OAKLAND, Calif. — The Golden State Warriors dominated Game 1 of the 2017 NBA Finals with an all-encompassing, high-powered flair that validated and perhaps even strengthened their status as favorites in this series. The series-opening 113-91 win included plenty of worrisome qualities for the Cleveland Cavaliers, including Kevin Durant’s scintillating return to the league’s biggest stage and a 20-4 turnover disparity between the two sides. Golden State presents the East champs with a challenge they didn’t come close to encountering during their 12-1 demolition of their conference rivals over the first three rounds, and this result proved it.
“Just getting a chance to see how they play, the style of play, how fast they play, you can’t really simulate that in practices,” said Cavs head coach Tyronn Lue after the loss. “You got to really get out here and get a chance to do it firsthand.”
Cleveland stars LeBron James and Kyrie Irving echoed Lue’s point and language in their own postgame press conferences as they explained what’s unique to the Warriors.
“There’s no way can you simulate the Warriors’ offense, so when you come out here, and no matter how greatly prepared you are, you know going against them and being in a game is totally different,” said Irving.
“I also know that you cannot simulate what they bring to the table,” said James. “No matter how many days that you have to prepare, you can’t simulate what they have.”
These similar answers came across less like a collaborative excuse than a postgame talking point, a way for the Cavs’ leaders to address the Warriors’ strengths without wallowing in them. For the most part, Cleveland focused less on what Golden State did well in Game 1 than on the opportunity to improve in Game 2.
That approach should not come as a great shock, because any team of professionals will react to a loss with confidence that it can turn things around the next time it takes the court. However, that mindset would seem to apply even more obviously to this Cavaliers group against this opponent.
While no one would specifically mention it after Game 1, last June’s unprecedented comeback from a 3-1 deficit adds new layers to this matchup and all its permutations. The Cavaliers know they were in this same position in 2016, and it will take much more than a convincing Game 1 loss to make them especially anxious.
“For us, it’s just about how we’re going to answer the call,” said veteran forward Richard Jefferson. “It’s never about how you get knocked down. It’s never about how badly you lose one game. … And I think, as a group, we’re very confident in our ability to answer as the series progresses.”
The areas in need of the most improvement were clear to everyone in the arena — turnovers and transition defense.
The Cavs’ 20 miscues included 10 in the second quarter alone and eight for James on the night, and led to 21 Warriors points. (Those mistakes would have been even more problematic had the Warriors been more ruthless with their interior finishing in the first half.) Additionally, their tactical focus on guarding shooters in transition led to several bizarre scenes in which defenders flew past streaking scorers on their way to the basket. These were not championship-level efforts, and the Cavs knew it.
“We were victims of ourself, for one,” James said. “We made a lot of mistakes.”
The Cavs will certainly look to take better care of the ball, stop allowing easy baskets in transition, and perhaps even try some new lineups in Game 2 on Sunday. But it would be wrong to expect wholesale changes just because they’re facing such a formidable opponent.
Despite the Warriors’ excellence, the Cavs remain the league’s most recent champions. It took several historic performances from LeBron and Kyrie to claim that title, but very little from Thursday suggests they believe themselves incapable of doing the same again this year. The confidence is there for Cleveland. It could only grow as the series progresses.
If anything, the Cavs appeared to relish the chance to assess their errors over the next few days.
“I’m glad that we got Game 1 out of the way,” said Irving. “So just go forward, continue to have a mindset that the goal at hand which we want to accomplish is going to be definitely a tough one.”
LeBron’s message to his team followed the same logic.
“This is the Finals, and we don’t care about making mistakes,” he said. “Just play as hard as you can and follow the game plan, have your mind in it. And if your mind is fresh and your mind is into it, then a lot of things take care of itself.”
The Cavs aren’t about to freak out after one loss, even if it appeared to confirm the year-long assumption (or worry, for some) that the Warriors are one of the best teams in the history of the sport. They will not cower in fear just because the early indications say they’re overmatched.
There’s no better evidence for the validity of this mindset than the Warriors’ own reaction to the win.
“We have been here before and know there’s a lot of work left to do,” said Warriors star Stephen Curry. “It’s going to get harder and harder as we go when the stakes are … when they rise as the series go on.”
After last year’s series, it’s hard to say they’re misguided. While the Warriors were vastly better in Game 1, the specter of “3-1” will loom at least until the series ends, if not forever. On the other side, the memory of the comeback will give the Cavs confidence until they’re eliminated.
If the 2016 Finals proved anything, it’s that LeBron James and his teammates aren’t done until they lose for the fourth time. They will not be eliminated easily, no matter what the analysis says.
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