CLEVELAND – The threes rained down, the Kyrie Irving drives piled up and for a few hours on Friday you wondered what could have been. What if Kyle Korver’s corner three went down late in Game 3, what if Irving hadn’t settled for a jump shot a possession later. The Cavaliers’ backs remain firmly against the wall after Friday’s series-saving 137-116 Game 4 win, yet as Cleveland players milled in the hallways of Quicken Loans Arena, accepting congratulations from friends, exchanging high-fives with Kardashians, they understood this: They didn’t have to be.
The Cavaliers have few advantages in this series. They have LeBron James; the Warriors have Kevin Durant. They have Kyrie Irving, but, hey, that Stephen Curry guy. Kevin Love was brilliant in the conference playoffs. No one would take him over Draymond Green.
The Cavs’ edge: muscle. James is a monster. Tristan Thompson is a beast. Love is a human vacuum cleaner that sucks up rebounds. If nothing else, Cleveland could be the bully. The Cavs held the rebounding edge in two of the first three games, but it never felt like they dominated physically.
In Game 4, it did. Thompson was better in the first quarter than he was in the first three games. He got under Green’s skin early and pushed him to his limits late. He registered his first double-digit rebounding game of the series and forced the Warriors to try to pin him down with multiple players. It set the tone for the first game Cleveland was able to dominate physically.
“They brought a level of physicality that we did not match,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said.
It’s important not to overreact here. Cleveland won a game, at home, and now heads back to Oakland, to a pulsating Oracle Arena, to try to win a game in a building no Western Conference team won in during the postseason. Trying to make parallels between being down 3-1 last season to the current plight is foolish. Last year Golden State went into Game 5 with a hobbled Curry and without Green. Both are healthy, playing and have been joined by Durant.
Said James: “They got us where they want us.”
If there is an opportunity here, it’s through physical play. Cavs coach Tyronn Lue has been clear: He’s not shaking things up. Calls to tweak the lineup were ignored. “I stick with my guys,” Lue said. Suggestions of slowing the pace were dismissed. If the Cavs go down, Lue reasons, they are going to go down playing their way.
That’s physically. That’s Thompson. Thompson is the kind of player who is energized by offensive rebounds, like an arcade ride refueled with quarters. The trash talk between Thompson and Green started in the first quarter and continued throughout the game. Green is no stranger to in-game battles, but Thompson got the best of this one.
“It’s the Finals,” Thompson said. “Guys are going to talk. We’re going to respond, but they aren’t going to punk us. Not me. They’re not about to punk Tristan Thompson. You got the game [expletive] up with that one. You can talk all you want, but I’m definitely going to bark back. That’s just how I’m built.”
Pundits wondered what Cleveland would have left in the tank for Game 4. Wednesday’s loss was grueling. But the Cavs threw haymakers at the Warriors, who kept on coming. With a 48-hour turnaround and a seemingly insurmountable task in front of it, Cleveland looked cooked. Yet Lue saw surprising energy at the team’s morning shootaround. He felt a “great vibe.” There was no Al Pacino-like pregame speech from Lue. There never is.
“We watched film, showed our mistakes that we have to get better at, that we can’t continue to make, because they make you pay,” Lue said. “[We] showed them the film and just told them one game at a time. The guys’ mindset, they were ready to play. It wasn’t time for a speech.”
There are things the Cavs can’t count on in Game 5. They can’t expect to score like this. The Cavs’ 49 first-quarter points were a Finals record; the 86 points in the first half were a record, too. They can’t hope to be this effective from the 3-point line; Cleveland’s 24 threes were a Finals best.
What they can expect to be is more physical. They can bully the Warriors, rattle them and interrupt a rhythm team’s game. It happened in Game 4. It can happen in Game 5.
“We knew we had to make it physical,” Love said. “We knew that’s part of who we are, but I feel like we say that every game. Tonight we took it to them first, and that was very telling for the rest of the game. There were a lot of fouls on both sides, but that’s part of it. We feel like [physical play] should be part of the game.”
Here’s the most likely scenario: Cleveland’s season ends Monday. The Warriors are the same great team everyone has been making historical comparisons with. Getting drubbed in one game doesn’t change that. Curry (14 points) won’t struggle at home, Klay Thompson’s shot will likely come back, and the Warriors will sprint to a double-digit win.
But Cleveland knows a few things now. They know Irving can score on Thompson and they know James can still be the best player on the floor. And they know they can be bullies. They know that being physical works. If the Warriors are the finely tuned sports car, the Cavs are the bulldozer. They can’t win a skills challenge. They can win a street fight.
“At the end of the day, the game is supposed to be played physically,” James said. “Both teams were wanting to put themselves in the record books and put themselves in basketball history. So try to do whatever it takes to win.”