Heading into the NBA Finals, down one member of their Big Three, the Cleveland Cavaliers were supposed to be a hollow contender without enough firepower around LeBron James to actually go all the way.
After losing Kyrie Irving to a season-ending injury at the end of an overtime loss in Game 1 of the Finals, James and the Cavaliers were considered even less of a threat, now down to just one member of their Big Three and about seven rotation players.
Still, none of it mattered in Game 2, and the Cavaliers were able to steal a stunning win from the Golden State Warriors in Oakland, 95-93, tying the series 1-1 and giving Cleveland home-court advantage currently as the location shifts to Ohio for two games.
The Warriors almost ripped the game away again in the closing minutes, coming back from 11 points down with a little more than three minutes remaining. But this time, the Cavs were able to reclaim their victory and pull a win out in overtime, thanks in part to some unexpected help from Irving’s replacement, Matthew Dellavedova.
In overtime and the fourth quarter, the Cavs’ incidental starter made several huge plays, including the game-winning free throws late in OT. Down 93-92, Dellavedova was fouled during an offensive rebound on a missed three from James Jones off a James kick-out and sank both attempts.
His calm pair of free throws gave the Cavs a 94-93 lead with just 10 seconds remaining and were a saving grace for Cleveland and James specifically, who had been stymied on two consecutive possessions trying to get clinching baskets prior to the three-point attempt and subsequent free throws from Jones and Dellavedova, respectively.
While the LeBron Show sputtered down the stretch, James led the Cavaliers once again for virtually the entire game.
He played a game-high 50 minutes and threw down a heavy stat line of 39 points, 16 rebounds and 11 assists. Despite missing a couple key free throws in the fourth quarter, he was also effective getting to the line, shooting 14-18 to boost his 11-35 shooting––although that was typical for this game, which was a classically physical Finals contest in which Cleveland shot just 32 percent and Golden State just 39 percent. James, for one, definitely thought the referees, ahem, let some things go.
Having hailed from the Eastern Conference, the Cavaliers were well-suited for a half-court bar-fight type of game, and the Cleveland defense had perhaps its most impressive performance of what has been a stifling playoffs for this team: for the first time all season, they held Golden State to less than 60 points through three quarters, and they did it in a building where the Warriors were 47-3 heading into the game.
Timofey Mozgov, despite his floor time being limited by the presence of an Andrew Bogut matchup, played an excellent first three quarters on both ends and was a huge reason why the Cavs were leading for most of the contest. J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert both stepped up just enough to help the Cavs get a win, guarding multiple positions on defense as well as combining to shoot 3-10 from three point range. Dellavedova spearheaded the defensive effort on Curry, bodying him like Damon on Kinnear and helping turn the league MVP into a non-factor for most of the game.
This performance was one that Cleveland needed, although they still look like an overmatched team in terms of talent and depth––David Blatt played just seven Cavaliers for 259 of the 265 possible minutes (Mike Miller had six). As they head back home for two games, they’re still banking on continued God-like performances from James, their defense to hold up and anything anyone else can give them (even Miller).
At this point, however, who’s to say they can’t do it? James has shown through two games that he can be the great equalizer in this series, and he even flashed signs that his missing jump shot has returned, hitting 3-6 from three. Other than when he’s drifted into ball stagnancy, his play has been borderline masterful through two games, and Game 2 was perhaps his most memorable Finals performance yet.
If he can pull out three more wins in the next five games, it certainly will be.