OAKLAND, Calif. — The Cleveland Cavaliers — and, by extension, LeBron James — knew they had to win Game 2 of the NBA Finals on Sunday night to even the series and have a realistic chance of beating the star-studded Golden State Warriors. Naturally, in a critical game, James played like the NBA’s best player, finishing with a triple-double.
But that wasn’t enough. Behind another pair of spectacular performances from Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson’s emergence from a playoffs-long shooting slump, the Warriors came away with a 132-113 victory over the Cavaliers in Steve Kerr’s return to active duty as Golden State’s coach.
“We love [Kerr’s] presence. We love his voice,” said Curry, who had a triple-double of his own with 32 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists for the Warriors. “We’re a full group when he’s out here.”
Now, as the series shifts to Cleveland for Games 3 and 4, the immediate focus will not be on whether the Cavaliers can come back and win a second straight championship but whether the Warriors can do what once seemed unthinkable: finish the postseason 16-0.
That is a measure of the Warriors’ dominance in the first two games at home, even as they played at something less than their best in both games. This was precisely the pitch Golden State’s contingent made to Durant when the team met with him in free agency last July in the Hamptons. And through two games, that pitch has borne out.
The combination of Curry and Durant has been the difference in this series, with the combined might of two of the NBA’s top five players trumping the usual dominance of James, who finished with 29 points, 11 rebounds and 14 assists in 39 minutes. After they combined for 66 points in Game 1, Curry and Durant poured in another 65 in Game 2. Thompson — who came into this game shooting 36.6 percent from the field and 33.8 percent from three in these playoffs — added 22 points on 8-for-12 shooting.
When the Warriors’ stars are scoring like that, there’s no way anyone — not even James — can counter them.
Still, it took until well into the second half for the Warriors truly to establish their dominance, in large part because of the individual brilliance of James. After he committed eight turnovers in Game 1, James vowed to be better in Game 2, and he was, recording his eighth career triple-double in the NBA Finals, tying Magic Johnson for the most all time.
In the first half, James — who entered the Finals with a road victory in 29 straight postseason series — was a one-man wrecking crew, stampeding his way to the rim time and again while racking up 18 points, six rebounds and 10 assists. But even with James playing like that, Kevin Love tossing in 15 points the Warriors committing 13 turnovers — more than triple the amount they had in all of Game 1 — Golden State still led 67-64 at halftime.
That seemed like a bad omen for the Cavaliers, and things got worse once the second half got underway. Just as Golden State did in Game 1, the Warriors turned on the jets after the halftime break, outscoring the Cavaliers 35-24 in the third quarter — behind 12 points from Curry and nine from Durant — to give Golden State a 102-88 lead after three quarters that made the final 12 minutes of the game almost moot.
The series received a healthy dose of drama before Sunday’s game when Kerr — who had not coached the Warriors’ previous 11 games after the lingering symptoms from a botched back surgery almost two years ago worsened two games into Golden State’s first-round series against the Portland Trail Blazers — strode into the interview room and declared he was coming back to the sideline in Game 2.
“I feel like it’s back where it was before the Portland series,” Kerr said. “And as I told you guys when I stepped aside in Portland, I don’t know what happened. I don’t know why things got worse. But since that time . . . I’ve gotten a lot better, and I feel like I’m back to the baseline of where I was during the regular season when I coached every game.”
Kerr had been steadily doing more in recent weeks, including running practices, watching film and being in coaching meetings, but he had remained out of the limelight for most the six weeks, allowing lead assistant Mike Brown to remain the team’s interim head coach, deal with interviews and coach in the games.
The timing of Kerr’s decision created some concern about its impact on his team. Any worries about that, however, were quickly washed away once the game began.
That’s what the presence of Curry and Durant will do — even when someone as brilliant as James is playing against them. And that’s why the Warriors are two wins away from the title they have spent a year waiting to reclaim.