Though this was just Game 1 in a best-of-seven games, the Finals are essentially the NBA’s version of a season finale. When a show nails a finale, it usually contains a few elements: fast-paced action, plot twists, long awaited meetings of key characters and maybe even saying goodbye to a fan favorite. Thursday’s 108-100 Warriors victory delivered on all those counts.
The Warriors had acknowledged nerves could be a factor for them in Game 1 (Klay Thompson called the butterflies both good and normal after the game), and that was certainly the case as a 17-2 Cavs run had Golden State doubled up early, trailing 26-13. LeBron James looked to have found his shot as the Cavs bigs pounded the glass, while the Warriors were rushing shots without moving the ball and Stephen Curry/Draymond Green pick-and-rolls led to Green passing to sub-par shooters missing from three.
Down double digits to start the second quarter, Steve Kerr made the controversial choice to trust his bench, having Curry, Thompson, Green and Andrew Bogut all on the bench. Those reserves validated his decision, particularly Andre Iguodala and the returning Marreese Speights, whose energy got the team going as they passed the torch back to Curry, who then caught fire himself, scoring 10 points and notching four assists in his eight second-quarter minutes. After one half, the two sides were even, at least until J.R. Smith hit a deep three on the final possession, his only real contribution (at least for Cleveland…) in a dismal 3-13 performance.
The second half was a seesaw affair, with both teams trading punches and refusing to back down. LeBron was spellbinding with a 44-point output (18-38 FG) more reminiscent of his first Cleveland stint than his days in Miami. He was flanked by a resurgent Kyrie Irving, who was explosive on offense (23 points, six assists) and focused on defense, as well as a dominant Timofey Mozgov (16 points on 10 shots in 33 minutes) and a physical Tristan Thompson (15 rebounds, six of them offensive).
Warriors fans surely had flashbacks as James had the ball in the waning seconds, guarded by Iguodala in the same spot on the floor where he hit a step-back three to win at Oracle last season. This time, James got closer to the sideline and missed, and Iman Shumpert missed a last-second prayer of a putback as well. In overtime, it was all Golden State, as they continued to suffocate Cleveland’s iso-heavy offense, especially after Irving left injured in significant pain, departing to the locker room. Using Festus Ezeli to start and then going super small to finish, Golden State posted a shutout in the extra frame until James added a meaningless layup.
Irving said postgame that the pain felt different than what he’s already been dealing with, and ESPN’s Rachel Nichols said he needed help just to get up and move about the locker room, while Ken Berger of CBS reported he left the locker room in crutches.
In many ways this felt like Cleveland’s best shot. The Warriors won’t have to deal with the anticipation of their first Finals game again, Irving is injured and this very well could be the worst Curry and Green play all series, not to mention that Golden State’s mainstays play fewer minutes. Usually LeBron shrugs off Game 1’s as a rough draft that lays out a path for the games to come. He doesn’t have that luxury this time around, not when the Warriors have so many different gears to hit.
If the Western Conference champs have had a flaw in this postseason, it’s letting their opponents off the hook in Game 2, as Memphis stole home-court advantage and Houston had the ball in a position to win on the last possession. Despite the old axiom of “a series doesn’t start until the home team loses,” a win in Game 2 would effectively clinch the title. Last year, San Antonio sent a message by waxing Miami in Game 3 that informed the two-time defending champs that they were outgunned. The Warriors have the opportunity to deliver a similar knockout on Sunday.