Path to a Trilogy, Chapter IV: Don’t Forget About Dre

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Welcome to Chapter IV of Path to a Trilogy, where we re-examine recent NBA events that have led to the Cavaliers and Warriors appearing in three straight NBA Finals. This series will be composed of several entries. Happenings of the past are written in the present tense, as they happened, to create a more vivid portrait of the NBA landscape as it was at the time the events took place. 

In Chapter IV, we take a closer look at the 2015 NBA Finals, one in which the Cavaliers endured injuries to key players while the Warriors struggle to put the ailing and shorthanded Cavs away. Links to previous installments of Path to a Trilogy can be found here

Without further ado, this is Chapter IV of Path to a Trilogy. Hope you enjoy.

Going into the 2015 NBA Finals, much is made about the point guard matchup between Most Valuable Player Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving. Many believe that the series could hinge on this important battle, but Irving will not be at 100% because of left knee tendonitis that kept him out of part of the Eastern Conference Finals. The Warriors are a slight favorite, but the Cavaliers have the best player on the floor and the best player on planet Earth: LeBron James.

Both teams have a week off before the Finals, and early on in Game 1, it shows. The two offenses combine to shoot just 35.5% in the first quarter, at the end of which the Cavaliers lead 29-19. The Warriors rebound in the second quarter and pull the score to within three points at halftime. The main story is becoming the other-worldly performance of James, who has 19 points at the half. The Warriors use 18 points from their bench to get back in the game in the second quarter, speaking to their appropriate “Strength in Numbers” slogan.

The Cavaliers and Warriors start to find their rhythm in the third quarter, and the game is tied at 73 heading into the fourth quarter. The fourth quarter turns out to be just like the first three, with neither team able to gain control. Game 1 is setting the stage for a potentially classic NBA Finals, one replete with star power and fascinating storylines. Two made free throws from Cavaliers center Timofey Mogzov tie the game at 98 with 32 seconds left, but the Warriors have possession with a chance to take the lead. The Warriors run a play that allows Curry to get past Irving and drive to the basket. Keep in mind, Irving is playing with left knee soreness and, while he scores 23 points in regulation, is clearly not fully healthy. And yet, somehow, someway, he is able to make up ground on Curry and block his layup attempt against the backboard.

On the Cavs’ next possession, James takes a stepback three from the wing and misses. A desperation attempt from Iman Shumpert very nearly goes in at the buzzer, but the Warriors get the stop and overtime is necessary to decide Game 1. James’ 42 regulation points are not enough to will Cleveland over the finish line.

Curry scores the first four points of the overtime, all on free throws. With just over two minutes left in the game, Irving drives on Klay Thompson, loses his footing, and fractures his left kneecap, the same knee that caused him trouble in earlier rounds of the Playoffs. Harrison Barnes hits a three on the next possession to put the Warriors up by a score of 105-98. The Cavs are sunk in Game 1, but the concern shifts to Irving’s injury. It is announced the next day that Irving will have surgery and miss the rest of the NBA Finals. Many see the injury as a soul-crushing blow to the Cavaliers, as James is the only member of the “Big Three” the Warriors have to contend with defensively. The main defender on James in Game 1 is Andre Iguodala, and he makes LeBron work the hardest out of any of the Warriors’ best defenders. Iguodala also pours in 15 points on the offensive end, including two three-pointers. He is quite possibly the MVP of the game for Golden State.

Game 2 takes place three days after Game 1, giving the Cavs and head coach David Blatt two days off to game plan for life after Kyrie Irving. Matthew Dellavedova, the author of just nineteen starts before this game, will start at point guard for the Cavaliers; he is tasked with the responsibility of guarding Curry. The matchup appears to be lopsided, but Dellavedova’s main strength is his defensive effort.

Sure enough, his defense helps the Cavaliers in Game 2. Dellavedova hounds Curry all night and forces him into one of his worst performances of the season. The Cavaliers’ style of play is reminiscent of what was common in the NBA in the 1990s, as isolation and late-shot-clock attempts rule the day for Blatt’s offense. The plan of slowing down the game and letting James work in isolation sets is working, and a LeBron three puts Cleveland up 83-72 with 3:14 to go. The Warriors chip away at the deficit and, on their last possession in regulation, Curry hits a scoop layup to tie the game at 87. On the Cavs’ final possession, James, instead of taking a deep three like he did at the end of Game 1, tries to drive past Iguodala. He misses a contested layup over several defenders, and the game heads into overtime, marking the first time ever that the first two games of the Finals went into an extra period.

Once again, a superhuman regulation performance from LeBron James (36 points, 14 rebounds, 10 assists) is not enough to beat the Warriors. In overtime, the two teams go back and forth, and the Warriors take a one-point lead on two Curry free throws with 30 seconds left. On the ensuing Cavs possession, LeBron James and James Jones both miss shots, but Dellavedova is fouled going for an offensive rebound on Jones’ three-point attempt. He makes both free throws to put the Cavaliers up 94-93. Curry airballs a stepback jumper on the next possession, and James splits a pair of free throws to put Cleveland up two. With no timeouts, the Warriors must push the ball up the floor with just four seconds left. Curry turns it over, and the Cavaliers tie the series at one game apiece. The series heads back to Cleveland for Games 3 and 4. James finishes with 39 points, 16 rebounds, and 11 assists on 11-of-35 shooting from the field. Curry, the 2015 league MVP, finishes with 19 points on 5-of-23 shooting. Dellavedova is the hero of Game 2, but can he continue to help the Cavs in subsequent games?

In Game 3, that answer is an emphatic yes. His defensive energy and penetration, combined with the overall brilliance of James, carry Cleveland to a 68-48 lead late in the third quarter. The Warriors, though, begin to figure out some things in the fourth quarter with a lineup centered around unlikely facilitator and backup power forward David Lee. The Warriors bring the lead down to one when Curry hits a three with 2:46 to play in the fourth quarter. On the next possession, a wild Dellavedova shot goes in; the Aussie was fouled on the play and made the free throw to extend the lead to four. The crowd at Quicken Loans Arena later chants “Delly” as his unexpected 20-point performance helps the Cavs to a 2-1 lead in the NBA Finals. The real star, though, is James, who scores 40 points, grabs 12 rebounds, and dishes out eight assists in the victory; LeBron plays a whopping 46 minutes in Game 3.

The wear and tear on the Cavaliers is starting to show, however; cameras catch a fatigued James holding the basketball for over five seconds after the final buzzer sounds in Game 3. A more tangible sign of Cleveland’s exhaustion is Dellavedova’s hospitalization for extreme cramping after the game; the cramping would not affect him enough to keep him from playing in Game 4, but the damage has been done.

The Cavaliers’ model of winning is to have James play at an all-time great level and have the supporting cast make enough shots around him to win. That model begins to fail the Cavaliers in Game 4. While James is good, he makes just seven of his 22 shots in 40 minutes. The other part of the problem is that the Warriors are better in this game, as well; Curry contributes 22 points while Iguodala adds another 22 in his first start of the season. Instead of starting traditional center Andrew Bogut, Golden State head coach Steve Kerr decides to start their so-called “death lineup”, with the 6’7″ Draymond Green playing the center spot normally occupied by the seven-foot-tall Bogut. This is the lineup that the Warriors use at the end of their games and the one that carried them to victory in overtime of Game 1, and Kerr rolls the dice with it to start Game 4.

The decision pays off. The five starters combine for 84 of the team’s 103 points en route to a 103-82 victory. The Cavaliers close the game to 73-70 near the end of the third quarter, but a 17-5 Golden State run spanning the third and fourth quarters is too much for the Cavaliers to overcome. After his stellar performance in Game 3, Dellavedova shoots 3-for-14 from the field, bench flamethrower J.R. Smith goes 2-of-12, and the team combines to shoot just 33% in what would be their worst offensive performance of the series. The surprising standout of this one for the Warriors is Shaun Livingston, who earns a +25 figure in just 24 minutes of playing time. He adds in seven points, eight rebounds, and four assists, and his presence stabilizes the second unit in the win. Golden State’s hero, though, is Iguodala, who, in his first start of the season, guards James for most of the game and forces him into his worst performance of the series. The series is even at two games apiece heading back to Golden State for a critical Game 5.

In Game 5, the stars arrive for both teams. In the first half, James scores 16 points while Curry drops in 15 to lead the Golden State effort. The Warriors lead 51-50 at halftime, but seven first-half threes from Smith, Shumpert, and Mike Miller help the Cavs keep pace. The Warriors stretch the lead to six at the end of the third, but the Cavaliers come back to take an 80-79 lead on a parking lot three from James with 7:48 to play in regulation. Curry counters at the other end with a three on the next possession. The Warriors expand their lead with five straight points, including a circus layup, from Iguodala. They lead by seven points with just under three minutes left when Curry crosses over Dellavedova and hits a stepback three over him. The play sends the internet into a frenzy and becomes the signature moment of the 2015 NBA Finals. Curry finishes the game with 37 points and seven made threes. 17 of his 37 points come in the fourth quarter.

James’ stat line indicates yet another stellar performance: 40 points, 14 rebounds, 11 assists. His team, for as great as he has been, finds itself down three games to two in the NBA Finals.

Game 6 is back in Cleveland just two days after Game 5. Early on, the Warriors look like the far superior team, charging out to a 28-15 lead after one quarter. It is becoming increasingly obvious that James will need far more help than he’s getting if the Cavaliers are to win Game 6 and, for that matter, an NBA championship. The Cavaliers close the gap to two points before halftime and even take a 47-45 lead early in the third quarter.

But the Warriors are just too much for the banged-up Cavaliers to handle. Golden State pulls away in the third quarter and leads by as much as 15 points before it ends. A LeBron James dunk pulls Cleveland within seven points with just over ten minutes left in the game, but the Warriors expand their lead after that behind the shared offensive efforts of Curry, Iguodala, and Livingston. The Cavaliers never get within one possession of Golden State’s lead, and the Warriors coast to the franchise’s first championship since 1975 behind 25 points in Game 6 from Curry and Iguodala. James finished the game with 32 points on 13-of-33 shooting.

The individual performances of the players in this series create a new dilemma; who will win NBA Finals MVP? James is clearly the best player in the series, having logged nearly 46 minutes, over 35 points, and 13 rebounds per game. The Warriors’ two candidates for the award are Curry and Iguodala; while Curry has the better numbers over six games, Iguodala’s insertion into the starting lineup helped turn the series around for the struggling Warriors. The award ultimately goes to Iguodala, who is praised for guarding James for most of the series, even though James still thrived offensively when guarded by the Finals MVP.

Many argue that the Cavaliers would have won this series had they been fully healthy, but we will never know. Can Cleveland get Irving and Love back to form to take another run at the championship next year? Or will the Warriors’ dominance continue in the 2015-16 season?

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