LeBron James and Draymond Green stood opposite one another during the third quarter of Game 2 of the NBA Finals, playing as their teams’ respective centers, and Mike Breen pointed out during the ABC broadcast that this was an illustration of how much the game has changed: two players, both 6-foot-8 or shorter, ostensibly functioning as point guards while serving as backbones on defense. But in a league that thrives on contrasting styles and personalities, the moment was an unsettling visage of resigned conformity. There were the Warriors and a team trying, poorly, to be the Warriors. In Game 2, the Cavs could’ve been any team in the NBA and nothing would’ve changed.
The main reason to watch the Cavs all season was to see if they could come up with a corrective for last year’s Finals. They had to find out how to beat the Death Lineup. The Warriors had gone to their small lineups last season, but the devastating efficacy didn’t crystallize until Nick U’Ren, a special assistant to Steve Kerr, suggested that the team move in that direction for Game 4 of last year’s Finals, when the Warriors were trailing in the series, 2–1. That was when Green’s ability to shoot and maneuver from the 3-point line effectively ruined the Cavaliers’ towering, possession-reviving front line of Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson. LeBron spent this season rearranging his game on offense, and the team became more perimeter oriented with the returns of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love and the acquisition of Channing Frye.
The problem with Cleveland’s if-you-can’t-beat-’em-join-’em act was that the team hadn’t quite figured out what to do on the defensive end, other than continue the vampiric absorption of another team’s best option.
The Cavs have switched on screens whenever they could in this series, hoping that merely adopting the same strategy as the Thunder in the Western Conference finals would provide for similar results.
But all of the missed rotations have led to sunken heads and pointing fingers. The Cavs don’t have a Russell Westbrook, or a Steven Adams, or even an Andre Roberson. They have Richard Jefferson, who has emerged from his vacuum-sealed FoodSaver bag looking fresher than ever. He’s been Cleveland’s second-best player. It’s been an odd yet inspirational performance, but there is no possible universe where that is a good thing for Cleveland.
The duel between LeBron and Draymond should be more compelling than it is. It’s James playing against a cruder sketch of himself! But they are players whose styles and production are reflected in their teams’ other stars.
When Steph Curry and Klay Thompson combine to shoot 8-for-16 from 3, it opens Green up to shoot 5-for-8 from distance. When LeBron can’t trust himself or his teammates to make an open 3, his avenues are closed off; and when his baser instincts tell him to bully his way inside, he’s met with a rotating army of limbs. It sounds familiar, because it is. This is how the Thunder stopped Draymond.
The Cavaliers aren’t in a position to call upon other templates to figure out the Warriors. They have only what’s in front of them. They’ve worked all season to have a chance in this exact situation, but there’s only so much you can do against a truly historic team, especially one that can do everything you want to do, just better. The house of cards that Cleveland built has fallen. What now?