The Golden State Warriors figured things out in the end, but more than anything this will be a missed opportunity for LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, losing 108-100 in game 1 of the NBA Finals, going down 1-0 in the series.
It’s not just 1-0 to the Warriors. The Cavaliers led for most of this game in the toughest arena possible. They opened up a 14-point lead in the second quarter but the Warrior’s bench brought them back into the game. From there it was mostly LeBron James carrying his team, sometimes a little too forcefully, to small leads. But Stephen Curry, weak and a little bit hesitant all game long, showed up in the end.
Even before overtime, in which the Cavaliers shot 1-of-9 from the field and scored just 2 points, garbage time layup from James, the game was decided. It felt that if the Cavaliers don’t finish this now, they’ll be sorry for it later. Too many possessions that ended without the ball going through the paint. Too many possessions of eating up the shot clock and contested shots.
Don’t get me wrong. For a long period in this game the Cavaliers executed their game plan perfectly. The Warriors couldn’t handle Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov. They didn’t double team LeBron James (until the final possessions), which resulted in a lot of easy points for him in the post. But an easy point after easy point, playing 46 minutes, eventually make you tired. James did score 44 points but was just 2-of-8 from beyond the arc (half of them desperate shots in overtime) and 18-of-38 from the field. A huge game from him, but maybe a bit too individualistic, and not getting enough help.
Kyrie Irving surprised everyone with his ability to defend Curry well. He twice blocked him from behind on layup attempts. One of them led the Cavaliers to one final possession to try and win the game. But it was wasted on slow dribbling, LeBron James taking a bad shot and Iman Shumpert almost beating the buzzer on a prayer from the corner.
In that moment, the air seemed to get sucked out of the Cavs’ sails. Irving got injured in overtime and now makes the rest of the series look very worrying on his behalf, after a great game of 23 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists and 4 steals. J.R. Smith couldn’t hit anything (3-of-13 from the field). That doesn’t leave the Cavaliers with a lot on the offensive side of the ball. And no, Matthew Dellavedova can’t keep up with Curry.
For the Warriors, it was about making shots, as simple as that. Their players did find it more difficult to get free, but they missed their fair share of open shots. Klay Thompson was especially cold throughout the night. When the Warriors shoot “just” 37% from three point range, they suddenly seem ordinary, but it had a lot to do with the Cavs’ ability to defend them. And it still wasn’t enough.
The Warriors can live with Thompson and Mozgov crashing the boards and James trying to win games on his own. As long as things remain close in the end, their superior shooting ability and advantage in the number of players who can make plays. The Cavaliers need to make this performance, a very good one for most of the night, become more than a one time thing. Oh, and hope Irving is good to go at more than 50% for the next few games, otherwise, as good as James is, this series isn’t going to be a fair fight.