The Golden State Warriors are a game away from their second straight NBA championship after beating the Cleveland Cavaliers 108-97 in Game 4 on Friday. Although a close game for three-and-a-half quarters, a 12-1 run for the Warriors halfway through the fourth quarter put them up by nine and essentially sealed it.
After the blowouts that had carried the first three games of the series, Game 4 was much more entertaining. The Cavaliers started quickly with Richard Jefferson staying in the starting lineup over Kevin Love, who came off the bench for the first time since 2010. But Golden State didn’t waver, closing out the quarter strong to lead 29-28 after the first 12 minutes.
The Cavaliers built a lead from there, winning the second quarter by six points and going up 63-55 early in the third quarter. Of course, no lead is safe against the Warriors, not even for a second. Cleveland botched consecutive pick-and-rolls between Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, giving up a wide-open three to each on back-to-back possessions that quickly let the Warriors narrow the gap.
When Golden State’s offense was rolling, Kyrie Irving made sure the lead didn’t get too far away, hitting timely buckets so that the Cavaliers could at least survive the Warriors’ bursts instead of completely losing control. This shake-and-bake two that Irving drilled over Curry was particularly gorgeous.
But the Cavaliers finally lost it halfway through the final frame, when the Warriors went on that big run while Cleveland’s attack stagnated against the formidable Golden State defense. The Warriors ran off a 12-1 run over a four-minute span, while the Cavaliers saw good shot attempts like an Irving transition layup get swatted away spectacularly by Thompson. Even after Harrison Barnes’ three-pointer with 5:56 remaining completed that run, Golden State still held the Cavs scoreless for another two minutes.
From there, falling down 93-84 with under four minutes left, Cleveland didn’t have the firepower to fight their way back into the game. Golden State is just one win away from consecutive titles, with a 3-1 lead that no team in the Finals has ever come back from. They can do it at home in Game 5 on Monday.
1. You can’t hold the Splash Bros down forever
At this point, we all know this. The Cavaliers slowed down Curry and Thompson for stretches, but all it takes is a moment for the defense to crack and a second for a defender to be a step slow, and suddenly either the league’s best or second-best shooter is stepping into a makeable shot. Those cracks showed far too often in the third quarter for Cleveland, when Curry and Thompson each got a couple open threes on four straight possessions. They hit a combined three of them, and suddenly a comfortable lead for Cleveland with a chance to extend it into double digits turned into a tie game. It’s a hard thing to ask for near-perfection from defenses playing Golden State, but it’s a reality. The Cavaliers slipped up a few too many times on defense, and against this team, that’s usually all it takes to lose a game.
2. Kyrie Irving showed up
This was James’ message to Irving before the game.
LeBron James‘ two-word motivational message to Kyrie Irving during the lineup introductions: “Be special.”
— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) June 11, 2016
Irving was. He started strong and only got warmer as the game went along, mixing strong drives to the basket with nifty pull-up jumpers after a series of dribble moves. His defense, definitely not flawless, had some positive moments nonetheless, including
this obliteration of a Curry shot attempt.
The Cavaliers have needed Irving to play like this to have a chance. He did and they did. The final eight minutes of the fourth quarter could have gone better for Irving, no doubt — he didn’t adjust to the lack of whistles around the rim, and it showed — but overall, this is the Irving that Cleveland wanted to see this entire series. Maybe things would have been different if they had gotten him like this in Games 1 and 2.
3. LeBron’s stat line doesn’t show how tough the Warriors made it on him
James posted an incredible line on Friday — 25 points, 13 rebounds, nine assists, two steals, three blocks and 11-of-21 shooting. But you can’t see how hard James worked for those points, and how frequently he wasn’t able to exert his will. Part of it is James’ declining athleticism, once a constant for him but now requiring serious effort from the four-time MVP. But Golden State deserves unlimited credit for how hard they’ve made it on him, too. Andre Iguodala is an incredible defender, and having his backups be Thompson and Draymond Green just isn’t fair.
Look, James is an incredible player, one of the greatest ever. For those saying he needs to “take over,” he just can’t anymore. You can see he’s trying. He’s doing everything he can think of. Against 28 other teams in the NBA, James would probably be able to figure things out. Against the Warriors, there just aren’t any solutions.