I've long since tired of hearing about what a juggernaut these 2015-2016 Golden State Warriors are, but in both Game 1 and 2 of the NBA Finals, I am visually reminded of it over and over again like a fever dream. Attempting to defend the Warriors dizzying movement of both ball and bodies is akin to reading Shakespeare for the very first time: you see it in front of you, but feel helpless to comprehend it. On the other end of the floor, the Warriors defense is a rush of shadows darting at you from unseen corners. Their arms act as overgrown vines in the woods, reaching, clawing and prying the ball from the Cavaliers grasp. It is tiring to observe and depression-inducing to try and stop.
But the Warriors are not the sole reason for the 2-0 hole the Cavs have dug themselves, a hole that, at the moment, feels so deep you can barely see the sunlight looking up from the bottom anymore. The Cavaliers offense, once a whirling assembly line of passes, paint scores and easy 3's, has been ground up into dust. Part of this is Golden State's doing, of course, as their ability to switch on pick and rolls, especially when they go small, has confounded the Cavaliers. But part of it is simply the way the Cavs have chosen to run said offense, easily allowing themselves to be lured into the trap the Warriors have set for them like a hunter entering the lion's den despite hearing a ferocious roar.
The Cavs are desperately attempting to replicate the yeomen's effort they gave in last year's NBA Finals against these same Warriors, even though they are no longer the same themselves. Last year's Cavaliers, without Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, were forced to run an iso and post-up heavy offense with LeBron James out of necessity, yet got away with it because they played out of their minds on the defensive end. The Warriors needed overtime to reach 108 points in Game 1 last year, and in the next two games, both losses, they scored 93 points (again, in overtime) and 91 points, respectively. This year? The Warriors just dropped 110 in Game 2 after dolling out 104 points in Game 1, both massive wins.
The Cavaliers are playing offense the same way they did in the 2015 NBA Finals, a series in which they averaged just 93.5 points per game, but this time without the defense to match. Having the likes of Love, Irving and someone like Channing Frye on the floor this time should, theoretically, give the Cavaliers a major boost on offense, even as the defense suffers, which it has. But with the Cavs stubbornly trying to continue to throw the ball to LeBron or Love in the post, or let Irving or LeBron go one-on-one at the top of the key, instead of moving the ball and bombing away from deep like they've done all postseason, they've had no chance.
It's eerily reminiscent of how the Cavs tried to play against the Warriors in January, when Irving was no longer on a minutes restriction and the team was finally whole. Frye hadn't arrived yet, but head coach Tyronn Lue has elected to keep Frye on the bench in these Finals anyway, so it's a moot point.
On the very first possession of that regular season bout, one that ended in a 132-98 Warriors blowout that would eventually lead to head coach David Blatt's dismissal, the Cavs threw the ball to the LeBron in the post.
Much like they've done in these Finals, LeBron's teammates scattered to the corner and watched. With nothing doing, LeBron kicked the ball back out to Love, who got it right back to him on a repost. LeBron spun and drove baseline on Harrison Barnes before putting home a tough basket on the other side of the hoop.
On the very next offensive possession, the Cavs ran the exact same play. LeBron faced up Barnes this time, and with nowhere to go, kicked the ball out to Kevin Love, who then swung it to Irving. Irving went one-on-one with Stephen Curry and missed a floater in the lane.
Two possessions later, the Cavs tried Love in the post at the very same spot they'd been throwing it to LeBron. Love was immediately doubled, and threw the ball right to Curry, who read Love's pass attempt to Irving at the top of the 3-point arc. Curry would score easily on the fast break.
A few minutes later, LeBron is once again given a post up, this time against Klay Thompson. As he curves into the lane, the Warriors defense collapses around him, though LeBron somehow gets a pass off to Timofey Mozgov who is behind him and to the left underneath the rim for a layup. Despite the two points, it was an offensive possession made more difficult than need be.
By this point, the Warriors were already well on their way to scoring 34 points in that first quarter, while the Cavs would not score more than 23 points in any quarter until the 4th, when the game was well out of reach. If you noticed a total lack of 3-point shooting on any of those early offensive possessions, we did too. In fact, the Cavs did not even attempt a 3-point shot until Kevin Love missed one with 9:22 left in the second quarter. The Cavs would attempt just 19 the entire game.
I bring up this winter monstrosity because it resembles exactly how the Cavs are trying to play the Warriors right now, with the stakes much, much higher. They've grinded their offense to a halt while finding themselves very much incapable of slowing Golden State down on the other end like they did in last year's Finals. This, again, was to be expected. Love and Irving are minus defenders, which is why the Cavs should be unleashing the offense they used to obliterate the Detroit Pistons, Atlanta Hawks and Toronto Raptors. Instead, they've reverted back to caveman basketball.
In Game 1 of this year's Finals, the Cavs attempted just 21 3-pointers. Ditto for Game 2, as they put up just 23. Until Game 1 against the Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Cavs hadn't taken less than 29 3's at any point of the playoffs. Sure, those games were against lesser competition, but it isn't some large coincidence they went undefeated in those eight games.
It's a faux pas to tell any team to try and keep pace with the Warriors' torrid bucket-getting, but for the Cavs to regain any modicum of momentum in this series, that's exactly what they have to do. With a less-than-stout defense this time around, the Cavs need to return to the prolific offense that got them to where they are. If the don't, if they continue to pound the ball into the ground until the wood underneath their feet collapses, a sweep seems all but inevitable.