Marc Skelton, one of New York’s best high school basketball coaches, has made note of the sheer basketball I.Q. of this Warriors team. If this were 1958, he noted on Twitter, the Warriors would be driving Ferrari 250GT Europas while the rest of the league puttered around in Edsels.
In truth, though, the Cavaliers nearly matched the Warriors in passing acuity this year — players on both teams touch the ball the shortest possible time before passing it on. To analyze those statistics, or to listen to the players afterward, was to feel sorrow that this series turned competitive only these past two games.
In Game 3, the Cavaliers ruined a fine effort by collapsing in the final minutes. But in Game 4 they came out hair-afire, piling up ridiculous point totals and playing with abandon. Any Warrior foolish enough to go airborne near the basket risked getting spun like a top to the floor. It was a measure of the game’s intensity that you turned around and saw James and Kevin Durant, 1a and 1b for best player in the Milky Way, and two self-possessed fellows, jawing furiously with each other during a break in the game.
Sweaty urgency had seized them in its embrace, even though neither man is a natural smack talker. Asked about it afterward, Durant, who scored 35 points, smiled faintly and suggested that they might have been exchanging shooting tips. “We weren’t coming to blows,” he said. “We were just talking.”
In fact, the contest took on a ragged look at times, and reminded you how America’s beautiful game attempts to sabotage itself. The referees had an off night, even forgetting which malefactor player had how many technical fouls.
And the real shame is that the N.B.A., under the modern illusion that we can make the imperfect perfect, once again allowed replays to slow a riveting game to a crawl.
There have been other annoyances, too. After Game 3, some writers unearthed a tired trope and suggested that James, in the final minute, had blundered by passing the ball to Kyle Korver, who proceeded to miss a 3-pointer. A true star, they said, — by which they meant Michael Jordan — would have driven into the grill of the Warriors’ defense and shot the ball himself.
This is a silly parlor game that misapprehends James’s gifts, which have never been those of a pure scorer. He has a body armored with muscle and sinew, and he can leap to eye level with the hoop, but his genius is his ability to see the floor in five dimensions.
“I had 101 drives last night,” he told reporters facetiously that night. “I’m sorry I didn’t go for 102.”
A reporter pressed his point and James responded by pressing his counterpoint. “If I could have the play over again, I would come off a three-screen situation. Draymond would switch on me with five fouls, I would get him leaning. I would drive left. I would see K.D. step up.”
James went on like this, doing his best Hubie Brown imitation. And he finished: “And I would see Kyle Korver in the corner, one of the greatest 3-point shooters in this league’s history.”
He smiled at the reporter. “And I would do the same exact thing.”
After Game 4, reporters again surrounded James like so many saffron-robe devotees ’round their swami. They noted that last year Cleveland had also trailed the Warriors three games to one, but came back to win the championship, an epic feat, to which the Warriors responded by adding the 7-foot Durant to their deadly lineup.
Do you, a reporter asked, have the Warriors where you want them?
James looked quizzically at the reporter, as if to imply that perhaps he had been smoking something. “No,” he said, “they got us where they want us.”
Another reporter tried a roundabout way into the same question. What is it that allows you to respond so well to such dire circumstances? “I don’t know,” James said. “I don’t like it. It causes too much stress, man. I’m stressed out.”
Who wouldn’t be? The Cavaliers, after their 137-116 victory, were still just one loss from being former champions, and they had to travel back to Oakland for Game 5, where the fans will scream like banshees and the Warriors will do their pass-and-shoot-and-smile hocus-pocus.
If I bet money, I’d look for Cleveland to get lowered into its grave Monday night. I’d also advise the Warriors to take care of business. Because they don’t want to breathe any more life into their still wounded rival.
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