OAKLAND, Calif. — The good news for the Cleveland Cavaliers is there was no chance J.R. Smith did not know who was winning late in Game 2.
The Golden State Warriors did that thing they do on Sunday night at Oracle Arena, strafing the Cavs early and often en route to a 122-103 victory that highlighted how hard it will be for LeBron James to overcome a Warriors roster that is filthy with talent.
Where the opening game of the NBA Finals was closely fought, where James’ heroics were undone by a late foul call, a missed free throw and an epic blunder, the second game was a straightforward pummeling.
The mood was set early when the home crowd cheered for J.R. Smith and George Hill, authors of Cleveland’s late-game misfortune three nights earlier, and punctuated by huge noise when Steph Curry started bombing three-pointers from Alcatraz.
The Golden State fans, savagely, gave an “M-V-P!” chant to Smith when he stepped to the line for an early free-throw attempt — he missed, part of a dismal five-point night — and then did the same for Curry, non-ironically, after he drilled a late corner three, one of his Finals-record nine on the night, to give the Warriors a 17-point lead.
James fought gamely — 29 points, 13 assists and nine rebounds — but, man, these Warriors. Curry had 33 points, Kevin Durant had 26 and Klay Thompson had 20. Even human blooper-reel JaVale McGee, Golden State’s J.R. Smith, was near perfect, scoring 12 points, including five dunks.
James has been like a superhero in these playoffs, but he might need the actual Avengers to get past these guys.
“Nine threes, and he seemed to hit a big one every time we needed it,” Kerr said of Curry when it was over. “He was fantastic.”
The same could be said of the Warriors as a whole, who shot 57 per cent from three-point range while harassing James more than they managed in Game 1. “Overall, it was a really good, balanced game,” said Kerr.
“It’s tough, he makes tough shots,” Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said of Curry, who drilled all four of his three-point attempts in the fourth, many of them that could have used a circus tent. “It was pretty cool,” Curry said of his late bombs, every one of which sent the crowd into hysterics.
With two days between Games 1 and 2 thanks to a previously scheduled concert at Oracle Arena — one more reason to dislike Maroon 5 — there was plenty of time for the analysis to move past tactics and strategy and land on more existential concerns.
The prevailing question, after Cleveland had suffered such a gut-punch of a loss in the opener, was whether they would have much fight left in them.
The Cavs did not really appreciate such questions. Asked on Saturday if he had a response to the theory that his team would be deflated after a loss that turned on two late breaks for the Warriors, James said: “I don’t really have a response to that.” So, that’s a no? But even though the Cavs had said the Game 1 loss was brutal, they insisted they remained confident. “Look, we’re not broken,” Lue said on Saturday.
The evidence of that, though, would come in the game. Toronto Raptors fans will recall that team saying similarly defiant things after they thoroughly outplayed the Cavaliers, their playoff nemesis, in the first game of the East semifinals, only to lose in overtime when they couldn’t get a late basket.
The Raptors, too, had proven that they belonged on the same floor as LeBron, but they never recovered from that early loss. The parallels for Cleveland in this series were clear: had they just dropped their best chance at a win? And with that chance missed, were they about to get rolled.
In the early moments of Game 2, it certainly looked like it. In less than four minutes, the Warriors had three layups, three dunks, and a Thompson three-pointer to open up a blitzkrieg of a 15-6 lead.
With Oracle Arena openly mocking the visitors — they gave a standing ovation to Smith during player introductions for his Game 1 boner, then cheered George Hill in salute of his late missed free throw — it was starting to look like the type of game in which the Cavs would leave with their hair tousled, their pants pulled down, and their lunch money missing.
James, though, kept the Cavaliers in it. He had 10 points on 75 per cent shooting in the first quarter, plus five assists and four rebounds. He got to the basket, he got to the free-throw line, he found open teammates. And he did it all with an eye that looked a little demonic, the result of a Draymond Green finger poke in Game 1. He wasn’t the holy terror of the opener, but he was still a handful.
But the problem for the Cavs is that he has to be a holy terror to give his team a fighting chance. James cooled off in the second quarter, missing five of seven shots, at least a couple of which looked like the result of tired legs.
Or tired arms. The man is pooped, anyway. By halftime, the Warriors had opened up a 59-46 lead, with all of Curry, Durant and Thompson in double digits in scoring.
Games like this happen against the Warriors, especially in Oakland. When they are clicking they score in overwhelming bursts, a bunch of transition dunks and layups and then when you finally slow them down for a moment someone nails a three-pointer from 26 feet. The Cavs have seen this picture enough.
And that’s why the late-game hijinks of Game 1 loom over the series. That was Cleveland’s shot to steal one on the road. It will take some kind of work for them to have another opportunity like it.