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Cavaliers Focus: Playing Smart To Avoid Warriors Spurts

Can the Cavaliers play a full game against Golden State without any huge, demoralizing runs? Spencer Davies investigates.

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Updated 10 months ago on
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Before the NBA Finals started, the Cleveland Cavaliers fielded a wide variety of different questions about their third straight appearance, but one, in particular, kept rearing its head: Could they consistently put together 48 minutes of complete basketball against the Golden State Warriors?

“They make you pay,” Tyronn Lue said regarding their ability to take advantage of miscues.

Through two games in this series, that’s exactly what they’ve done. On Thursday, the Cavaliers coughed the ball up 20 times and it resulted in 21 points for Golden State.

Three nights later, Cleveland took care of the rock just fine for the most part, but three turnovers in the third quarter cost them greatly and gave the Warriors a spark to pull away and take a 2-0 lead for the second straight year.

Now back home at Quicken Loans Arena and facing the same deficit on paper as they did one year ago, the Cavaliers truly realize how little room there is for error.

“Take great shots and not turn the ball over,” LeBron James said of avoiding those instant offensive outbursts. “So just can’t make bad plays against a team that’s that great.”

He provided an example of a situation in Game 2 where Cleveland was neck and neck with Golden State until things went awry in an instant.

“We had an opportunity, last game, we cut it to four, and then they made a couple plays,” James easily recited with his freakishly advanced memory. “If I remember, it was—I think it was 86-82, they come out, I did a stupid strip foul on Livingston, he hits two free throws, we come down and turn the ball over, and then they hit a three and it went from a four-point game to a 10-point game that fast.”

Situations like that are where the Warriors can be so deadly. They’re hard enough to beat when you play a clean game, but they’ll completely bury you in the snap of a finger with extra chances to score points.

Lue knows it and has stressed it multiple times already.

“I think that we’ve got to play our game and play with pace, but we can’t let—we can’t get in a hurry,” he said. “We can’t take bad shots. We can’t turn the basketball over.”

Being careful with the basketball is a common theme, but Kyrie Irving has noticed another chink in the Cavaliers’ armor.

“The importance of the third quarter definitely has to be a main focus of ours, especially if we have any chance in the game,” he said. “Because the last two, three quarters they have come out and jumped on us and done it in a very significant way.”

Irving hit the nail on the head. Combining the first two games at Oracle Arena, the Warriors have outscored Cleveland 68-44 in that specific period. In those 24 total minutes thus far, Golden State has an offensive rating of 135.6 points per 100 possessions. The Cavaliers, on the other hand, have been held to 90.7 on the same scale offensively with a net rating of -44.9.

To put that in perspective, Cleveland’s net rating in the three other respective quarters is no worse than -16.4. They’re not being aggressive enough, they’re shooting poorly (33 percent) and they’re not doing their job on the defensive end.

A 13-0 getaway in Game 1 and the 13-2 response by the Warriors that James previously mentioned in Game 2 took the wind out of the sails. Both of those runs occurred in the third quarter, and Irving is aware of how rapidly it can happen.

“Whether that be a quick foul or a quick 3-pointer and it gives them that confidence in order to spread out this lead and we allow them to feel comfortable, then it can happen like that,” Irving said. “And it could change in a matter of freakin’ 30 seconds with this team.”

If the Cavaliers are able to continue fighting and evade the knockout blow that has put them to sleep, they’ve got a shot at swinging the momentum back in their favor. It’s not going to happen all at once. It’s going to take a full game on both ends of the floor to defeat this historically great group Golden State has assembled.

For Lue, the strategy won’t change. Cleveland will continue to push the ball and use the same game plan as he did in 2016 to try and beat the Warriors at their own game, and that’s what got his team here in the first place. Sunday night, he felt there was a good flow to the Cavaliers’ offense and sees that improving even more headed into Game 3.

“In that first half, we saw we was playing with pace, getting downhill, LeBron getting into the paint, getting layups and dunks,” Lue said. “That’s how we’ve got to play. If it’s not there, kicking it out for threes. If it’s not a good shot, then run our offense. So just got to do a better job of taking care of the basketball when we’re playing fast and also taking good shots.”

While his coach figures into the X’s and O’s, Irving is just eager to get back out on the floor Wednesday with his teammates.

“This is an important test for us, and we need to be as prepared as we can be,” he said. “And we will. You just get excited thinking about it because we know we can play better.”

Spencer Davies is a Deputy Editor and a Senior NBA Writer based in Cleveland in his third year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past five seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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