By Jason Keidel
The media vultures are hovering, talons out — courtside, ringside, at postgame pressers — ready to pounce on the hardwood carrion.
The vultures are circling — pens in one hand, shovel in the other, ready to scoop the dirt over Cleveland’s coffin.
The script has become soporific, if that’s possible, in the NBA Finals. Two up, two down. The Warriors are two games from not only vanquishing their tormentors, but also capping an epic, unprecedented run of 16 wins in 16 games. No team in NBA history has plowed through the modern playoffs unbeaten.
Like a cat pawing a cornered mouse, the Golden State Warriors seem to be keeping Cleveland in the game. By boredom or by dint of their dominance, they allow the Cavs to keep it close for a couple of quarters. But they always have their fists on the faucet. And when they twist the knob, it’s over, as it was last night in a game that felt close or competitive for about three quarters.
Then splash. Splash. And more splash. The leather ball burning the nylon nets at a dazzling pace.
An eight-point game with nine minutes left in the third quarter turned into a laugher. To italicize the point that the Warriors turn it on at their whim, consider that they’ve outscored Cleveland by 68-44 in the third quarter so far this series.
But as I said here on Friday, a 20-point and 10-point win hit the books with equal force, if not the same optics. The Warriors simply held serve, even if they did it with four aces, like Pete Sampras in his prime.
As NFL legend Don Shula said, however, the only stat that matters is beaming on that scoreboard. So while we can parse the particulars, and marvel at Golden State’s splendor, it’s two home wins by the favored team.
The Captain Obvious observation is that the Cavs must step up if they are to make the NBA Finals more competitive, which means LeBron James can’t lead the squad in every salient statistic and defend the opponent’s best player and wash their uniforms and book the hotel rooms.
Which also means Tristan Thompson has to average more than four points and four rebounds.
It means someone has to remind J.R. Smith that he’s not only in the NBA Finals, but that he’s a starter. Between both starting squads, Smith has easily been the worst player on the floor. In two games, he’s scored three total points (zero last night), grabbed two total rebounds (both last night), and has more personal fouls (5) than assists and steals combined (0).
It means Kyrie Irving has to remember he wielded the Game 7 dagger that gutted the Warriors just 12 months ago. He has to shoot better than 18-for-45 (40 percent) from the floor over two games. As the point guard, he can’t let LeBron dish out more than double his assists (22 to 9). LeBron can be the lead singer, but he can’t play the guitar, keyboard and drums too.
If there is one telling, troubling stat for the Cavs, it’s that players LeBron has defended thus far are shooting 63 percent (17-27) from the floor and averaging 21.5 PPG so far. Last year, the number was 32 percent and 8 PPG. That speaks to two words, and one name — Kevin Durant.
Durant spent the offseason battered by the PR car wash, his reputation, courage and manhood questioned for bolting OKC for the friendly climes of California, for not finishing what he started and for reinforcing his reputation as a hardwood mercenary. But he’s attacked the NBA Finals with a fervor few have seen from him in the playoffs. Golden State didn’t need more incentive to make good on their yearlong pledge to right last year’s brutal wrong, blowing that 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals. Still they added one of the three best players in the world to their roster, who also happens to be looking for his first ring, and also has unfinished business with King James, dating back to the 2012 Finals.
The Warriors are not only playing better so far, they’re playing with more fire and hunger and confidence. After the historic comeback last year, you’d think the one area Cleveland had covered was mojo, the comfort that comes with knowing you not only can beat the man before you, but also that you did so the last time you squared off.
It was as if the Cavs were running on sand, huffing down a beach, while the Warriors wore fresh kicks, sprinting by them on a fresh hardwood floor. As if the Warriors were moonwalking or sleepwalking then spun around, sprinted and flew past Cleveland to the finish line.
Whatever the track & field metaphor, the Cavaliers need to either wake up or step up. They were in the same spot last year, down 2-0 with the eulogies half-written halfway through the series, only to take an eraser to the score, the narrative and to history. This is the rare moment when both fanbases can take some comfort in their current position.
Maybe all signs point to Golden State. But all roads still lead to Cleveland.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.