It was a regulation classic, and an overtime bummer.
The Golden State Warriors dominated the Cleveland Cavaliers in the extra frame during Game 1 of the NBA Finals, taking the contest by a 108-100 mark after Cleveland fell apart in the final five minutes. NBA MVP Stephen Curry led the Warriors with 26 points, as the Cavs watched helplessly as point guard Kyrie Irving limped badly to the locker room in overtime with what appears to be the latest in a string of injuries to the All-Star.
Irving had been brilliant throughout the game, keeping the Warriors on edge with crafty drives and expert passing, and his block of Curry late in regulation in what appeared to be an easy and wide open layup helped secure Cleveland’s chance at an extra frame. LeBron James, working mostly in Michael Jordan-styled isolation plays in the post, added a personal career Finals-high with 44 points, but it wasn’t enough as Golden State pulled away in what was previously a close and contested affair.
James missed his first three shots in overtime as the Warriors got back to whipping the ball around offensively, as a miss and turnover by Irving prior to his departure led to easier scores for Golden State as it flew back to the other end of the court. By the time James got around to having to carry the offensive load sans Irving, his team was playing catch-up as he missed two desperation three-pointers. In the end, the Cavaliers missed their first nine shots in overtime, with three turnovers to boot, before James hit a meaningless layup to give the game its final score.
In a way, the game played almost to script.
Golden State has struggled to start series and contests at home in the first quarter, and while the team didn’t look especially rattled as the Finals neophytes took to the stage, the Warriors appeared off. The Warriors missed both good looks and bad shots, somehow managing to both overpass and still finish the first quarter with the lowest assist mark of any quarter in their season’s previous 388 quarters – two dimes.
As the W’s wasted opportunities, the Cavaliers’ road confidence grew. Cleveland has lost on the road just once in the playoffs in six opportunities, on a lucky banked-in three by Chicago’s Derrick Rose in the Eastern semifinals, and James’ teammates seemed to revel in the chance to play spoiler with all the pressure on Golden State.
Irving was brilliant, using footwork and smarts to overcome both left knee tendinitis and a sprained right foot on his way toward 23 points, six assists, seven rebounds and just one turnover in the face of the NBA’s best defense. Meanwhile, he and James were finding helpers like Timofey Mozgov (16 points and seven rebounds) with extra passes as the Warriors loaded up on Cleveland’s screen-and-roll and isolation-heavy attack.
Cleveland, whose defense ranked among the realm of the mediocre in the regular season prior to a massive uptick in the playoffs, also surprised by tossing out a few minor full-court presses, and overplaying and jumping passing lanes. This forced the Warriors into either turning the rock over, or hesitating and/or declining to make the passes that have been typical of Golden State’s knockout offense all season. Meanwhile, Mozgov and Tristan Thompson (15 rebounds, with six coming on the offensive glass) were quick to offensive boards and other loose balls. After eight days off, the Cavs just looked like the looser team.
Of course, the Warriors received seven days off of their own in between the Western Conference finals and the NBA Finals, they just needed to overcome the uncertainty and jitters. What was a 14-point Cleveland advantage in the first quarter fell apart as the second quarter moved along, as the W’s took a lead on a Curry three-pointer with 3:39 left in the first half. Curry ended up either scoring or assisting on 18 of Golden State’s final 20 points in the second, as Cleveland took a slim 51-48 lead into the locker room.
From there, things were matched just about evenly. Golden State relied on its embarrassment of riches (including center Marreese Speights, playing for the first time in a month due to a calf injury, scoring eight points off the pine) to share the ball and keep up appearances. Supersub Andre Iguodala (15 points on 6-of-8 shooting) led a fourth quarter charge that saw him hit a three-pointer with just one shoe while making expert passes and giving his all against James defensively.
However, there was only so much Iguodala, or any other Warrior, could do.
James gained confidence early in the game by nailing both a 20-footer and three-pointer, turning the tide after entering the Finals with a lowly 17.6 three-point percentage in the postseason. He routinely backed down defenders in the post on his way toward those 44 points, on 18-of-38 shooting, notching six assists and eight defensive rebounds along the way.
Though this seemed part of Golden State’s plan – let James shoot away, because he can’t score 100 points on his own (we think) – it was a fearful turn. LeBron looked unstoppable at times, with even his misses turning into scrums that the Cavaliers somehow walked away from with the ball. When James hit a turnaround jumper to put his Cavs up 86-82 midway through the fourth quarter, it seemed as if there was nothing the Warriors could do to stop him the Cavs.
Golden State’s offense got back on track behind Curry and a resurgent Klay Thompson, who emerged from a 1-for-6 shooting first half to finish with 21 points on 5-of-14 shooting. Meanwhile, swingman Harrison Barnes saved two crucial loose balls in the fourth, while reserve big Festus Ezili managed five needed defensive rebounds in just 12 minutes of action. Irving’s desperate block of Curry ...
... led to LeBron James setting up what could have been his third career buzzer beater at Oracle Arena, but Iguodala forced him into an impossible 21-footer.
In overtime James missed a tough running hook in the midst of four defenders, J.R. Smith clanged his easiest look of the night (a wide-open three-pointer from the corner), and Irving missed what has been a staple of his repertoire for years – a reverse lefty layup. Irving could not plant on his sprained right foot, as Golden State (heretofore scoreless as well) began to build its lead on a pair of free throws from Curry.
James, by now seeing double teams, passed to Mozgov for a reverse lay-in that failed, which led to two more free throws from Curry. Cleveland was down only four at that point, with 2:30 left in overtime, but quite a bit left the Cavs when Irving fell while attempting a crossover, immediately grabbing his left knee (prior to passing to Smith, who missed a three-pointer) before being taken off the court.
Just prior to Irving leaving the contest, Harrison Barnes hit an open corner three-pointer that effectively sealed the game with two minutes to go.
The Cavs were nearly shut out until James’ late lay-in, and an already thin rotation (only seven Cavaliers played double-figure minutes even in an overtime game) has taken another hit. A cruel one, considering Irving’s guttiness and fantastic play prior to the injury.
Credit the Warriors, forever thinking on their feet and figuring this out on the fly while building on the fundamental core principles that coach Steve Kerr and his staff have put into place. This group now has a 13-3 postseason record to top its 67-15 regular season run, and it didn’t come by accident. The Warriors may faff about in the early moments, ostensibly feeling things out but usually just needing a quarter or so to get their acts together, but it’s working.
Cleveland worked its tails off in Game 1, and it still wasn’t enough. One has to wonder, even if Irving can return to action on Sunday in Game 2, if that was the team’s best shot in this series. You get the feeling that quite a bit has to go wrong for Golden State in order to serve LeBron and his ever-shrinking company with a win.
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