Nine days ... the Cleveland Cavaliers hadn’t passed or dribbled a ball in anger for nine days.
Then they headed to Boston for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Wednesday night.
It’s been that kind of play-off period for the Cavaliers and their great rivals in the West, the Golden State Warriors. They’ve been dominant, unbeaten, frothing at the bit to get at each other in the Finals. But first, they must get through what increasingly feels like the formalities. In the East, the Cavaliers have swept the Indiana Pacers and the Toronto Raptors. In the West, the Warriors have swept the Portland Trailblazers and the Utah Jazz.
By the time the Cavaliers tipped off Wednesday night in Boston, the "Dubs" were already two games up on the San Antonio Spurs, who were without their best player in Game 2, which Steph Curry and Co won 136-100.
The Kawhi Leonard-less Spurs lacked belief, said their head coach Gregg Popovich. “And you have to believe.”
“I don’t think as a group they really did, which means probably a little bit feeling sorry for themselves psychologically, subconsciously, whatever psycho-babble word you want to use that was disappointing,” Popovich explained.
Popovich may want to examine his own role in that absence of self-belief. The Spurs dominated three quarters of Game 1 with Leonard on the floor before the infamous incident with Zaza Pachulia. Popovich railed against the Warriors centre following that incident, saying it was a dirty play. It’s quite natural that Popovich would be angry. It’s his team’s best player, but by speaking the way he did, he almost gave the rest of the team an excuse if they lose this series – as now seems likely.
Of course Popovich could not have envisaged that the Spurs’ big name off-season signing, LaMarcus Aldridge, would have another shocker in Game 2, scoring just eight points having attempted 11 shots and making just four of those. “LaMarcus has to score for us,” Popovich said after suffering the second worst defeat of his post season career. “He can’t be timid. He turned down shots in the first quarter. He can’t do it. You’ve got to score. Scoring has to come from some place.”
The Warriors had looked rusty in Game 1, having had six days off after defeating the Jazz, but learned the lessons from that and applied them in the second game.
“We have to strike first,” Kevin Durant told ESPN before the game. “We can’t allow them to get off to the start they had last game. We have to be the aggressors.”
Aggressors, they were. Curry dropped 15 of his 29 points and four of his six 3-pointers in the first 12 minutes. At the end of one quarter, the Warriors led 33-16.
Meanwhile, the Cavaliers were acutely aware of the need to start well themselves in that opening game against the Celtics. The Cavaliers have operated this way before, in this play-off period in fact having had seven days off between the end of their first round series against the Pacers and the start of the second round against the Raptors.
“Usually you have these layoffs and you have home court,” said Cavaliers coach Ty Lue. “Our fans have gotten us through that. Now it’s going to be a little bit different to adjust, play on the road and having to carry all the weight. Our fans are not going to be behind us to start the game. We have to bring our own energy, which I think we will, and I think we will be fine.”
The Cavaliers are the heavy favourites, and it would take a magical effort from the Celtics to beat them – in fact it would take something remarkable for them to just win a game, such has been the dominance of two teams in this year’s play-offs.