CLEVELAND — It was difficult not to walk away from Game 2 of the 2018 NBA Finals with the sense that Game 1 might have broken the Cavaliers. Yes, LeBron James did the work, put in the numbers, kept the game within range. But from the very start, the Cavs were a step behind, as if they were still dazed from the emotional haymaker that Game 1 delivered.
The Cavs are a trash defensive team. They’ve been putrid all season. They lose their man, they blow their assignments, they get lost in rotations. But in Game 1, they contested, they competed, they challenged the Warriors. That didn’t happen in Game 2. They were on the backs of their heels. They were lost and never really recovered.
So now the series shifts to Cleveland, where the Cavs will position their last stand and try to move past what may have been the most frustrating start to a series in James’ career. The Warriors are favored by 4.5, which feels small, but then again, this is the Cavs’ best chance, and the Warriors did win on a buzzer-beater last year.
Here are the angles for Game 3 …
CURRY UNLEASHED: The Warriors seem to have realized that as long as the Warriors keep LeBron far away from him, Steph Curry can get whatever he wants on this defense.
The give-and-go stood out, as highlighted by Anthony Slater at The Athletic:
But the Cavs also just fell apart on some of their assignments, like here:
I asked Larry Nance what surprised him in these Finals, and he said the Oracle atmosphere. He mentioned that it made calling out the Cavs’ switch assignments more difficult. What’s interesting is that the Rockets didn’t have this problem. I asked Mike D’Antoni about that in the last series, and he said that if you know your assignments and they’re intuitive, you don’t need the call-outs.
The Cavs need them.
Oh, and to make matters worse, Curry figured out he can get whatever he wants against Nance:
Blitz him and you create situations in which the Cavs have to make several rotations, and that’s a problem with the weapons Golden State has. But try to switch, and Curry will find gaps and exploit them. Curry is on another level right now, and needs to be the favorite for Finals MVP even with what LeBron is doing.
THE JR PROBLEM: Honestly, the Game 1 gaffe has overshadowed the narrative on JR Smith. It’s a barrage, nonstop, wondering what he could have been thinking. And yet, that’s one sequence. Granted, it’s literally the worst sequence in NBA Finals history. But it’s just one play. The bigger issue is that Smith is a -31 in two games and has been absolutely atrocious.
This was the first possession of Game 2. Smith came back from that disastrous Game 1 and completely misses a really obvious slip vs. the switch by JaVale McGee.
I mean, that’s the first possession, and unless the Cavs had planned something more complex such as a blitz on Curry or something we can’t see here, it seems as if Smith just got fooled by McGee slipping to the rim, which is what McGee has done his entire career. It’s possible there was confusion about whether the Cavs were blitzing or switching, although they tend to have switched most times on Curry.
It’s hard to blame Smith here; he’s guarding Kevin Durant. But he does just get absolutely torched, and Durant has had his way with him in this series:
This one might be on Jeff Green, because Smith clearly thinks they’re not switching, while Green assumes they are. Again, they’ve switched most but not all actions, so it’s not clear. Still, Smith is involved:
It’s just this constant array of mistakes that points back to Smith specifically. Part of it is conceptual value. With Kevin Love, you know he’s going to give up some buckets, but you also know he’s a good enough offensive player to make it worth it. With Smith, you’re specifically hoping he gives you balance. You’re not looking for him to create scoring; when he dribbles, it strikes fear into your heart that he’s going to pursue some sort of ISO nonsense. So when he’s getting roasted defensively, it makes it that much worse.
Oh, and as far that offense?
Here’s Smith’s shooting in the 2018 playoffs:
Against the Toronto Raptors: 17-of-27 (63%), 10-of-13 from 3-point range (77%)
Against all other opponents: 40-of-138 (29%), 28-of-92 from 3-point range (30%)
On tightly or very tightly contested shots (via NBA.com) vs. the Raptors: 4-of-8 (50%)
On tightly or very tightly contested shots (via NBA.com) vs. all other opponents: 14-of-45 (31%)
(Have I mentioned Toronto caught a bad beat?)
WARRIORS -4.5: I feel like even my “super hedge” self would have stronger sides were this a normal series. But this series is such a battle between how the Warriors absolutely, completely know if they play their best the Cavaliers cannot compete with them, and their resulting complacency, vs. the Cavaliers being wholly and totally overwhelmed but propelled by the greatest player of modern times.
I will ride with the Warriors overcoming their complacency. Here’s why:
- Golden State controls its fate; the Cavaliers do not. If the Warriors play to their potential, they will win, and they will win by a wide margin. They did not in Game 1 and still almost covered -13 (its highest point).
- Golden State’s whole demeanor in Game 2 was like the kid who had risked his scholarship with some dumb prank in the coming-of-age movie, and who comes out of it on the other side with a newfound joy for life. The Cavs’ demeanor was that of someone who realized that life is pointless and you will never escape the all-consuming maw of misery it entails. They were basically Tom Hanks in the opening of “Joe Versus the Volcano.” (Check me with all the super-timely references.) LeBron’s entire demeanor has been maybe the most glum I’ve seen it since 2011.
- For actual basketball reasons, the Cavaliers simply do not have their switch mechanics in place to manage the off-ball movement of Golden State. The Warriors have better shooters, better defenders, better creators, two of the three best players on the floor, and realistically, four of the best five and seven of the top 10 in this series.
- The game was tight last year in this exact situation, with Golden State prevailing on the Durant game-winner. That was against a better Cavs team, though.
- A better comparison for this series feels like the 2015 Warriors-Rockets series. James Harden almost beat the Warriors in both games at Oracle, with a total combined differential of five points. Then Golden State went into Houston, and the Warriors, knowing they would get the Rockets’ best shot and how close they were to losing the first two games, absolutely pummeled Houston’s face off, 115-80. They ended the series right there and then. They sloughed off Game 4 and took care of business at Oracle for the gentleman’s sweep and their first Finals appearance. They can pull the same thing here and still sweep the Cavs with a B-level game in Game 4.
- The number is big here. A two-possession win puts it in free-throws range. The Warriors have been rough in late-game situations, but they’re also pretty good at holding leads.
- Andre Iguodala is likely to play, and that just makes the Warriors’ defense that much better. Shaun Livingston mentioned how much Iguodala does to get teams deeper in the shot clock by anticipating actions and jamming them, forcing them to go to their second and third options.
- There are just way more outcomes where the Warriors cover at that number than the Cavs do.
CAVALIERS +4.5: Now, in the interest of full disclosure, here’s what scares me about the Cavs:
- The Warriors are 7-11 against the spread in the playoffs under Steve Kerr in games in which they are favored by fewer than five. Most of those losses came in 2016 in the ill-fated series vs. a different Cavs team and without KD, but still.
- Role players shoot better at home. So if Smith, Kyle Korver, Jordan Clarkson and Jeff Green knock down shots, that not only boosts the Cavs’ offense, but it means Golden State is taking the ball out, which slows down its transition game. Livingston said Tuesday that the Rockets series helped teach the Warriors the value of pushing off misses, but the Cavs messed with some full-court press to slow them down off makes in Game 2. Expect to see more of that.
- The Cavaliers have gotten a completely awful whistle for two games and are going home to a hostile crowd with Scott Foster as a likely official. Do not be surprised if an avalanche of fouls befalls Golden State.
- Iguodala likely plays, and that could mess up the Warriors’ chemistry and force them more into their small-ball units, which haven’t been as reliable as they have been in years past.
- LeBron is due for another absolutely superheroic performance.
- The Cavs hung in both home games last year. That was a better Cavs team, but not a better LeBron, and that was a better Warriors team as well.
- Cleveland’s been tremendous at home, and every time we’ve buried the Cavs they’ve responded.
OVER 216.5: Sharp money came in late on both games on the over in Games 1 and 2. Two trends are forming:
- The Cavs’ defense can’t slow down the Warriors. Not even a little bit.
- The Cavs’ offense is still going to produce because of LeBron even when they’re bad.
The pace has been where Golden State wants it, but that probably shifts at home toward Cleveland for reasons described above. Still, 216.5 remains soft. I don’t like it as much as I did in Game 2, but there doesn’t seem to be any plausible way for Cleveland to corral Golden State into an offensive clunker. Meanwhile, at home, the Cavaliers have scored at least 109 in every game since the first round.
WARRIORS OVER 110: I’m very big on just betting the Golden State over total points in this series because I am in full-on “make Cleveland prove to me it can defend at all.”
Editor’s note: The opinion on this game is from the individual writer and is based on his research, analysis and perspective. It is independent of, and may not always match with, the algorithm-driven Best Bets from Sports Insights.
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