Adam Silver smiled as he considered the National Basketball Association’s 2016-17 ad campaign -– “Garbage Time – We’ve Got Barges Full Of It.”
The latest in this spring’s series of lies was Game 3 of the NBA Finals, Cleveland’s 120-90 garroting of Golden State, made it eminently clear that nothing you believe about sports is true, nothing you read between games has value, the last thing you saw is always a lie, and the only thing you can bank on in this league any more is The Amazing Sladek, the guy who stacks chairs and balances atop them at halftimes across America.
And even then, the timid old sod could toss up a recliner now and then to break the monotony, or juggle three dogs and two cleavers just to give the audience one legitimate thrill.
This was the latest in a series of enormous blowouts this spring -– the 10th 30-point-plus margin, the 20th 25-point-plus margin and the 32nd 15-point-plus margin. Cleveland was the dominant team from the national anthem onward, and Golden State the cheap clown-suited foil to everything the Cavaliers wanted to do and whenever they wanted to do it.
Indeed, this game bore so little resemblance to the two before it that we might begin inquiries as to whether there were two entirely different teams playing –- say, Oklahoma City in the Cavs’ uniforms and Brooklyn in Golden State’s.
The Warriors were, in a word, awful -- and awful from start to finish. They started poorly, showed a few twitches of initiative in the second quarter to make a 17-point Cavs lead a more workable eight, but the second half was a steaming disaster that exposed Golden State as what head coach Steve Kerr as “extremely soft” and “not ready to play.”
“I didn’t see (such a rancid performance) coming, and we talked about it beforehand,” Kerr said. “We talked about how Cleveland was going to come out on their home floor. I was very hopeful . . . I was expecting our team would play much better, but I didn’t have them ready.”
This is the safe answer, and one that really doesn’t wash. A veteran team with their level of success should be ready as a function of the work. Cleveland got more in Game 3 out of Kyrie Irving (30 on 25 shots, eight assists in 36 minutes) and re-discovered J.R. Smith (20 on 15 shots plus three steals after a largely indifferent postseason) to more than mitigate the loss of Kevin Love to a concussion, and LeBron James had an arrhythmic but ultimately impressive 32/11/6.
And the Warriors? The less said the better, though for the second time in three games in these finals neither Stephen Curry nor Klay Thompson did anything worthy of their combined rep. This time, it was a combined 29 points on 26 shots, 4-of-16 from three, eight turnovers and four assists, and a combined minus-49 in their combined 61 minutes.
“It was all on me,” Curry said when asked if he had had a bad night or had one thrust upon him by the Cavalier pressure. “They played aggressive defense, and they came out with great intensity, and I didn’t do anything about it or play my game. I have to play 100 times better than this, especially in the first quarter.”
He and Thompson missed their first nine shots, and didn’t hit a three for the first 21 minutes. If it helps, though, they weren't particularly improved after that.
But as most of their players had been standouts in Games 1 and 2, they were equally standoffish in Game 3 -– Draymond Green was the least-bad player with a paltry six points and seven rebounds. And the bench -– yes, their bench outscored the Cavs, 34-15, but none of them, starters or subs, did a single memorable thing. This was a comprehensive mauling, richly merited from the start and with a properly merciless finish.
“It’s the NBA,” Kerr said, unconvincingly trying to explain the 63-point difference between Games 2 and 3. “This is how it is. Most teams are pretty equal in talent. As Gregg Popovich used to tell me, the other guys make millions of dollars to play the game too. If you let your guard down and the other team is angry, you see this kind of turnaround.”
And maybe you do now. Nearly 40 percent of the 82 postseason games this year have been decided by 15 or more, almost double the previous high, and home teams are winning nearly 70 percent of their games, more than 10 percent better than the regular season mark, one of the most lopsided differentials in the past two decades.
So maybe the Warriors actually are softer than we thought, even in a season in which they have already won 87 games. Or maybe they fall into the occasional trap of underestimating their opponent, or thinking they’ve got life figured out in perpetuity, or maybe they think that this turning-it-on-and-off-at-will thing has become intoxicating.
But whatever the reason, or combination of reasons, they have now lost six playoff games by the baffling totals of one, 12, six, 28, 24 and now 30 points, and while the temptation is to ask questions about their focus, Thompson said flatly, “You won’t see another 30-point loss.”
At this point, I wouldn’t bet too heavily on that being so -– either way. If this is the NBA, the NBA is a disingenuous brute.