As bad as Game 1 looked for the Cleveland Cavaliers, and it looked bad, we must remind ourselves Game 1 of the 2016 NBA Finals looked just as bad. And we all know how that turned out. We tell ourselves this, because otherwise the 2017 NBA Playoffs could get even uglier.
Maybe it’s the immediacy of it, but this series opener felt different, if for no other reason than Kevin Durant was there, tearing the Cavaliers to pieces, so that Stephen Curry could set them on fire. It didn’t even matter that the rest of their Golden State Warriors — a lot that includes two more current All-Stars — shot a combined 35 percent. They’re so loaded, even if they fire a couple duds, they still leave you in ruins. Cleveland, meanwhile, might not have the firepower.
What the Cavs lack in talent, they make up for in confidence. They can, like the rest of us, remind themselves last year seemed just as dire, because those rings of theirs are a callback to their 3-1 comeback. And because “What the Cavs lack in talent” is more an appreciation for how freaking good the Warriors are than a commentary on Cleveland’s competence. They have a guy named LeBron James, a.k.a. the G.O.A.T. in waiting, so let’s not count them out just yet.
We tell ourselves this, and the Cavs tell themselves this, because we all want to believe Game 2 will be a more aesthetic viewing experience. Here are three more things to watch for on Sunday.
Cleveland’s rim protection and transition defense
It wasn’t so much that the Warriors dominated Game 1, it’s that they did so running a layup line. So worried were the Cavs with Splash brothers Curry and Klay Thompson, they paved a runway for a dozen Golden State dunks. Durant had six by himself in the opening half. The Warriors attempted another 27 layups, only 12 of which they converted — well below the 61 percent they shot on such bunnies in the regular season — so if Cleveland doesn’t want to get beat further into submission, coach Tyronn Lue will have to craft a way not to host another dunk contest.
It starts in transition, where the Cavs allowed for ample opportunities, committing 20 turnovers, shooting 35 percent from the field and not getting the disruptive Tristan Thompson force they’ve become accustomed to on the offensive glass. As a result, the Warriors avoided cross-matches defensively and repeatedly presented the Sophie’s Choice of a Durant dunk or Curry 3-pointer.
I'll say this for JR Smith – wasn't a business decision to let Durant dunk, but at least Curry didn't get an open 3pic.twitter.com/9UtF4VtcgT
— Jason McIntyre (@jasonrmcintyre) June 2, 2017
The Cavs can limit the number of those opportunities simply by slowing the pace, working the shot clock and running their offense through LeBron in the post, where he can almost always get himself or someone else a decent look if given the time. Beyond simply making more shots and relying on Thompson to step up his crash-the-glass game, though, there’s no easy solution beyond effort (the Warriors got to 22 of the 28 loose balls in Game 1, per NBA.com/stats).
Cleveland doesn’t have a traditional center on the roster. The 6-foot-9 Thompson is the team’s best interior defender, if LeBron still draws Durant as his assignment, so challenging shots at the rim is a real problem. Lue could just hope Thompson and Kevin Love are more physical this time around, or he could turn again to Richard Jefferson or Iman Shumpert in lieu of Love, dropping James down on Draymond Green. At the very least, someone has to stop the ball in transition and pray everyone else gets back to help on the wings. So, good luck with all that.
The LeBron/Kyrie vs. KD/Steph duel
This series is supposed to be fun, and these two 1-3 combos are four of the world’s most exciting players. There was some post-game talk about a Cavs no-show beyond LeBron and Kyrie Irving. Everyone else was a combined 11-for-44 from the field (and, c’mon Kyle Korver, 0-for-3 ain’t gonna cut it). But let’s not forget, outside of Durant and Curry, the other Warriors weren’t so hot themselves. Most games may just come down to which tandem plays better.
Game 1, in simpler terms:
• KD/Steph: 58 points (61.5 effective field goal percentage) and 18 assists (two turnovers)
• LeBron/Kyrie: 52 points (51.2 effective field goal percentage) and 10 assists (12 turnovers)
Durant and Curry were more productive and more efficient, and they were devastating as a tandem. When both were on the court, Golden State shot 50 percent from the field on 76 shots. When either Curry, Durant or both were on the bench, the Warriors shot just 7-for-30 (23.3 percent). That’s a testament to the choose-at-one’s-peril predicament that duo presents.
It sounds wild to say James must be more dialed in than he was for a game in which he collected 28 points, 15 rebounds and eight assists, but he and Irving cannot afford to be outmatched by their counterparts. LeBron and Kyrie didn’t run much of the pick-and-roll that’s made them so devastating, mostly because the Warriors had their two best defenders — Green and Klay Thompson — sniffing it out, but Curry also did well this year to show and recover when Golden State tried to force him into switches against Cleveland’s top scorers. That strategy keyed the Cavaliers’ 3-1 comeback in 2016, so Lue has some tinkering of his own to do.
The Cavs have to get creative. The Warriors just have to keep on doing what they’re doing.
What if Draymond and Klay come to play?
While the Cavs were picking their Durant or Curry poison, they left Green and Thompson to their own devices. And Golden State’s other All-Stars — you know, the two without MVP trophies on their shelves — were a combined 6-for-28 from the field in Game 1. Both Green and Thompson were spectacular defensively in the opener, but their offense left plenty to be desired.
Almost half of their 28 attempts were uncontested in Game 1, and they shot just 2-for-13 on those tries, including 0-for-7 from 3. The Cavs will give Green those shots, since he made less than a third of his uncontested 3’s during the regular season (even though he came into the series shooting 47.2 percent from 3 in the playoffs), but Thompson is a different animal. Already one of the greatest shooters the game has ever seen, Thompson shot almost 50 percent on uncontested shots this season, and you can be sure he will not go 0-for from 3 if left open again.
While not a great shooter, Green is an impressive playmaker, averaging seven assists in both the regular season and playoffs. He had two in Game 1. Maybe because, as a team, the Warriors shot just 21-for-50 on uncontested shots, including 10-of-35 inside of 10 feet and 9-of-26 from 3 — all well below their season averages. Those shots will start falling eventually.
Already up 21 entering the fourth quarter, the Warriors also unleashed the latest iteration of their death lineup the four All-Stars plus Andre Iguodala — for a grand total of two minutes. That lineup outscored opponents by 23.9 points per 100 possessions during the regular season.
All of which is to say, the Warriors weren’t at their best. So, watch the hell out on Sunday.
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