For 48 minutes, the first clash between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2015 NBA Finals was everything it could be and then some.
But the extra session of Golden State's 108-100 overtime win Thursday night changed the course of that conversation and quite possibly the complexion of this entire series.
The Warriors survived a 44-point onslaught from two-time champion LeBron James. But he was the only member of Cleveland's Big Three left standing by the end of the night.
Already playing without Kevin Love, the Cavs lost Kyrie Irving to a knee injury three minutes into overtime. The All-Star point guard missed two games of the Eastern Conference Finals with tendinitis in the same knee. But this ailment is significantly worse.
MRI testing revealed he suffered a fractured left knee cap, the Cavaliers announced Friday. He is out for the series and projected to need three to four months of recovery time.
Cleveland will have a tough time asking more from James, but it may have no other choice without Irving. The pair scored 67 of the team's points and had 12 of its 19 assists. As ESPN Stats & Info observed, the Cavs struggled mightily during the brief time Irving sat in Game 1:
The Warriors will enter Sunday's Game 2 with both depth and health on their side. Will that be enough to make it out of another meeting with the planet's best player? Or can James somehow lead his wounded team to a series-tying triumph before heading back to Northeast Ohio?
|NBA Finals Schedule|
|2||Sunday||June 7||8 p.m. ET||Oakland||ABC|
|3||Tuesday||June 9||9 p.m. ET||Cleveland||ABC|
|4||Thursday||June 11||9 p.m. ET||Cleveland||ABC|
|5*||Sunday||June 14||8 p.m. ET||Oakland||ABC|
|6*||Tuesday||June 16||9 p.m. ET||Cleveland||ABC|
|7*||Friday||June 19||9 p.m. ET||Oakland||ABC|
|Source: NBA.com, *if necessary|
Did the Dubs Already Take the Cavs' Best Punch?
Before the nightmare ending, Cleveland had enjoyed a dreamlike start to the contest. The Cavs opened up a double-digit advantage in the opening period, while the Warriors shot just 28.6 percent from the field during the frame.
Golden State entered the game without a single player who had NBA Finals experience, and it showed. The Dubs settled down from there, but the problems posed by the Cavs were apparent throughout regulation. James bullied his way to buckets on the low block and found some rhythm on his outside shot. Tristan Thompson wreaked havoc on the glass, hauling in a game-high 15 boards, with six at the offensive end alone.
Irving was at his dizzy-dribbling best and played an equally effective role at the opposite end. He snatched four steals on his own and twice blocked shots from MVP Stephen Curry, including a potential go-ahead layup with under 30 seconds left in regulation.
The Cavs did so many things right, but the Dubs still wound up stealing the show with a 10-2 advantage in overtime. With Irving removed from the equation, Golden State appears to be in prime position to grab complete control of this championship bout.
"It might be wise to savor that overtime game," NBA.com's Shaun Powell wrote, "because nothing that happened in Warriors 108, Cavaliers 100 suggests this series will go long, or to the Cavaliers."
Who Can Help LeBron Shoulder the Scoring Load?
Before appearing to run out of gas late, James looked phenomenal. He was everything for Cleveland's offense, handling 108 of the team's 377 offensive touches on his own.
But the Warriors welcomed a James-only attack. Rather than forcing the ball out of his hands, they focused on limiting his supporting cast. It led to some uneasy moments, but the scoreboard eventually declared it a success.
In the previous round, James averaged 9.3 assists in 38.3 minutes per game against the Atlanta Hawks. He wound up with only six assists in 46 minutes Thursday, and Cleveland's complementary scorers couldn't get themselves going. Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson combined for only 17 points on 6-of-23 shooting.
"We'll live with him shooting a lot of shots and scoring 40 because we feel like a lot of guys who are key to them winning a series don't get touches and don't get going," Andrew Bogut said, per ESPN.com's Ethan Sherwood Strauss.
The Cavs need a lot more from their "others," especially without Irving. If the Warriors aren't going to bring extra help James' way—they didn't often Thursday—Cleveland's supporting cast has to create some offense of its own.
Obvious Adjustments Each Team Must Make
Golden State: Ditching the Slow Starts
The Warriors have been historically dominant this season. But Game 1 wasn't the first time this explosive group has stumbled out of the gate.
During the playoffs, Golden State has basically broken even in the opening period. The Warriors have outscored opponents by only 1.0 points per 100 possessions. To give that number some context, their net rating jumps to plus-14.1 in the second quarter, plus-6.0 in the third and plus-10.1 in the final frame.
They are too talented to have to constantly play the role of comeback kids. The damage done by these sluggish beginnings obviously hasn't been overwhelming—Golden State is 13-3 in the postseason—but this is playing with fire.
And if it helps heat up the Cavs shooters early, the Warriors could wind up getting burned. Golden State has to come out of the gate with controlled aggression, establishing its pace but not racing for the first decent shot it can find.
Cleveland: Making Open Shots
If that sounds super simple, that's because it is. Analysis doesn't need to be overly complex when the problem isn't.
The Warriors were far from crisp with their defensive coverage. And even though they weren't quick to rush an extra defender at James, they kept several sets of eyes on him at all times. When Irving also hit his groove, Golden State's focus quickly shifted away from Cleveland's supporting scorers.
As a result, the Cavs role players had a number of clean looks. They didn't convert them. Cleveland went just 15-of-43 on uncontested shots (34.9), while Golden State buried 25 of its 46 open ones (54.3 percent).
"It's a make or miss league, and we had our chances," James said, per Antonio Gonzalez of the Associated Press.
Cleveland shot worse than Golden State from the field (41.5 to 44.3 percent), from three (29.0 to 37.0) and from the foul line (68.4 to 90.9). That's a recipe for disaster against any offense, but it's a crippling blow against one this potent.
Golden State: The Reserves
The Warriors' "Strength in Numbers" playoff mantra is more than a clever marketing pitch. It proved to be a major key to their Game 1 success. Head coach Steve Kerr went 10 players deep into his rotation and didn't even call upon former All-Star David Lee.
All 10 of those players scored, and nine had at least four points. Cleveland played only eight different guys, three of whom went for two points or fewer. The Warriors got 34 points out of their reserves, several of whom helped pull them out of their offensive funk to start the second quarter.
Cleveland's bench produced only nine points—all in the first half and all from the hands of the 3-of-13 shooting Smith.
"I think that was a pretty significant factor, obviously, not only in terms of numbers but in the terms of the lift that they got," Cavs coach David Blatt said, per Bay Area News Group's Carl Steward. "Our bench has been good throughout the playoffs, but tonight less so. We missed their contribution."
Golden State's depth kept everyone but Curry under the 40-minute mark, while Cleveland's lack of it forced James, Irving and Thompson to each log more than 43 minutes.
The Warriors bench needs to play a significant role in this series. Whether needing a spark or buying his starters a breather, Kerr has to make Golden State's superior depth matter.
Cleveland: J.R. Smith
Smith is an X-factor every time he steps inside the lines. He can change the outcome of a game with his shooting—for better or worse.
The gunslinger was scorching-hot coming into this series. Over his previous eight contests, he was averaging 15.4 points on 50.0 percent shooting (45.9 percent from deep).
But Cleveland's water-faucet sixth man went ice-cold Thursday. He never found his touch from long range, but he kept searching for it. Ten of his 13 shots came from long range, where he misfired on seven of them.
"I was trying to find a rhythm, it was hard to find and they started staying attached to me and clinging to my jumper," Smith said, according to Marc Berman of the New York Post. "I have to do a better job mixing it up and taking it to the basket, creating plays for others."
The Cavs need Smith to be more than a spot-up shooter. Behind James and Irving, Smith might be Cleveland's best player off the dribble. Asking him to actively seek out offense is always a risky ploy, but desperate measures might be a necessity in these suddenly desperate times.
LeBron James vs. Golden State's Defense
The Warriors threw a number of long-limbed defenders at James in Game 1. Harrison Barnes started with the assignment, Andre Iguodala spent several stints on the King, and Golden State's switch-happy defense moved the likes of Klay Thompson and Draymond Green onto James.
James feasted on most of those matchups. Iguodala was the one puzzle James couldn't solve, per ESPN Stats & Info:
Kerr had this to say of Iguodala's performance, per Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News: "I thought he was fantastic. ... It's funny to say when a guy gets 44 points that the defender did a really good job, but I thought Andre did extremely well. Made LeBron take some tough shots."
The strength of the Dubs' top-ranked defense is its flexibility. Golden State has a slew of similar-sized players who can all handle multiple assignments. Even though Iguodala harassed James, the Warriors won't ask him to take on that task alone.
James must find counters for the Warriors' defensive moves. He has to take advantage of his size when Barnes, Thompson or Iguodala draws his number. James needs to use his quickness when Green switches over. And the Cavs have to support their superstar by moving to open up passing lanes and converting the shots he creates.
The Cavs were facing an uphill battle in the numbers game before Irving went down. It's looking like an impossible task now that Cleveland's talented trio has been reduced a solo act.
The Warriors have too much for the Cavs to handle.
Golden State captured Game 1 despite the Splash Brothers shooting a combined 5-of-15 from distance and Green getting only 12 points out of his 13 shots. There is substantial room for improvement in terms of offensive efficiency, and Golden State's edge in bench production isn't likely to go away.
The Cavs might have the best one-man show in the business, but that's not enough to take down the Dubs.
Prediction: Golden State 104, Cleveland 88