OAKLAND, Calif. — The Cleveland Cavaliers – and, by extension, LeBron James – knew they had to win Game 2 of the NBA Finals on Sunday night to even the series and have a realistic chance of beating the star-studded Golden State Warriors. Naturally, in a critical game, James played like the NBA’s best player, finishing with a triple-double.
But that wasn’t enough. Behind another pair of spectacular performances from Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry, as well as Klay Thompson’s emergence from a playoffs-long shooting slump, the Warriors came away with a 132-113 victory over the Cavaliers in Steve Kerr’s return to active duty as Golden State’s coach.
Now, as the series shifts to Cleveland for Games 3 and 4, the immediate focus will not be on whether the Cavaliers can come back and win a second straight championship but whether the Warriors can do what once seemed unthinkable: finish the postseason 16-0.
“We’re worried about the series,” Durant said. “So we’re just trying to stay in the moment. But for the most part, we just try to play hard and try to play smart every possession down.
“We know this is far from over. We know how hard it is to be the best team in the league. So we got to just keep going, man, keep our foot on the gas and keep getting better every day.”
The fact that going undefeated in the postseason is even a possibility for the Warriors - especially given their opponent in these Finals - is a measure of the team’s dominance in these first two games at home, even as they played at something less than their best in both of them. It was that level of leeway that was the basis of Golden State’s pitch to Durant when the team met with him in free agency last July in the Hamptons. And through two games, that pitch has borne out.
The combination of Curry and Durant has been the difference in this series, with the might of two of the NBA’s top five players trumping the usual dominance of James, who finished with 29 points, 11 rebounds and 14 assists in 39 minutes. After Curry and Durant combined for 66 points in Game 1, they poured in another 65 in Game 2, while Thompson - who came into this game shooting 36.6 percent from the field and 33.8 percent from three in these playoffs - added 22 points on 8-for-12 shooting.
When the Warriors’ stars are scoring like that, there’s no way anyone - not even James - can counter them.
“I don’t want to get into the ‘What we need to do better’ right now,” said James, who spoke in the locker room shortly after the game instead of making his customary trip to the podium in the interview room. “The game is too fresh. We’re going to go home and watch the film to see ways we can be better. Do things . . . I don’t want to say differently, because you work so hard to get to this point, but make a couple of changes to see if we can be a lot better defensively and offensively.
“I thought for the most part with the game plan that we had we tried to execute it as close as possible. Much more physical today than we were in Game 1. And we forced them to 20 turnovers, and they still beat us pretty good, so we got to be much better, too.”
Still, it took until well into the second half for the Warriors truly to establish their dominance, in large part because of the individual brilliance of James. After he committed eight turnovers in Game 1, James vowed to be better in Game 2, and he was, recording his eighth career triple-double in the NBA Finals, tying Magic Johnson for the most all time.
In the first half, James - who entered the Finals with a road victory in 29 straight postseason series - was a one-man wrecking crew, stampeding his way to the rim time and again while racking up 18 points, six rebounds and 10 assists. But even with James playing like that, Kevin Love tossing in 15 points and the Warriors committing 13 turnovers - more than triple the amount they had in all of Game 1 - Golden State still led 67-64 at halftime.
That seemed like a bad omen for the Cavaliers, and things got worse once the second half got underway. Just as Golden State did in Game 1, the Warriors turned on the jets after the halftime break, outscoring the Cavaliers 35-24 in the third quarter - behind 12 points from Curry and nine from Durant - to give Golden State a 102-88 lead after three quarters that made the final 12 minutes of the game almost moot.
The drama began even before Sunday’s game, when Kerr - who had not coached the Warriors’ previous 11 games after the lingering symptoms from a botched back surgery almost two years ago worsened two games into Golden State’s first-round series against the Portland Trail Blazers - strode into the interview room and declared he was coming back to the sideline in Game 2.
He then received a huge ovation from the crowd before the game and got the performance he hoped from his team during it.
“It felt great,” Kerr said. “Got a really nice reception from our fans and our players.
“It was just great to be on the sidelines again. That’s what makes it so much fun, to feel the energy of the Finals. And so it’s really nice to be back.”
Kerr had been steadily doing more in recent weeks, including running practices, watching film and being in coaching meetings, but he had remained out of the limelight for most of the six weeks, allowing lead assistant Mike Brown to remain the team’s interim head coach, deal with interviews and coach in the games.
The timing of Kerr’s decision created some concern about its impact on his team. Any worries about that, however, were quickly washed away once the game began.
That’s what the presence of Curry and Durant will do - even when someone as brilliant as James is playing against them. And that’s why the Warriors are two wins away from the title they have spent a year waiting to reclaim.