CLEVELAND – I arrived in Ohio late Tuesday morning to cover Games Three and Four of the NBA Finals. The prevailing sentiment on the sports radio shows is that fans aren't ready to panic, not after the Cavaliers came back to win the championship after losing the first two in Oakland a year ago.
But with the Cavs down 2-0 in games, there's clear cause for concern. It's a different Warriors team with Kevin Durant on board and Steph Curry at full health. The Cavs have been soundly outplayed on both ends of the floor and have been forced to play at Golden State's dizzying pace. A main issue has been their shabby shooting from long range in the first two games.
The Cavs shot 43.5 percent from three-point range while rolling through the Eastern Conference playoffs with a single loss. But in the first two games at Golden State, they've made only 31.7 from behind the arc (19 of 60).
It's no shock that they would fall off from deep. The Warriors led the NBA in three-point defense this season. There's no way the Cavs were going to shoot 40 percent over a series. Golden State has three of the top mid-range defenders in the league in Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Durant. Their big men drift to the arc and make life more difficult for spot-up shooters.
J.R. Smith is a real problem for Cleveland, the main target of criticism in the local media. There's talk that the Cavs should bench him and insert either Iman Shumpert or Kyle Korver as the starting shooting guard.
Smith was close to invisible in the first two games, scoring three total points (he's 1 for 4 from three) and going scoreless in 13:59 of playing time in Game Two. He's averaging 5.9 points in the playoffs after scoring 11.5 a game during Cleveland's run to the NBA title a year ago. But Smith said his confidence hasn't been affected.
"No," Smith said Tuesday at Quicken Loans Arena. "I have the same confidence level I've had since I started playing this game. I feel like I can make any and every shot. I feel like I'm going to. I feel like I'm going to play well every time I step on the floor.
"Obviously, that doesn't happen all the time. but my confidence has never dwindled, lacked, chipped away at, nothing. So I feel when I'm on the floor ... obviously, Bron is Bron -- but I feel like I'm one of the best players on the floor at all times."
It has been a trying season for Smith, who is in his 14th pro season. He fractured his thumb in December and missed a big chunk of the regular season. In January, and his wife, Jewel, announced that their baby daughter had been born five months premature, weighing just one pound.
Baby Dakota came home from Hillcrest Hospital in Cleveland on May 23 and is doing fine. The Cavs are waiting for Smith to recover his shooting form and be a difference in the Finals. The question is, do they sit him or wait to see if Smith gets on one of his signature hot streaks? Cavs coach Tyronn Lue left no doubt Tuesday.
Asked if he had decided to start Shumpert over Smith, Lue said "Nope." When a reporter asked him to elaborate, he said "I'm not doing it." He said Smith would start in Game Three.
Surely, Lue hasn't forgotten that Smith also started slowly in last year's Finals, averaging 4.0 points in the first two games in Golden State, then coming to life for 20 points in the Cavs' win in Game Three and scoring in double figures in the last five games of the series.
They need one of their second-tier shooters to heat up from long range. Korver, Shumpert and Richard Jefferson were also held to just one three-pointer in Oakland, combining to go 3 of 15 from three. If the Cavs have to rely on LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love to do all the scoring, this series could be over very quickly.
"It's about us," Smith said. "If I start, I start. If I don't, I don't. If I come out and make shots, I make shots. If I don't, I
don't. I try to figure out some other way to help our team. It's not all about scoring. It's about playing well, period."
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Love said the Cavs have to play aggressively on defense if they hope to stop the Warriors' high-powered offense and get back in the series. They allowed Golden State to embark on a dunking show in Game One, but played tougher in the second game.
I told Love that we old-time NBA watchers remember the day when teams sent emphatic physical messages when opponents began having their way around the rim. Something tells me Kevin McHale, Charles Oakley, Alonzo Mourning and Dennis Rodman wouldn't allow a parade of dunks without someone hitting the floor.
"Yeah," Love said with a grin. "Guys like to keep their money nowadays. I think there's ways -- I don't know if it's roughing up the game -- but there's ways to be physical the right way. I've seen the tapes of some of those messages sent. But we're not out here trying to hurt anybody.
"It's just two teams playing the same sort of basketball, and just trying to enforce their will on each other. Nobody's trying to take each other out, they're just playing ball. Will there be hard fouls the next several games? Probably."
Things tend to get a little chippy as a series goes along in any sport. It wouldn't be a surprise if Game Three got a little rough, or if it involved Warriors bad boy Draymond Green.
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Kevin Durant is averaging 35.3 points and Steph Curry 30.0 through two games. It'll be tough to maintain, but if they do they'll become the first teammate to average 30 points in the same NBA Finals since 1962. Elgin Baylor (40.6) and Jerry West (31.1) did it for the Lakers that year – and lost to the Celtics in seven games.
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LeBron James recorded his eighth Finals triple-double (29 points, 11 rebounds, 14 assists) in Game Two, tying Magic Johnson for the most in history. It was the first time two players had a triple-double in the same Finals game. Curry had 32 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists for the Warriors.
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Golden State's 18 made three-pointers in Game Two set a Finals record. They had the previous record of 17, set in a Game Four win over the Cavs last year.
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Of the previous 32 teams to take a 2-0 lead in the Finals, 28 have gone on to win the series.