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It Takes Two

Steph Curry and Kevin Durant are so good they’re negating a blinding LeBron performance, keeping Golden State on track for an undefeated postseason and making us forget the Lineup of Death

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

RIP, Lineup of Death

Chris Ryan: At some point in the fourth quarter of Game 2, Jeff Van Gundy declared the Warriors’ duo of Kevin Durant and Steph Curry to be the greatest pair a team has ever had. That’s …

… debatable …

… which is exactly the point of saying something like that. But Van Gundy’s statement was indicative of where we are when talking about this team, one that is well on its way to its second title in three years after Sunday’s 132–113 victory. When the Warriors Wave started, it was a bunch of undervalued, sweet-shooting, all-switching rugrats upending what we thought we knew about how teams should be built and how the game should be played. They were a patchwork championship squad in the age of the superteam, built around seventh, 11th, and 35th draft picks, buoyed by veterans like Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston.

The Lineup of Death — Steph, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Iguodala, and Harrison Barnes — was an accident: something an assistant suggested to Steve Kerr that became the Warriors’ finishing move. There is nothing accidental about this Golden State team. Kevin Durant killed the Lineup of Death. All the pieces don’t have to fit together anymore. They have the only two pieces that matter.

On Sunday, Durant and Curry had 65 of Golden State’s points on 20-of-39 shooting. The team’s 132 points was the most points scored by a team in a Finals game since 1987. When you have the two most lethal offensive weapons in the game, Klay Thompson can score six points, like he did in Game 1, and Draymond Green can play just 25 foul-limited minutes, like he did in Game 2. In Curry, they have a player who stretches defenses out 40 feet from the rim, and in Durant they have a center-sized man who handles like a point guard and shoots over 40 percent from 3.

Frankly, this is all terrifying. This team looks so much better than the team that won 73 regular-season games. They don’t need a finishing-move lineup. The games are finished before they start.

Game 2 in One Play (Plus a Few More, for Fun)

Rodger Sherman: Sometimes a sporting event encapsulates itself in a single highlight, which is neat. Here’s Sunday night’s, a Steph Curry drive past LeBron James.

You see, Steph’s team is winning by a lot and LeBron’s is getting whooped. So this sums it up nicely.

Curry had a night full of memes. He no-looked a pass to Shaun Livingston, and Steph was the only person in the arena who didn’t get to see how gorgeous the pass was.

He could’ve peeked to see if it got there, but he chose to stunt and put on some fake goggles instead. (Do not try this in your rec league game if you ever want to show your face there again.) It was another example of a game that’s too easy for him. Facing a team that obliterated the Eastern Conference, his Warriors won by a large enough margin for him to nap:

With plays like these, it’s easy to simplify the greatness of Curry and these Warriors. They’re just better at everything, and we’ve come to accept that.

But let’s watch Curry’s drive on LeBron James again, in super slow motion:

I’ve watched all 53 seconds of that clip a few times. Live, we barely saw all the ins, outs, ups, downs, feints, spins, and drives that led to his bucket. (We also didn’t see that he double-dribbled live, which he totally did, but, whatever.) Watching this in slow motion truly allows you to understand the preposterous technical skill that went into getting past a defender of James’s quality. Curry’s not just a shooter — he’s a master of so many basketball crafts, and each one of them is spectacular to watch.

What the Warriors are doing now might be predictable, and it might not make for compelling score lines, but it’s incredible in a way that we’ve never seen before. They’re two games away from sweeping the postseason.

LeBron Knows Only One Stat Matters

Juliet Litman: One of the greatest sins a defender can commit against LeBron James is fouling him when he drives, but not hard enough to prevent the and-1. Not that it is easy. A defender has to wrap him up, and that still may not be sufficient. Andre Iguodala is famously aware of how hard it is to guard Bron, and based on this play Sunday, he knows that sometimes, it’s just not worth trying.

Tonight was one of those nights. Iguodala cleared out, ushering James forward on his way to a first-half double-double. To the extent that Game 2 was ever close — and the score made it seem tighter than it was — James kept his squad in contention. He came out aggressively, driving to the basket, contributing to Draymond’s foul trouble, and doing everything but peeling Klay Thompson off of Kyrie Irving. By the end of the game, he had secured his eighth NBA Finals triple-double, tying Magic Johnson’s record. He likely won’t care much about this one, because even when the Cavs cut the lead to one point, they weren’t close. LeBron James continues to be incredible, and it isn’t enough against these Warriors.

James looked exhausted and frustrated by the end of the game, but if that was the case, he’s not willing to admit it. When pressed on whether he needed rest, he said all he needs is the Shonda Rhimes diet: "some food and some wine." Most notably, he delivered this answer from the locker room, not the podium in the media room. He didn’t reveal why he chose to hold court in front of a small group of reporters, but he did say that "there’s a reason. … It has nothing to do with wins and losses, though."

Is LeBron punishing someone? Is he mad at someone in the media? Is he mad at the NBA for allowing Kevin Durant to join the Warriors? Maybe James doesn’t want to wait to take questions, which following a game like tonight, is not unreasonable. He was one of the two best players on the court, and this postseason performance didn’t matter.

The industries and media structure that have grown like moss on top of the NBA thrive on wins. LeBron knows better than anyone that individual success has only so much value without a team championship. He can keep writing his name in the record books, but his greatness is validated by rings alone.

Let’s Get Dirty

Jason Concepcion: The surprisingly taut second quarter of Game 2 was like watching the Cavaliers gripping a wolf by the ears. A wild, snarling, Super Saiyan wolf with huge, glistening fangs. And machine guns bionically grafted to its flanks. And missile launchers in its tail. LeBron and Co. don’t dare let go of the beast’s ears, but they also can’t afford to hold on.

Klay Thompson had woken from a multigame slump. Kevin Durant was Kevin Durant. Steph Curry had 15 points but six turnovers. Draymond Green was slowed by foul trouble. At one point, Tyronn Lue ran out a lineup of Kyrie Irving, Deron Williams, Iman Shumpert, Kyle Korver, and Channing Frye, which seemed specifically designed to stun the Warriors with how weird it was. And the Cavs somehow survived it. The score at the half was 67–64 Dubs.

The Cavaliers need more of that. Not that particular supersmall, non-Bron lineup. Just the weirdness. Do strange shit. Golden State is the greatest collection of basketball talent ever. Solving this team will require an act of god and lots of outside-the-box thinking. I mean, "Just throw the ball out of bounds" was a serious idea put forward recently by a serious basketball thinker. That’s where we are, right now.

Last year, the Cavaliers relied heavily on a long game of wearing down Steph physically. Grabbing him, holding him, and hitting him surreptitiously, whenever the opportunity arose. To get, in the parlance of the sport, chippy. Dirty, even. The duty fell to any Cavalier in Curry’s general area, but primarily to Iman Shumpert. The addition of Durant, the aforementioned bionic machine guns and missile launcher surgically grafted to the wolf, takes that tactic and throws it out the window. When the Cavs chase Curry around the court single-mindedly, the Warriors have only the best pure scorer in the league — a 7-foot basket-ripping freak, ready to shoot the gap for dunks, layups, and stupendous 3s.

Iman Shumpert shot 17 percent. Tristan Thompson, the Cavaliers’ most physical dude — the guy who promised it would be "like WWE" in the paint — played 21 minutes and was minus-18. Kevin Durant at center rendered Tristan obsolete.

To win even one game in this series, the Cavs must get dirtier. But even that’s unlikely to work. So, what’s left? Anyone got any other ideas?

Cleveland Needs to Know Their Role

Zach Kram: Golden State has a Big 4, Cleveland a mere trio. Add in Andre Iguodala, and the Warriors boast five of the Finals’ eight best players and its most talented, cohesive five-man unit. For Cleveland to come back in this series, yes, Kyrie Irving needs to play better and LeBron James needs to re-enter the divine mode he embodied last June, but the Cavaliers’ veteran group of role players must emerge to give Cleveland an effective matching five. It’s unclear right now who the Cavs’ fourth- and fifth-best players are, or how Tyronn Lue can surround Irving, James, and Kevin Love with the help they need to keep pace.

In Game 1, Cleveland’s non-Big 3 leaders were Richard Jefferson in points (nine), Iman Shumpert in rebounds (five), and Tristan Thompson in assists (two). Not only do those low individual totals signify the role players’ quiet play, but the player names seem jumbled from the statistical designation to which they should belong. To wit, Thompson has been silent on the boards through two games, and Shumpert’s offensive contributions have consisted of pull-up jumpers in semi-transition that only serve to jump-start a Warrior counterattack.

In Game 2, the Cavs suffered from more of the same. Once again, James, Irving, and Love were the only players to reach 10 points; none of their teammates exceeded four rebounds or three assists, either. Through two games, the non-Big-3 Cavaliers have combined for 20 made shots and 24 fouls, with J.R. Smith’s ratio (one make to five fouls) epitomizing the group’s disastrous performance. He needs to shoot better; Kyle Korver needs to shoot better; Thompson needs to make himself heard on defensive switches and the offensive glass, if Cleveland is to have any chance at another Finals comeback.

Golden State’s role players have remained mostly in the shadows, too, but they haven’t needed to do more. A catch-and-dunk here, a tidy defensive rotation there, and their work is sufficient to complement their stars’ voluminous output. Shaun Livingston and his benchmates are valuable if they stay in their lane, throw smart outlet passes, and let Curry and Durant rest without squandering the lead the starters built. Cleveland needs so much more from its depth pieces, and through two games, they haven’t proved themselves equipped to the daunting task.

Welcome Back

Danny Chau: There were 11 games and 45 days between Game 2 of Golden State’s first-round series against the Blazers and Game 2 of its NBA Finals series against the Cavaliers, the last two games that Steve Kerr has sat at the helm of this Warriors colossus. A lot of history was made in the space between.

During that span, the Warriors became the first team to ever reach the Finals with a 12–0 record; they had the largest average margin of victory (16.3) of any team to make it to the championship round; they scored 498 points in their four-game series over the San Antonio Spurs, which tied a record for most points in a sweep — a record that had been untouched for nearly four decades (the Sixers over the Knicks in 1978); Game 1 on Thursday was the first Finals game led by two black head coaches since 1975.

"My guy did OK while I was gone," Kerr joked in his pregame news conference about Mike Brown, who shepherded the team to an 11–0 record in their head coach’s absence. "So that was good." Sitting in the presser, he mentioned that he hadn’t informed the players in advance of his return. There really was no need.

The Warriors are an autonomous operating system. When Steph Curry and Kevin Durant simultaneously play up to their highest standards, everything is smoothed over. Coaching in the playoffs is important, but not when your team doesn’t need to make any adjustments. All the early-season worries, the tension, the bizarre substitution patterns, the gaslighting of Steph Curry’s stardom — after two Finals games won by an average margin of 20.5 points, all of the season’s obstructions now feel like preprogrammed resistance training. The 13 first-half turnovers felt like a practical joke played on their returning coach.

"Welcome back," Kerr dropped sarcastically when he was teased by Bay Area columnist Tim Kawakami after the game about all the errors. The Warriors couldn’t duplicate the success they had in Game 1 as far as ball security, but they won on the backs of their two best players just the same. "Tonight was a game based on talent," Kerr said after the game. For as swaggering as that sounds, he was actually being modest in scope — there isn’t much keeping the Warriors from taking the series based on talent, too.