who you pretend is going to guard someone against the Warriors because that's not how it works out with them. They screen everywhere and move everywhere so that KD would end up scoring 30 points over Ron Harper and Steph would be putting Rodman in a blender. They're damn near impossibly good.
And the Cavs were ahead in the final 2:00 of a game.
The Cavaliers are cold at the wrong time
This is the story of the series. It's also the only (minuscule, microscopic) glimmer of hope for the ultimate comeback. The Cleveland Cavaliers - one of the best three-point shooting teams we've ever seen - are shooting just under 30% on three-pointers in the Finals. Sure, Golden State gets some credit for that, but they're not entirely responsible.
NBA.com tracks how close the nearest defender is when a shot is taken. Naturally, the more open a player is, the more likely the shot will go in. LeBron James is shooting 33% (2-6) on three-pointers when there's no one within six feet of him. Kyrie is 1-5. Korver is 0-2. Richard Jefferson is 0-2. Shump is 1-4. Only JR Smith (3-5) and Kevin Love (2-4) are shooting decent percentages. The team, if you add that up, is 9-28 on "wide open" three-pointers.
If you scale that back to "open" threes (where a defender is 4-6 feet away from the shooter), LeBron is 5-10 and nobody else on the team is above 33%, save Derrick Williams going 1-1. Deron, JR, and Frye are a combined 0-9, Korver and RJ are a combined 2-8, Kyrie is 2-6, and Kevin Love is a staggering 1-11.
Add those up and the Cavs are 11-45 when they're "open." Combine open + wide open shots and you're looking at a mind-blowing 20-73 (27%!) when there's no defender within four feet of the shooter. For comparison's sake, during the regular season, only Richard Jefferson and Kay Felder shot below 36% on wide open threes for the Cavaliers.
Like so many other areas in life, timing is everything in the NBA. The Cavs are victims of incredibly bad timing. On the bright side, it seems impossible that this can keep up, so perhaps we see a three-point shooting onslaught from Cleveland starting in game four. You never know.
LeBron James is the best basketball player I've ever seen
I was on the young end of the Jordan years, but LeBron James does something in every game that blows my mind. While there were plenty of individual moments in game three, what stood out to me was the way the game looked when he sat down. By now everyone knows that he was +7 during his 45+ minutes on the court and in the brief moments he was not, the Cavs were outscored by 12.
Think about how incredible that is. This Cavaliers team is in the NBA Finals and LeBron James is so good that he literally cannot leave the court without the game being thrown away. The game looked completely different when he sat - the Cavs were slower, out of sync, and unable to defend. Also, can we talk about this layup?
He almost looks surprised when he goes up because he actually has a chance to lay it in left-handed from the other side of the rim. It's bonkers. It looks so easy. And he beat Kevin Durant, who has become a defensive juggernaut during this postseason. Steph Curry makes easy passes look difficult (that "no look" pass in game one comes to mind) and LeBron James makes the difficult look easy.
Ty Lue is still a very confusing coach
Going into the series, there were a few obvious things the Cavs needed to do to win. The first was that they'd have to use the same interior advantage as the past two years when Tristan Thompson dominated the glass. Rebounding would be a key for the Cavaliers. The second is that the Cavs would have to attack Stephen Curry in the pick and roll. Everyone agreed that he's the weakest defensive link among their high-minutes guys, so the Cavs would have to go for him. These two points were repeated at nauseum in the days before game one.
For part one, the rebounding, we've seen that Tristan Thompson is a ghost this series. It's hard to say how much is Golden State's gameplan, how much is something going on with him, and how much is Tristan actually doing good work and freeing up Kevin Love for a ton of rebounds (it's not that). Whatever you think the cause, Ty Lue is not playing him and when he's in there, he's hardly noticeable. Lue is in a bind with so many guys struggling, but his job is to figure out the combination that works. So far, it hasn't been pretty.
For part two, the Curry thing, there's this: Through the first two games of the series, Cleveland took a total of 12 shots against Steph Curry. Twelve. They took 36 against Defensive Stud Kevin Durant in those two games. Cleveland started to remedy this in game three, taking 14 shots against Steph, but they still attacked Draymond, KD, and Iguodala that same number of times. Not surprisingly, the Cavs shot 50% against Curry compared to 36% against KD/Iguodala and just 29% against Draymond. The Cavs are not attacking the guy they can score against. It's maddening.
A huge part of this blame goes to the players. How many times have we seen LeBron or Kyrie wait for a screen, then pause while Curry shows on the screen, then scrambles back to his guy? A lot, that's how many. They aren't attacking when Golden State is mid-switch. Part of that blame should be on the coach as well for not clearly articulating that LeBron James needs to attack Steph Curry 100% of the time he has a chance.
It has been a struggle for the Cleveland Cavaliers through three games. Game three was the best of the bunch, surely, but the Cavs still lost. An uphill battle is an understatement for what the defending champs face now. Teams which lead 3-0 in NBA playoff series are something like 128-0 in NBA history, so...it doesn't look good.
Maybe Friday will start a new chapter in the history book. Hopefully, it's not the chapter about the first 16-0 run in NBA playoff history.