The Golden State Warriors got lucky.
Whether you blame the referees, missed free throws or the ineptitude of certain players, the Warriors lucked out in Game 1 of the NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Blunders abound, Cavaliers not named LeBron James shot themselves in the foot to the Warrior’s benefit. But, can these Cavaliers make the Finals a watchable, interesting series?
Going into last night, many dreaded another Cavaliers-Warriors series. Cleveland arguably had the best player in the series but, in terms of overall talent and depth, the Warriors have them outclassed and outmatched. But things just didn’t seem that way in regulation (the overtime period was a different story, but the Cavaliers held their own during the first four quarters). It took a superhuman performance by James to keep things close — 51 points, eight rebounds and eight assists — but, as many will tell you and as crazy as it may sound, he is capable of producing similar numbers moving forward. And there is even more to suggest that these Cavaliers could keep things compelling as the series moves along.
To start, the Warriors just looked off during Game 1, as they have on multiple occasions since Andre Iguodala went down with a left leg injury in the Western Conference Finals. The Warriors struggled to shoot the ball in the first half (6-18 from three-point range), Kevin Durant (three points) was a no-show in the fourth quarter and they had no one who could match up with James defensively.
A lot of those struggles can be attributed to Iguodala’s absence. While many would argue the Warriors, with the sheer amount of talent they have on their roster, should be able to overcome his injury, it’s not as easy as you would think; Iguodala provides stability for the Warriors on the offensive end and is one of the few players that has shown the ability to stay in front of James defensively. He is a calming presence and, if he continues to miss time, his absence could loom large on the series.
For the Cavaliers, the most important thing is their ability to hold off the Warriors’ third quarter runs. Golden State hasn’t just been a tough out in the third, they have been historically dominant to start the second half over the course of the season and it has been their knock-out punch during these playoffs. While many teams have gone down in the third, Cavaliers took the Warriors biggest punch and kept fighting. So, while they lost the quarter 22-28, the fact that they were able to keep it close is big for Cleveland’s confidence and their chances in this series. Cleveland actually won the first and fourth quarters of the game (30-29 and 29-23), which should boost their confidence even further.
Cleveland also got some major contributions from non-James players. Kevin Love, in his first game back from a concussion in the Eastern Conference Finals, posted a nice line of 21 points and 13 rebounds and, while he struggled shooting the ball (1-8 from three point range), he kept the Cavaliers in the game when James hit the bench. Off the bench, Larry Nance posted nine points and 11 rebounds after averaging 4.6 points and 3.9 rebounds across 16 playoffs games, affording the Cavaliers multiple second chances on offense.
The Cavaliers have struggled mightily to provide James offensive support this postseason, so Love and Nance’s contributions were, surely, a welcome site. If the others can pour in some points — the other three Cleveland starters combined for just 19 points, rotation players Kyle Korver and Jeff Green just 10 — the Cavaliers might be able to distance themselves from the Warriors if they sputter on the offensive end.
Another boon for the Cavaliers going forward will be their rebounding advantage; Cleveland dominated the glass all game, beating out the Warriors by a 53-38 margin and grabbing 19 offensive boards to the Warriors four thanks, mainly, to the aforementioned Love and Nance. James added four offensive rebounds of his own. The team that wins the rebounding battle, more often than not, will end up winning the game, so if the Cavaliers can continue to outbid the Warriors on the glass they should find themselves in a good position as the series continues.
There are definitely problems James and Cleveland will have to address going forward — the mental lapses cannot continue to happen if the team expects the series to remain competitive, neither can the bad, forced shots — but, the team clearly has a blueprint to disrupt the Warriors, and James et. al. did enough to keep the Golden State defense guessing. If they can continue to keep things interesting like they did in Game 1, the Finals could be more of a series than anyone expected.
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