This first appeared in the June 3 edition of The Washington Post’s NBA newsletter, the Monday Morning Post Up, NBA Finals edition. You can subscribe by clicking here.
OAKLAND, Calif. — The Cleveland Cavaliers looked utterly devastated after Game 1 of the NBA Finals slipped away in overtime. Cleveland had outplayed the Golden State Warriors for 47 minutes 55 seconds … only to have George Hill miss a potential game-winning free throw, J.R. Smith lose track of the score and Golden State take advantage of its second chance by scoring the first nine points of overtime to put the game away.
That result leaves you thinking one of two things. One possibility is Cleveland has found a formula that can allow it to hang with Golden State, making the massive underdog feel confident it can make this series go longer and be more compelling than anticipated.
The other? That the Cavaliers, like other teams that suffered heartbreaking losses to begin the NBA Finals (such as the Orlando Magic in 1995, who were swept after Nick Anderson’s missed free throws), will fall away without much of a fight.
For the former to happen, and not the latter, here’s what the Cavaliers need to do in Game 2:
1. Don’t feel sorry for yourself
It would be easy to think the series was lost after the final seconds of regulation in Game 1. And perhaps it was.
But if Cleveland is able to win Game 2, it still will have accomplished what it set out to do when it got to the Bay Area: Take home-court advantage back from Golden State.
The Cavaliers had plenty to be optimistic about after Game 1. The Warriors didn’t play poorly; they only had eight turnovers and shot 51.1 percent. Cleveland, meanwhile, again shot poorly from three-point range, going 10 for 37, but dominated the glass, outrebounding Golden State 53-38 — including a staggering 19-4 edge in offensive rebounds.
Clearly there are things there that Cleveland can carry over to Game 2. But if the Cavaliers let their heads drop and don’t keep the same level of focus for 48 minutes, they don’t stand a chance.
2. Start making threes
Cleveland has lived and died by the three all season. That’s what makes it remarkable that the Cavaliers not only managed to get past the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals but were able to challenge the Warriors in Game 1, despite struggling from deep.
Only once in their past eight games, going back to the start of the conference finals, have the Cavaliers managed to make 40 percent of their threes. In only two games has Cleveland made as many as 10 three-pointers.
If Cleveland can have a night when it makes 15 or more of its shots from behind the arc — or even approaches 20 — that would make a significant difference.
3. Continue controlling the pace
Perhaps the most overlooked part of the way Game 1 played out, given all of the insanity that took place at the end, was how Cleveland — and particularly LeBron James — controlled the pace.
Yes, Golden State managed to get out in transition, where it is excellent, to outscore Cleveland 28-18. But the Cavaliers kept the game close by not allowing Golden State to get into its usual free-flowing style, where the tempo picks up and the Warriors can keep putting up shots. By hitting the boards hard and working the clock, James prevented the Warriors from feeling comfortable, and it made a difference.
Continuing to do this is easier said than done. But it is consistently the one thing that leads to the Warriors struggling — and is one way the Cavaliers can ensure they remain in this series.
4. Keep attacking the offensive glass
One of Golden State’s weaknesses is its inability to control the glass. With Kevin Durant playing power forward and Kevon Looney at center much of the time, the Warriors are never going to be confused with a great rebounding team.
Cleveland, on the other hand, has a couple of terrific rebounders in Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson — not to mention James, who is great at everything, and Larry Nance Jr., who was excellent off the bench with nine points and 11 rebounds in 19 minutes of Game 1.
The Cavaliers need to keep doing that in Game 2. That may allow the Warriors to leak out in transition a little more than Cleveland would like, but ending up with nine more shots than the Warriors over the course of the game, as Cleveland did in Game 1, is no small thing. For a losing team trying to use every edge it can, that can make a difference — especially if Cleveland can actually make some shots.
5. Keep getting superhuman performances from LeBron
It is remarkable what James is doing.
Here are his stats from his past three games: 46 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists in 46 minutes in Cleveland’s victory in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals; 35 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists while playing all 48 minutes of Cleveland’s victory in Game 7 in Boston; and 51 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in 48 minutes in Cleveland’s overtime loss to Golden State in Game 1.
All three of those performances would, for at least 99.5 percent of people who have picked up a basketball, be the single greatest game of their career, regardless of what level it was at. Then consider the first two came in NBA playoff elimination games, including a Game 7 on the road. Then consider the third came in Game 1 of the NBA Finals as a massive underdog.
During these playoffs, all James is doing is averaging 34.9 points, 9.2 rebounds, 8.7 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.1 blocks while shooting 54.6 percent overall and 35 percent from three-point range.
As ESPN’s Brian Windhorst has so perfectly said: James has made his greatness routine in this postseason — so much so that people aren’t talking nearly enough about his individual performances because they have come to be expected, rather than appreciated.
Still, for Cleveland to win Game 2 — let alone win this series — those performances need to continue. That is the standard James has set for himself, and the one the Cavaliers need him to continue to live up to.
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