The Cleveland Cavaliers put history on hold Friday night, defeating the Golden State Warriors 137-116 in Game 4 of the NBA Finals to deny them both a series sweep and the first 16-0 record in playoff history. Season-extending victories like this one often feel desperate, or perhaps more dependent on the favorite lacking the focus and resolve of the underdog. That was certainly not the case at Quicken Loans Arena on Friday. The Cavaliers put forth one of the greatest offensive displays in NBA Finals history and looked like the dominant squad that trampled the Eastern Conference for the first time all series. It might be too little too late, but there are now reasons for hope that we could see a truly competitive series.
Of course, it’s unlikely we’ll see the Cavs come close to matching their scoring output from the first half of Game 4. Cleveland set multiple NBA Finals records with 49 points in the first quarter, 86 points in the first half, and 13 three-pointers before the break. It was a remarkable performance for several reasons. Beyond the sheer magnitude of the Cavs’ offensive dominance, though, there were reasons to wonder if it only further confirmed the Warriors’ greatness. Does it really take a historic showing to beat them, even at home?
We’ll find out during Monday night’s Game 5. The Warriors have a chance to exorcise some of the demons from last season’s 3-1 collapse and claim their second title in three years, as well as the franchise’s first-ever championship-clinching victory in the Bay Area. Meanwhile, the Cavs can send the series back to Cleveland for another game and suggest that they’re capable of topping 2016’s unprecedented comeback.
Here are three biggest stories to watch:
Can the Warriors avoid the headache of a long series?
There is no reason for the Warriors to feel ill at ease after Friday’s loss. While a sweep of the Cavs and perfect playoff record would certainly have been nice, the team had only ever spoken of its desire to win four games (and four series) as quickly and cleanly as circumstances allowed. One loss on the road certainly doesn’t derail their plans, especially when they looked so dominant at home in their two series-opening wins and won’t be without Draymond Green for Game 5 this year. The Cavaliers impressed in Game 4, but it’s unlikely they’ll play so well at Oracle Arena. Even then, Golden State rarely felt incapable of a comeback on Friday despite Cleveland’s epic performance.
It feels safe to bet on a close-out win in Game 5. The Cavaliers got out to their incredible start on Friday by their own hand, but they were certainly aided by both an especially raucous crowd and the kind of tight officiating that usually only happens on a home floor. Simply put, the Cavaliers are unlikely to shoot 22 free throws in the first quarter on Monday night. They can still get out to an early lead, but the Warriors should be more prepared for an early explosion.
Plus, Golden State figures to understand the implications of a poor performance in Game 5. Lose again, and the Warriors will have to face the uncomfortable prospect of a return to The Q and three days of incessant chatter about how they’re on the verge of blowing the only lead better than 3-1. We’re not yet at a point where the Warriors are likely to worry about that possibility — they’ve performed well in plenty of high-pressure scenarios and this series is not yet in any danger beyond that of a typical finals against a stellar opponent.
Regardless, the particular problems of a long series in this matchup has to be in their minds (even if only in the back), and it’s safe to say they’ll want to avoid it however they can. Game 5 isn’t a must-win, but it would make the Warriors’ lives a heck of a lot easier if it’s the last contest of the season.
The Cavaliers look to bring the physicality
The Cavs took Game 4 because of their terrific shot-making, but that job became substantially easier thanks to their superior physicality on the boards and especially defensively. After three games of allowing the Warriors to set the terms of engagement at both ends, Cleveland finally made the necessary adjustments and pushed Golden State out of its offensive comfort zone, earning the edge required to keep their comebacks at bay throughout the night. The fact that it occasionally devolved into chippy play and outright animosity was an added bonus.
The effort relied on a few key points. Perhaps the most important was the reemergence of Tristan Thompson, who followed two scoreless games and a combined 11 rebounds in Games 1 through 3 with 10 boards, five assists, and 36 solid minutes. Thompson had been an x-factor in the prior two finals against the Warriors and adds a level of activity and presence at both ends that they cannot easily match. When Thompson is at his best, Golden State cannot keep both him and Kevin Love off the offensive boards with much consistency.
Tyronn Lue’s other major adjustment for Game 4 was to have nearly every defender body Stephen Curry aggressively. The two-time MVP responded with his worst game of the series, a 14-point, 4-of-13 showing for which the stats do not communicate the extent of his struggles to get into the flow of the offense. It was reminiscent of the 2016 NBA Finals, when a hobbled Curry struggled to get free off the ball and shake defenders one-on-one. For as much talent as the Warriors boast, they still look significantly less dangerous whenever Curry isn’t shooting from long range or getting to the basket (no matter if he makes the shots).
Other adjustments, including Richard Jefferson’s solid defense on Kevin Durant, could matter again in Game 5. In a general sense, though, the season is likely to end if the Cavaliers let the Warriors run relatively free. The Game 4 win proved that they can play fast without conceding too much to the favorites. That challenge will be even greater at Oracle.
LeBron and Kyrie, set to thrill
If the Cavaliers lose this series, it will not be for lack of trying from LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. LeBron is on track to become the first player ever to average a triple-double in the NBA Finals (with a 31.8-point average, no less) and is making 54 percent of his shots. Kyrie isn’t far behind at 30.3 ppg (including 78 points combined in the last two), and his ability to make incredibly difficult shots against terrific defense has been one of the best shows the NBA has to offer. This formula served the Cavaliers well in 2016, and they’ll have to ride it again to stay alive in this series.
It’s somewhat comical that two players averaging just over 62 points on good shooting percentages hasn’t been enough to claim any better than one win in four contests. Somehow, genuinely historic offensive performances aren’t the difference — they’re the bare minimum for Cleveland to compete. It’s not enough to say the Cavs need James and Irving to excel to win, because they need them just to stay close.
These two stars could score 77 points, as they did in Game 3, and see themselves lose. So, instead of focusing too much on their impact in Game 5, let’s just take the time to appreciate them before their potential ouster from the playoffs. Kyrie and LeBron played at a championship level. If they don’t garner any better than a five-game gentleman’s sweep, it’s only because the competition is so formidable.
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