Normally, a team shouldn’t feel too badly losing Game 1 of the NBA Finals on the road in overtime. The home squad is supposed to win, after all, and the fact that it needed more than 48 minutes to separate itself should foreshadow a long, tightly contested series.
But the Cleveland Cavaliers don’t have many silver linings after Thursday’s 108-100 defeat at the hands of the Golden State Warriors.
The main topic of discussion is Cleveland star point guard Kyrie Irving‘s fractured knee, which he suffered in overtime of Game 1. Irving will be out for the remainder of the Finals, the team reported Friday.
Another prominent point from the contest was the stark contrast in the squad’s abilities to make inside shots. Both teams played excellent interior defense; very few inside looks went uncontested and, for the most part, defenders went straight up and avoided fouls.
However, the Cavs somehow made MANY more of those short, tough shots than the Warriors.
Led by LeBron James‘s 44-point showing, Cleveland made 14-of-20 (70 percent) of its tightly-contested shots inside of 10 feet. On the other hand, Golden State found the hoop on just 2-of-16 (12.5 percent) of those same type of attempts.
Granted, the Cavaliers do have stronger inside finishers and came into the contest leading Golden State 52.9 to 45.7 percent on those looks in the playoffs. But if both teams had shot their averages on contested attempts inside of 10 feet, that would’ve swung the game 17 points in the Warriors’ favor.
Game 1 wouldn’t have come down to the wire at all. It would’ve been a blowout.
What’s the point of all of this? Cleveland is in huge trouble, both taking Irving’s injury into account and assuming both teams even somewhat regress to the mean.
The Cavaliers’ main problem from Game 1 was their offense, where they’ll need much more variety to keep the Warriors from running away with the series. Unlike some of their past opponents, the Warriors rarely sent help on LeBron isolations, neutralizing the Cavs superstar’s passing abilities (six assists against four turnovers) and forcing him to beat Golden State with his scoring. In all, he was isolated 26 possessions throughout the game.
That’s a lot of possessions.
When Cleveland wanted to give James brief breaks, it resorted to isolating Irving. In fact, from the 5:37 mark in the third quarter until 7:26 was remaining in the fourth quarter, James and Irving used 18 of 20 possessions (“using” a possession means either attempting a shot, earning free throws or committing a turnover).
Somehow, the plan almost worked for Cleveland. LeBron and Kyrie were on their games, and their squad had the ball for the final shot of regulation with the score tied at 98.
But guess what?:
The Cavs resorted to yet another LeBron iso, and he missed the tough fallaway jumper. Shumpert’s putback heave nearly found the net, but just rimmed out.
In the overtime period, Cleveland had to choose between continuing to milk its two stars on offense or switch it up by getting the ball to its role players. They tried a little of both, but the stars were tired and the role players were out of rhythm from having almost no involvement in the offense since the first half:
Before a meaningless LeBron layup with nine seconds left, the Cavs shot 0-of-8 from the field with three turnovers in overtime. Not good.
For the rest of the series, the Cavs desperately need to find more balance between their stars and role players and generate more creativity in their offensive sets.
Without Irving, the Cavaliers don’t have a ton of talent on the team besides LeBron. However, there are some guys who can give the Warriors trouble.
J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert can both nail spot-up threes, and the Cavs like to utilize those skills on drive-and-kicks from LeBron and Kyrie. But the two former New York Knicks can be so much more than standstill shooters on offense—they’re quick, possess solid ball-handling abilities and can elevate at the rim. So why not find ways to involve them with opportune cuts and handoffs every once in awhile?
Take a gander at this play the Cavs generated earlier this season, in which Smith elevated for a sweet reverse alley-oop slam off a Shumpert dime:
I know, I know, this play came against Smith and Shumpert’s hapless former New York squad and the Cavs had a 30-point lead. Honestly, Golden State’s defenders probably wouldn’t have fallen asleep off the ball like the Knicks’ Cleanthony Early did.
But the concept of Smith and Shumpert at least moving the defense around with opportune cuts toward the basket can keep them involved and get them some easy inside looks now and then. This sort of action would be especially effective in a lineup with three-point specialist James Jones at the power forward slot since the paint would be less clogged. It certainly beats ball-watching as LeBron dribbles around for 15 seconds trying to make something out of nothing.
And Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson are powerful finishers inside, so why not get them involved in some screen-and-roll action? Check out the below play that Cleveland ran to perfection on Thursday, one of the squad’s offensive bright spots from Game 1.
Out of a horns set, Mozgov and James pretended to give Irving a two-sided screen, but it actually was just creating confusion for LeBron to flash across the top of the key, get the ball in space and use his top-shelf playmaking abilities to set his Russian teammate up for a nice slam.
Why can’t the Cavs execute nifty plays all the time?
Golden State has a much deeper squad, even with Irving on the court, and ultimately, that’ll probably end up being Cleveland’s downfall. The Warriors had 10 guys score Thursday, compared to the Cavs’ six.
However, if the Cavaliers start digging deeper into their playbook and find ways to keep LeBron effective yet somewhat fresh, the games in this series can remain somewhat competitive.