CLEVELAND — For the past week, the sporting public has been subjected to a line of former NBA greats bellyaching about the state of the game and how, in their day, they’d make mincemeat of the teams in these NBA Finals.
Well, all right, geezers. If it was gutsy, physical, old-school basketball you wanted, for one night, you got it.
What a night it was. The Cavaliers scratched, clawed and elbowed their way to a Game 4 137-116 win over the Warriors, leaving in their wake a trail of carnage, and — most importantly — denting the apparent invincibility of the Warriors by delivering the first loss of these playoffs to Golden State’s locker room door.
NBA FINALS: Highlights from Cavs' impressive Game 4 win
Facing a 3-0 deficit on their home floor, the Cavaliers came out determined to avoid the sweep and extend the series. They put forth a scintillating first quarter, with a 49-point onslaught (an NBA playoff record) from which the Warriors could never really recover.
“We slowed the game down within the realms of the way we were playing,” Cavs guard Kyrie Irving said. “But it was still high tempo. We got to the free-throw line, we got in the bonus early, and then we got some easy free throws and some easy ones. And then you include that with our pace, it was hard for them to keep up with us tonight. It’s the first time all series, but we just kept attacking, kept attacking and understood that they were never going to quit.”
For the first time in this series, the Cavaliers got balance from their lineup. In each of the previous games, at least one starter had been held scoreless. But here, the Cavaliers made 24 3-pointers. Irving was unstoppable, with 40 points on 15-for-27 shooting, and LeBron James notched another triple-double (31 points, 10 rebounds, 11 assists), passing Magic Johnson for most triple-doubles all time in the NBA Finals.
Kevin Love made six of the eight 3-pointers he attempted, and wound up with 23 points. Even J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson, who have been near-invisible for much of this series, finally produced at levels that would seem more familiar to Cavs fans. Smith had 15 points, and Thompson had 10 rebounds and five assists — he logged 11 rebounds and five assists in the first three games combined.
If we’re fetishizing the rough-and-tumble 80s and 90s these days, then Game 4 was a beauty. There were seven technical fouls in the game, a flagrant foul and a set of referees left with battered reputations after a game they struggled to keep under control.
What could be better than a game that was highlighted by a lengthy, midcourt face-to-face confrontation between Cleveland’s LeBron James and Golden State’s Kevin Durant, longtime friends and arguably the best two players in the league? It wasn’t quite Larry Bird and Julius Erving grasping each other’s throat, but by modern standards, it was heated.
The square-off came with 7:26 to play in the third quarter, when Durant was attacking the basket and took a hard foul from the Cavs’ Kevin Love. Durant took exception, and James stepped in. The jawing carried on from there.
“We weren’t coming to blows,” Durant said, “we were just talking. That’s a part of basketball. The game of basketball created that. The refs didn’t. We didn’t as players. It’s like the aura of the game created trash talk and just communication out there. So I know you could take away the physical part of the game as far as controlling stuff, but emotionally that should be us, that should be what the players have as their own out there.”
Warriors forward Draymond Green called it “good basketball conversation,” and proceeded to channel his inner old-school curmudgeon on the topic of the double-technical fouls given to Durant and James.
“I don’t understand the double tech,” Green said. “Like, what does that accomplish? If you are going to separate them, separate them. Don’t just stand there and look at them talking. Then wait for them to talk and see how long they talk, and double-technical. Just tell them to move.”
Green himself was the subject of a bizarre third-quarter sequence in which he appeared to have gotten a second technical foul — and an ejection — only to have it later revealed that an early technical assigned to him had been switched to coach Steve Kerr.
After the game, referee John Goble confirmed to a pool reporter that he “did not verbalize to the (scorers) table, and after looking at the video, I should have done a better job of making sure that the table knew the technical foul was on coach Kerr.”
That puzzled Cavs coach Tyronn Lue: “(Referee) Mike Callahan told me that the first one they called was on Steve Kerr,” Lue said. “And I said, 'well, it’s right here on the sheet that it was on Draymond, and our scorers people said the same thing.' But evidently he said no, it was on Steve Kerr, the first one.”
But for all the confusion around that situation, there was some pure bad blood between these teams, which is inevitable given the fact they’ve now played 17 NBA Finals games against each other in the last three seasons.
There was a skirmish in a fight for a loose ball between Warriors center Zaza Pachulia and Cavs guard Iman Shumpert, during which Pachulia appeared to take swipe between Shumpert’s legs. Cavs forward Dahntay Jones was whistled for a technical foul from the bench. Even a Cavs fan was ejected from the game for a skirmish with Warriors reserve Matt Barnes.
Don’t expect the tension to let up.
“It’s the finals,” Thompson said. “Guys are going to talk. We’re going to respond but they aren’t going to punk us. Not me. They’re not about to punk Tristan Thompson. You got the game f—ed up with that one. You can talk all you want but I’m definitely going to bark back. That’s just how I’m built.”
The Cavs did not just bark, though. They fought back. They were not punked. And we’ll get a Game 5 as a result.