The Cleveland Cavaliers have reached that stage. You know the one . . . when you’re out of tactical ideas but not out of desire, and the frustration that precedes the self-realization that you simply don’t have enough cards to play a hand that isn’t over yet.
They know beating the Golden State Warriors can be done, because they did it three days ago. They tried doing it again Friday and it turned into an absolute hash, with them abandoning the plot of involving all their useful players and reducing their output to two increasingly weary options.
In other words, they won Game 3 by having their entire rotation of players thrive, and then threw up all over Game 4 by letting their worst instincts -– running everything they do through only LeBron James and Kyrie Irving –- undermine their ID.
And now they are angry. Angry at the Warriors for calling their bluffs, and angry for Stephen Curry for reigniting the pilot light we in the genius bar thought might be flickering, and angry at Draymond Green for being the supreme irritant he can be, and angry at knowing that they are no closer to beating Golden State and claiming a championship with James, Irving and Kevin Love than they were a year ago with only James.
Angry, in short, that they came to overthrow the ruling order on behalf of everyone who thinks the Warriors are a little too “all that” for their own good, and are profoundly unlikely to do so.
James (and head coach Tyronn Lue) complained about the officiating (again) that doesn’t provide him or his the protections typically ceded to a player of his stature. He complained that Green talks too much and is insufficiently respectful. He complained that he is doing all he can for his team and is not being fully understood or appreciated for those efforts.
And on a stage as purely Darwinian as the Finals, where moving screens and body bumps and hand-to-hand combat are simply coin of the realm, he and the Cavs have complained that they're being roughed up by those mean old “soft,” “small,” “jump-shooting effete snobs” from that once-woebegone outpost of 12th-place irrelevancies turned nascent dynasty.
And the Warriors and their fans, who traditionally have been more the complainers than the complained upon, are asking the harsh but salient question, “And your point is . . . ?”
Lue played his big tactical face card when he sat Love in favor of Richard Jefferson for Game 4, and found out that the Warriors could take both out of the game. Lue relied upon J.R. Smith reprising his bold game outlook from Game 3, and got poor shooting than another disappearance. Lue watched Tristan Thompson control the offensive boards for a quarter and then become a full spectre. He hasn’t found a place for Channing Frye or Matthew Dellavedova, and then watched his two best players lose so much faith in the rest of their mates that they took 87 percent of the second-half shots and made barely 50 percent of them.
This is how James failed last year, when his teammates were far less helpful, and this is how Oklahoma City lost in the Western Conference Final.
And while this all pays the Warriors short shrift (they, after all, yet again stayed the course that has won them 88 games in 101 tries), they are not the ones in a state of seethe. They are not the ones who have to fashion a new solution out of pure zinc, tempered by nothing more than the flame of blind optimism. The Warriors are holding serve by the throat. The Cavs, seemingly fighting for the basketball of yore, are that throat.
To think three days ago, they got a helpful card toward filling that gutshot straight and started thinking the future is not necessarily as the Warriors are defining it. Now, they have only a hand with two aces and nothing else but four, sixes and eights, and nothing with which to bluff.
And good luck to them with that.