CLEVELAND — Isaiah Thomas has got jokes. The midseason trade from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Los Angeles Lakers removed Thomas from asking what time it is during the postseason, but he has popped up on social media to have some fun. He went on Twitter to comment about how he was sized for one of those suits that LeBron James has given his teammates to wear for almost every road game. And before the NBA Finals began, Thomas posted a “Throwback Thursday” photo on Instagram of him with James and J.R. Smith.
But this week, Thomas went on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” to participate in a trivia game with Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas. In the midst of a scoreless butt-whipping, the younger Thomas had the elder Thomas stumbling around the studio in laughter after comparing his struggles to that of his former team against the Golden State Warriors.
“I’m like the Cavs. I’m gonna get swept,” Isaiah Thomas said.
Had the comment come from any setting other than a late-night talk show or from anyone other than a player whose brief stint with the team was so disastrous that it ended with him being being completely ignored by James during a buzzer-beating celebration, the Cavaliers might’ve been more offended. But if the Cavaliers aren’t directing their ire toward the Warriors — or themselves — for this 2-0 NBA Finals hole, then Thomas could prove to be prophetic.
The series shifts to Cleveland for Game 3 on Wednesday, and the Cavaliers have been a much different team at Quicken Loans Arena, where James’ Herculean efforts have been matched by just enough support that the team appears formidable. The Cavaliers have won nine straight games at home since losing their postseason opener to Indiana. And, they should be more optimistic about fending off a sweep because the Warriors are a pedestrian 4-4 on the road in the playoffs.
“We believe,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said.
Golden State, however, is quite familiar with these environs, having played 12 games here, including eight in the postseason, over the past four years. “It’s probably like a second home,” Klay Thompson said. “From the locker room to the hotel, to the surrounding downtown area, I’m pretty familiar with Cleveland. So there is definitely a comfort level.”
Only eight of the previous 71 NBA Finals have ended in a sweep, with five coming since the merger. San Antonio was the last team to wipe out an opponent in four games, ending James’ first Finals appearance in 2007. The 2007 Cavaliers and the 2018 version are considered the worst outfits that James has ever led to this stage, elevating his legend as a player capable of carrying any collection of talent near the promised land. This postseason was an indictment of the Eastern Conference, which hasn’t provided much resistance to James over the past eight years and failed to have a team prepared to take advantage of a vulnerable and extremely flawed squad.
James has never been swept in any series since that Finals introduction and has always been able to will his team to at least one victory, even when his squads were considerably overmatched against the 2014 Spurs and 2017 Warriors. This is the third consecutive year the Warriors have arrived at Quicken Loans Arena holding a 2-0 lead. They’ve split the first two games in Cleveland in the first three Finals matchups, including last season, when the Cavaliers ruined the Warriors’ chance to become the first team in NBA history to have a flawless postseason run by bombarding Golden State from long distance in Game 4. The Warriors ended that series in five games to claim their second title in three years.
“We understand how hard it is to win in this building,” Stephen Curry said. “No matter what’s gone on in the series, when you change venues, you’ve got to reassert your dominance and try to find that right momentum to start. We have a great opportunity to do that. I want to be a part of leading that charge and playing an amazing game [Wednesday] and really taking control of the series.”
Three of the past four teams to get the broom treatment experienced some misfortune during the NBA Finals. Magic Johnson suffered a strained hamstring, joining backcourt mate Byron Scott — who was already forced to miss the series with a hamstring injury — in Game 2 against the Detroit Pistons in 1989. (Side note: That Lakers loss resulted in Isaiah Thomas being named after Isiah Thomas as part of a bet.) Orlando Magic guard Nick Anderson missed four three throws with his team up three points in the closing seconds of regulation of Game 1 of the 1995 Finals against the Houston Rockets. Rockets guard Kenny Smith tied the game with a three on the other end, the Rockets won in overtime and ended a potential Shaquille O’Neal-Penny Hardaway dynasty before it started. New Jersey was simply overmatched against O’Neal and Kobe Bryant in the 2002 Finals, and the same could be said about the Cavaliers against the Spurs in 2007 — especially after Cleveland’s second-best player, Larry Hughes, was forced to miss the final two games with a foot injury.
If the Cavaliers are unable to snag at least one win off the Warriors, the final minute of Game 1 will serve as the moment when this series was lost. Too many unfathomable breaks worked against them — James drawing a charge, only to have it (correctly) overturned; George Hill, an 80 percent shooter from the foul line, missing a free throw; the referees missing a lane violation by Draymond Green on the miss; and finally, J.R. Smith making an incredible play by snatching an offensive rebound over Kevin Durant only to negate all of the positivity of that effort by not knowing the score and dribbling out the clock.
James finally revealed what was going through his mind during that bizarre J.R. sequence, admitting that he contemplated calling timeout but was confused by the situation. “I didn’t want another C-Webb incident,” James said, referencing Chris Webber’s infamous call for a timeout when his team didn’t have one in the 1993 NCAA championship game. A furious James contained his rage as he sat silently on the bench but became despondent when Lue informed him that the team, indeed, had a timeout. Jeff Green consoled James, who had his face buried into a towel. James’ reaction to the madness led some to question his leadership, especially after the Cavaliers allowed Golden State to score the first nine points of overtime and waltz to a win.
“Me being criticized? No. You’re saying I got criticized for something, right? I don’t believe that. Not me,” James said. “I don’t care at all. I mean, we’re in the NBA Finals. I mean, how much more picking up of teammates do you want me to do? I’m in the NBA Finals, looking for a championship.”
The Warriors swept their first three playoff series with Durant but have seen the past four all go at least five games. Since that last sweep of the San Antonio Spurs in last year’s conference finals, the Warriors’ greatest challenge — in the regular season and playoffs — has been their own complacency and lack of urgency. San Antonio rode Manu Ginobili’s championship pride to a Game 4 victory in the first round and New Orleans blitzed them for a Game 3 win in the second round. Houston has been the only team to rattle them, taking a 3-2 series lead and two double-digit leads in the final two games before Golden State rallied to pass its lone postseason test.
Lue plans to switch up his rotation and give Rodney Hood — one of the pieces Cleveland acquired during the trade deadline refurbishing that included Thomas being exiled — his first opportunity in the series. But the Warriors might be able to counter with Andre Iguodala, who is working himself back from a leg injury that sidelined him the past six games. Iguodala’s intelligence, calming influence and versatility have been missing, forcing Kerr to experiment with creative lineups. Without the Warriors’ best defender against him, James has scored 80 of his team’s 217 points — a workload that he will at least need to maintain to silence any doubting Thomases.
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