Objectively, the Cleveland Cavaliers winning Game 4 of the NBA Finals to end the Warriors’ 15-game postseason winning streak was, in a word, hilarious. The Larry O’Brien trophy, an undefeated postseason and a place among the greatest teams of all-time were sitting right for the Warriors’ taking on Friday night. The Cavs were absolutely spent after a grueling Game 3 loss, had just one day to recover and were in the middle of a terrible shooting slump. Meanwhile, Golden State had just stolen a game that it had no business winning on the road—thanks to some late-game heroics from a red-hot Kevin Durant—and had averaged 121 points in the series. The Warriors’ dreams were pulverized by a barrage of threes and a charged LeBron James, and all the observer could do was chuckle at just how good this team is, and how wrong the consensus opinion heading into Game 4 was.
The only thing funnier than the dead-in-the-water Cavs winning game Game 4 would be the dead-in-the-water Cavs winning Game 5…and Game 6…and Game 7.
In doing so, you may have heard, they’d become the first team to ever overcome a 3–0 deficit in playoff history, and would do it against one of the highest-powered offenses the league has ever seen. In the span of a week, the conversation around the Warriors could shift from “greatest ever” to “greatest disappointment.” The city of Oakland could be no longer, torched to a crisp by millions of memes.
Thinking of what could be is a fun mental exercise to pass the time in between games, but a 3–0 comeback—while not impossible—is still unlikely. The Cavs will need three more near-perfect games like the one they played on Friday, and two will have to come on the road in Oakland. That said, as long as they have LeBron James, who led Cleveland to the first ever 3–1 Finals comeback last season, we have to consider a 3–0 comeback a possibility.
So, how could the Cavaliers pull the greatest comeback in NBA history? Here are few things that would need to happen. There are plenty of breaks the Warriors could give the Cavaliers, but we’ll work under the assumption here that the Warriors will shoot around 40% from three, remain healthy, and not see Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry have bad games. This is what Cleveland can control.
The Cavs continue to play physical
It’s no secret that the Warriors don’t have the thickest skin. In Game 4, the Cavs played their most physical game of the series, fighting through screens, getting to the basket and making the Warriors feel uncomfortable throughout. This all came to a head in the third quarter, when Zaza Pachulia nailed Iman Shumpert in the little Shumperts during a tie-up and both sides exchanged words.
In last year’s Finals these moments seemed to favor Cleveland, and they certainly did not favor Draymond Green. For all the talk about Green’s calmer demeanor this postseason, he has thrown fits in Games 2, 3 and 4, and probably should have picked up two technical fouls on Friday. As it stands entering Game 5, he has four technical fouls, so if he winds up racking up three more, he’ll earn an automatic one-game suspension. Hey, that’s an ejection and an animated complaint away from a Game 7 suspension. Is it likely? Not really, but neither is a 3–0 comeback. We’re trying to examine all hypotheticals here.
Stepping away from the extracurriculars, the physical play can help Cleveland earn free throws and force some of the Warriors into early foul trouble. Green has been in foul trouble all series (14 fouls through four games) and getting him off the floor will not only further help the Cavaliers establish physical dominance but it will force them to play Pachulia at center, at least for a little bit (Durant will get minutes there). And Zaza has been bad.
The post has also been a place where the Warriors have had success; Pachulia, Livinsgton, Green, West, Thompson and Durant are all 50% or better there this postseason, so bumping with them down low is important.
Wear down that frontcourt, force them to collapse to create open looks, and get Green out of the game. That’s a good recipe to give yourself a chance.
The Cavs play strong in the first quarter
Okay, so the Cavaliers won’t get off to quite the start that they did on Friday (they scored an NBA record 49 points in the first quarter), but they still must set the tone. The Warriors will score in bunches, so it’s better to be in front by 10 when that insane run inevitably comes than behind 9.
“Historically against this team, when we don’t answer that punch in the first six minutes, we put ourselves behind the eight ball,” Stephen Curry said Friday. “We have to understand that going forward that whoever’s the aggressor to begin with sets the tone for the game, gets the pace to where you want it, and good things happen out of that.”
It’s true, in both Games 3 and 4, the Cavaliers went right at the Warriors in the opening minutes, and opened up with 32 and the aforementioned 49, respectively. The only issue was that the Warriors managed to keep up, and it took that insane quarter in Game 3 to separate enough. At the very least, they must dictate the mood of the game early and can’t let the Warriors get comfortable at Oracle. Keeping up with this offense is the name of the game.
Kyrie Irving hits his threes
The Cavaliers as a whole need to hit from deep, but that goes double for Kyrie Irving. They shot 27% from three in Game 3, but that number rises to 32% if you take out his 0 for 7. For how long he dominates the ball, and how many crunch time threes he attempts, his ability to knock down shots like the 40% shooter he is could swing a game one way or another. The Cavs can’t afford another 0-for-7 from their second-most important scorer.
The same could be said about Kevin Love, who was 1 for 7 in Game 3 and also hit a hefty bunch in Game 4 like Irving, but Irving’s looks for threes can take more time to develop, so it’s probably more important that he has a good night rather than Love.
Deron Williams averages eight points per game
No, this is not a joke! Williams is incredibly important to this team, as crazy as it sounds. He is not that old (32!) and has a pair of 14-point games this postseason. This is a guy who was able to score in double digits with the Mavericks earlier this season, and who was 11 for 22 from three through the first three rounds of the playoffs. The Cavaliers need small contributions off the bench, and like it or not, this is what they signed Williams for. Cavs fans will either come around on Williams or long for the days that Matthew Dellavedova, first team All-Grit, was backing up Irving.
Tristan Thompson averages a double-double
This team is completely different when Thomspon is active on the glass. Last Finals, he averaged 10 points and 10 rebounds per game, including four offensive boards. The Cavaliers are the second-best three point shooting team in the league, they have LeBron James, and they have a point guard who rarely misses at the rim with his right hand. A kick to one of those guys, or to the outside, could create instant points after a miss.
If most or all of the above happens, the Cavaliers will complete one of the greatest comebacks in league history. All it takes is a win in Game 5 on the road, and they are almost in the driver’s seat. It seems hard to believe Cleveland would lose at home down 3–2, and in a deciding Game 7, are you really going to bet against LeBron James? It won’t happen. Okay, it could happen. It may happen. Yeah, it’s going to happen.