The Golden State Warriors were far from their best Thursday night, but they did enough to stave off the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 1 of the NBA Finals in Oracle Arena. The Western Conference champions prevailed 108-100 in overtime.
According to ESPN Stats & Info, this is the first Finals opener since 2001 to go into OT.
The Cavaliers offense had been dependent on LeBron James for much of Game 1, and that came back to haunt them in the extra period. They made just one shot in overtime, which was an open layup as time wound down.
Cleveland matched Golden State shot for shot for 48 minutes, but it simply had nothing left for the additional frame.
James had 44 points, eight rebounds and six assists in a losing effort. The Cavaliers were previously unbeaten in this year's playoffs when LeBron went for 30 or more points, per NBA on ESPN.
Kyrie Irving added 23 points, seven rebounds and six assists, while Timofey Mozgov's 16 points and seven boards were big reasons the Cavs were in the game.
Curry led the Warriors with 26 points, while Klay Thompson was right behind him with 21. Andre Iguodala was also fantastic on both ends of the court. He contributed 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting and made countless defensive stops.
The Warriors didn't necessarily stop LeBron, but they did a great job of forcing him to try to win the game alone by cutting off his supporting cast.
This series arguably puts James in a position somewhat foreign to him on a basketball court—that of an underdog.
It was a label he declined to embrace during a pregame press conference.
"Huh? Underdog? Me?" James answered when asked if he and the Cavaliers were essentially long shots to topple the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, per Cindy Boren of the Washington Post. "I would never be an underdog. I think we have a great chance. That’s what we’re here for."
Regardless of James' statements, many consider the Warriors to be the stronger team. FiveThirtyEight ranked the best squads in basketball history by Elo rating. Golden State placed third all time—that's how strong it is.
But there's something to be said for NBA Finals experience, since the Warriors looked a little bit awed to start Game 1. Cleveland jumped out to a 29-19 lead to close out the first quarter, essentially beating Golden State at its own game.
The Cavaliers did a great job of denying Curry the ball and funneling the Warriors into the paint, where Mozgov was lurking. Yahoo Sports' Marc J. Spears posted Golden State's box score from the first quarter, and it didn't make for good reading:
Another positive development from Cleveland was James' outside shooting. He has struggled away from the basket for most of the postseason. But through the first quarter of Game 1, LeBron was having little trouble with his jumper, per NBA.com:
As good as the Warriors are, they aren't necessarily that great when having to come back from a large deficit. They were just 17-15 heading into Thursday when falling behind by 10 or more points, per ESPN Stats & Info. If there's a time to go down double digits, though, it's certainly in the opening quarter.
The Warriors had a lot of time to adjust and get things right.
True to form, Golden State calmed down a bit in the second quarter and began to look more like its old self. The team's shot selection improved, and it started knocking down the open jumpers it missed in the first quarter.
Pro Basketball Talk's Kurt Helin believed both teams needed a little over a quarter to get their bearings:
After Irving made it 34-27 in favor of the Cavs, the Warriors went on a 19-7 run. A three-pointer from Curry tied the game at 36-36, at which point the Oracle Arena crowd came unglued in the eyes (and ears) of ESPN's J.A. Adande:
A one-handed jam from Draymond Green also brought the fans to their feet:
Whereas Cleveland's reliance on LeBron was sustainable in the first quarter, it was becoming a hindrance in the second. Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix questioned whether the Cavs could stem the tide without the James' teammates picking up some slack:
The Cavaliers closed out the half on a 10-2 run to take a 51-48 cushion into the locker room. A deep three from J.R. Smith provided the difference:
Cleveland then held the lead for the majority of the third quarter as well, with Irving and James combining to score 18 of the team's 22 points. Irving's effort on the defensive end was pivotal, as he helped limit Curry to just four points over the 12 minutes.
ESPN's John Buccigross didn't think enough was made of Irving's prior injury and how it might have been affecting him on the court:
As much as the Cavaliers did to maintain their advantage, though, Iguodala nailed a layup near the end of the third to tie the game at 73-73, putting everybody back at square one heading into the fourth.
The Warriors quickly went up 78-77, but then James re-entered the game with nine minutes remaining. From that point forward, he put the Cavs on his back.
Chris Haynes of the Northeast Ohio Media Group felt that LeBron's more direct style served to sap the energy from the Warriors players as they attempted to slow him down:
Jason Concepcion of Grantland had a different way to describe how the game was unfolding:
As much as James was doing on the offensive end, the Cavaliers couldn't string together many stops on defense. Curry gave the Warriors a 94-93 lead with 3:35 remaining after executing a beautiful spin move to shake off LeBron and create an open shot for himself.
But once again, James nailed a critical attempt for his team, tying the game at 96-96 with a three-pointer 57 seconds later.
A few possessions thereafter, Curry answered with a deep two to give Golden State a slim two-point edge, but Mozgov immediately tied it again with two clutch free throws.
The Warriors had 31.9 seconds and the ball. Head coach Steve Kerr drew up a great inbounds play that freed up Curry for what was seemingly an open layup. Then, Irving came in from behind to deny the opportunity.
Leigh Ellis of The Starters was impressed by the entire play:
Cleveland had two chances to win the game with its final possession. James' hero ball didn't work on this occasion, as Iguodala defended him perfectly. Iman Shumpert's last-second heave looked good coming out of his hands, but hit the front rim and bounced out.
The Cavaliers offense went cold to start overtime, and it became readily apparent they were fighting a losing battle in the extra frame. ESPN's Tom Haberstroh argued that Irving's injury could prove more impactful than the defeat itself:
Although Cleveland is down only a game in the series, Thursday's defeat felt much bigger to Bleacher Report's Jordan Schultz:
This felt like the game the Cavs had to win. It's a lot to ask of LeBron to put together an effort like this, and if Irving is out, then that's even more of the scoring burden placed on James. In addition, Mozgov played at a level he's unlikely to repeat for multiple contests in the series.
There's still a long way to go in the NBA Finals, with Game 2 scheduled for Sunday in Oakland, but the Warriors took the Cavaliers' best punch and are still standing.