LeBron James knows what it’s like to crush the hopes of a visiting underdog in Game 1 of a playoff series and to snatch away what could have been a crucial victory to leave them reeling on the wrong end of an emotional lobotomy.
In Game 1 of his return to the NBA Finals as a Cleveland Cavalier, however, that was exactly where LeBron found his team: on the wrong end of a difficult loss, wondering about what could have been after dropping an overtime game to the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena, 108-100.
James put together another tremendous performance, pouring in a Finals career-high 44 points to go along with eight rebounds and six assists while controlling the tempo of the game for most of the second half via a relentless series of isolation sets. But he struggled near the end, and after hitting a three-pointer to tie the game at 96 with 2:38 to play, the Cavaliers missed 12 straight attempts from the field, including a terrible offering by James to end regulation. After waiting until just seven seconds remained, LeBron then tried to do quick work on Andre Iguodala, who had been defending him admirably all game, and was forced into a desperation heave.
Golden State dominated overtime and was helped by some additional hurt to Kyrie Irving. Compounding Cleveland’s issues at the end of the game, their young point guard hurt his knee driving to the basket in overtime and had to leave immediately. This crushed the Cavs, as Irving had given his team exactly what it needed all night, looking like a not-quite-100-percent-but-still-capable creator and scorer while surprisingly playing some impressive defense. He started the game on Stephen Curry and did a good job staying with him both on and off the ball, even getting a clutch block late in the game to preserve the tie after Curry had initially blown past him.
Once Irving left the game, there wasn’t a lot of help for James, especially with J.R. Smith disappearing after a nine-point first half to go scoreless in 20 minutes during the second half and OT. For much of the game, that would have been fine, as James didn’t really need it. He was uncontainable in isolations during much of the game, alternating posting and facing up and making tough shots even when the defense was tough. He was especially potent during a 12-point third quarter in which it felt like he never passed the ball once.
But once Golden State started to send a bit more help, and LeBron needed to move the ball, his supporting cast didn’t particularly step up down the stretch outside of Timofey Mozgov, who finished with 16 points and did great work moving off the ball, whether it was pick-and-rolling or timely cutting. As mentioned, Smith went missing down the stretch, as did Iman Shumpert, who was also 0-for in the second half and OT.
Obviously, this is a difficult loss for the Cavaliers, especially if Irving is seriously hurt. That puts that much more onus on Cleveland’s role players to play far better than they did in Game 1 if they want to remain competitive in the series going forward. While it’s not unreasonable to expect James to continue to put up similar numbers–he did just nearly average a triple-double and 30 points per game in the Eastern Conference Finals–that alone won’t win them this series, and guys like Shumpert and Smith have to remain difference makers, the way they were during the first half, when the Cavs carried a lead into the halftime break.
It’s not impossible to bounce back and capture Game 2 on the road, especially with LeBron, who showed once again his ability to be the ultimate equalizer. The Cavaliers also did some nice things defensively against Golden State, holding them to a modest total but ultimately suffering too many breakdowns in trying to account for the Warriors’ many shooters out of pick-and-roll situations.
There’s something to build on here, though it’ll be much harder if Irving is out, and after the game, word from LeBron’s postgame press conference was that he left the locker room on crutches and will need an MRI. That’s not good news, and it exacerbates the feeling that the Cavs let a chance get away from them in Game 1.