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The Cavaliers Won Game 4 With a Performance for the Ages

This is what it takes to beat the Warriors

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

At halftime of Game 4, Paul Pierce had the same exasperated look on his face as the rest of the world witnessing the most historic 24 minutes of offense in NBA Finals history. "This is what it takes to beat the Golden State Warriors?" Pierce asked his fellow halftime-show crew members on ESPN. Forty-nine first-quarter points. Eighty-six first-half points. Thirteen 3-pointers made in the first two frames. All Finals records. The ecstatic level of basketball being played seemed to overload all of our senses, including those of the referees. The tenor of the game was set long before it devolved into something that resembled extralegal basketball. The rules of the game were betrayed by its gatekeepers — depending on your vantage, the blown calls and changed calls gave a decisive edge to whichever team you were rooting for. But when basketball is played at this level, human error bows to the logic of the game. The Cavs played exemplary basketball on Friday night. They won 137–116. They deserved it.

I was dead wrong in my Game 3 analysis — their heartbreaking loss on Wednesday wasn’t as good as it gets for Cleveland. Matching up against Golden State typically means sacrificing something; it’s foolhardy to expect everything to click. What we saw on Wednesday was a defense good enough to hold the Warriors off for most of the night; their horrendous 12-for-44 shooting from 3 just seemed like the cost of expending the extra energy on the opposite end of the court. I feel pretty confident running the sentiment back, though: This is definitely as good as it gets for the Cavaliers.

Game 4 proved to be a Freaky Friday situation. The Cavs attempted only one more 3-pointer (45) than they did on Wednesday, but made twice as many (24). Average the numbers from their best and worst 3-point shooting outings of the Finals, and you get a 40.4 3-point percentage, nearly the same as their 40.9 postseason shooting percentage from behind the arc prior to Game 4. Regression to the mean is undefeated.

The Cavaliers’ game plan was sound: For the first time all series, Cleveland made a concerted effort to force the prospect of scoring on the Warriors’ less lethal weapons like Draymond Green and Shaun Livingston. Green was goaded into taking six 3s (he made one) and attempted more shots than either Steph Curry or Klay Thompson, which the Cavs will live with for the rest of the series if they can manage it. Livingston may have hit 5-of-7 from the field on backdoor cuts and his patented post play, but the Cavs were doing math. Letting Livingston dwell in the post slowed the game down, and his 2s weren’t going to chip away at the Cleveland lead fast enough for Golden State’s liking.

The concept of small ball is naturally conducive to a more up-tempo brand of basketball. But like most things in the series, the Cavs were able to flip that on its head in Game 4 too. The Cavs brought the game down to the slowest pace we’ve seen all series, finally dipping below 100 possessions over the 48 minutes, even with LeBron playing increased minutes at center, surrounded by smaller perimeter shooters. Tristan Thompson appearing corporeal — and being able to stay on the court for more than 25 minutes without being a liability — helped in that regard, too. The Warriors have a brutal way of making teams live with the regret of their decisions, but on Friday the Cavs didn’t have to choose. Every Cleveland player who logged at least 10 minutes on the floor shot over 50 percent from the field. It was a perfect storm of decisive extra passes and a Warriors team just not in the right frame of mind, even before chaos descended upon the game. As LeBron James told Doris Burke after their Game 4 win, the Cavs have championship DNA, too. And truthfully, as historic as a 16–0 postseason run would have been, it was heartening to see the Warriors draw blood.

It’s just as dispiriting to think the Cavs will need to do exactly this again — and again, and again — for Cleveland (and the meme lords) to once again inherit the earth.