In many ways, Game 1 of the NBA Finals was predictable. The game was in Oakland, where Golden State almost never loses. The Warriors were undoubtedly still going to be hyped after their stunning and uplifting comeback against Oklahoma City — this while the Cleveland Cavaliers had not played for almost a week and were all but certain to come out a bit rusty and flat. This was the highest of ground for the Warriors to fight on, and their professional and straightforward 104-89 victory is just about what you might have expected.
“It’s just one game,” are the four words that appeared in just about every Cleveland Cavaliers related tweet, blog post, story, story comment, email and talk-radio take, and it was indeed just one game.
That said: It’s hard, from a Cavaliers perspective, to imagine that one game being more discouraging. Yes, absolutely, Cleveland might still make a fight of this thing. Forget about momentum talk. Momentum is an invention of sportswriters on deadline. And as a sportswriter on deadline, I fall for it all the time, but I should have learned a long time ago that momentum means almost nothing . I should have learned it back in 1985, when the Boston Celtics overwhelmed and embarrassed the Los Angeles Lakers 148-114 in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. If ever there was one game that should have ended a series, it was that one. I would have bet my life savings (a used bicycle, savings bonds my grandmother got me, my baseball card collection with its many Cory Snyder rookie cards), that the Celtics would roll to an easy victory. The Lakers breezed in six.
Also, in both series LeBron James won an NBA championship, his team lost Game 1.
But the big problem for Cleveland here is not momentum. The big problem is that sports is about matchups — that’s one cliché that DOES tend to hold up — and the Cavaliers have huge matchup issues. Oklahoma City did expose some weaknesses in this Golden State team in the last series. They forced the Warriors into some sloppy play, they pounded Golden State on the offensive glass, they threw so much defensive pressure at Steph Curry and Draymond Green that, for a time anyway, they made the pair look tentative.
It wasn’t enough for Oklahoma City to win, of course, because the Thunder could not make a 3-pointer, because Klay Thompson was all of the X-Men rolled into one in Game 6 and because Curry found his wizardry when it was most needed. Still, it was something for Cleveland to work with.
Only … it wasn’t. I have no doubt that Oklahoma City did unlock some of the mysteries of the Warriors. But Game 1 suggested that the Cavaliers simply don’t have the keys to open any of those locks.
1. Unlike Oklahoma City, the Cavaliers are not an especially good defensive team, and they did nothing at all on Thursday to make Golden State play too fast or feel uncomfortable.
2. The Cavaliers’ Tristan Thompson is a fantastic offensive rebounder, and this should play well against one of Golden State’s relative weak spots. Unfortunately — and he reminded everyone of this in Game 1 — Thompson is not a good finisher, and he is an almost non-existent passer, so those offensive rebounds (he had six) generally went to waste.
3. The Cavaliers’ bench was horrendous. They were outscored 45-10 — with some of those 10 points coming at garbage time — and backup point guard Matthew Dellavedova was a gruesome minus-19 in about 11 minutes of play.
The Golden State bench was well-neutralized by Oklahoma City. Sean Livingston shot 36 percent against the Thunder. He looked like Paul Pierce in Game 1. Leandro Barbosa was a nonentity against the Thunder. He scored 11 and was like a Harlem Globetrotter in Game 1. And so on.
4, Cleveland did not (cannot?) bring enough intensity to faze Golden State’s Draymond Green. The Thunder often made Green look out of control and feverish. In Game 1 against the Cavs, he had a more typically juicy Draymond Green line (16 points, 11 rebounds, 7 assists, four steals, one block) and seemed completely in the flow.
All of which leads to the two most demoralizing parts of Game 1. The first is obvious: Golden State won easily even though Curry and Thompson combined to shot 8 for 27 and scored just 20 combined points. They could not have been less effective and never again will be that ineffective — this was a once-in-a-decade moment. And it didn’t matter in the slightest as far as the final result goes.
If Cleveland can’t come close to beating Golden State on a night when Curry and Thompson are off, what chance do they have on any other night?
Let’s add this: It’s pleasant for the Cavaliers and fans to believe that it was the Cleveland defense that held Curry and Thompson down. This was certainly the general vibe of Cleveland’s postgame comments — stuff along the lines of, “Well, we did a good job on Curry and Thompson, now we just have to play better against everyone else.”
But I think that might be a bad read on what really happened Thursday. Curry got open looks. Thompson got open looks. They just missed. I didn’t think either one of them had to work as hard for their shots as they did against Oklahoma City. The Kansas City Chiefs used to have this cornerback who would celebrate after incomplete passes, even if he was thoroughly beaten on the play and the receiver just happened to drop the ball. The “We did a good job on Curry and Thompson” theme seemed a bit like that to me.
And that’s the second demoralizing part: It happened late in the fourth quarter when Cleveland was in the midst of a mildly interesting comeback. The Cavs trailed by 17 with five minutes left, when guard J.R. Smith — who decided for the first time in his career to be shy — finally hit a 3-point shot. Smith is one of the all-time gunners in NBA history, a man who ALWAYS thinks he’s open, a 3-point gunslinger who has spent his euphoric career making people scream “No!” and “Yes!” in equal measure. He took THREE shots against Golden State. Three. He usually takes that many on the drive to the arena.
In any case, he made a 3-pointer to cut the margin to 14, and then LeBron James rattled in his own 3-pointer to cut the margin to 11. It stayed there until, at roughly the three-minute mark, Kyrie Irving stole a pass and LeBron James got the ball in the open floor. He was going full speed ahead, the classic LeBron James get-out-of-the-way train, and you could imagine the Cavaliers cutting the lead to nine or even eight if he would make one of his glorious three-point plays. No, the Cavaliers were not going to win the game, but this was a chance to make Golden State a little bit nervous …
And here’s what follows:
Draymond Green reaches in and steals ball from James. Bam.
Steph Curry, sensing the moment, takes Kyrie Irving one-on-one, steps in, steps back, swishes a 3-pointer. Bam.
Irving, no doubt feeling the need to make up for his defensive ineffectiveness, drives into the lane and takes a tough shot. He’s one of the great finishers in basketball, but this time the ball clanks off iron. Bam.
Green rips down the rebound, passes to Curry, who passes to Thompson, he fires a 3-point shot, it’s good. Bam.
And, like that, in 30 seconds, the two guys who couldn’t make a shot all game long ended any of the Cavs’ illusions. The lead was 17 and that was that. All that was left for Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue was to put in the scrubs. It was only one game, yes, and it’s perfectly logical to believe that LeBron James and company will come up with more intensity and heat for Game 2. As one Cleveland buddy says: “There are reasons to hope.”
Well, there are always reasons to hope, that’s part of being a Cleveland fan. But there’s another part of being a Cleveland fan, a more obvious part, a part that need not be mentioned.