OAKLAND, Calif. — How appropriate that an NBA Finals with all the gritted teeth and bad blood of a heavyweight prize fight would begin with announcer Michael Buffer commanding us to get ready to rumble. And rumble these teams did, at least for two quarters.
By the middle of the third quarter of an eventual 113-91 beatdown, the Cleveland Cavaliers were less Rocky and more the chicken he has to chase during those interminable training montages—running just for the sake of it. If you require a more contemporary reference, the Golden State Warriors were Mickey Gall and the Cavaliers were CM Punk’s face.
On a night when Cleveland surrendered 20 inexcusable turnovers, gave up six first-half dunks to Kevin Durant alone and failed to close lanes from start to finish, we must ask how a team this good can (yet again) seem this outmatched. We’ve been here before. In fact, we’ve been here twice. The Cavs have now gone 0-3 in NBA Finals Game 1s against Golden State. Yes, one of those went to overtime, but they’ve now dropped all three by an average margin of 15 points.
“We know coming into this building it’s going to be a tough game for us,” Ty Lue said after the game. “But just getting a chance to see how they play, the style of play, how fast they play, you can't really simulate that in practices. You got to really get out here and get a chance to do it firsthand. When we experience that, we're able to adjust, we're a lot better.”
The team we saw against the Dubs was lost for most of the game, on both ends of the court. A hesitance to leave Golden State’s bevy of shooters open in transition left miles of open runway for Durant to explode to the basket on multiple occasions. The devil’s bargain of either surrendering the three or giving Durant space to work led to the Warriors demolishing the Cavs 27 to nine in fast-break points.
If you think that’s depressing for Cleveland fans, then just ignore this last statistic: The Cavaliers couldn’t even claim the paint against an alleged jump-shooting team. They were thoroughly outclassed in that department, losing the inside battle 56-30.
“They’re the best I've ever seen,” Lue said. “They’re playing good basketball, but we can play better,” he said defiantly, but with a hint of deflation. LeBron and company don’t have to play a perfect game to beat the Warriors, but they have to get a lot closer than this.
So, what can they do? What can anyone do against a team that only had two players score in double digits and still won by 22 points? It all seems quite grim, but it did last year too. The Cavs lost Game 1 of the 2016 Finals by 15 points. They fell down 3-1 in the series. We wrote them off. They hoisted the Larry O’Brien Trophy anyway.
“It’s no time to be disappointed,” Kyrie Irving said in the postgame press conference. “I’m glad that we got Game 1 out of the way.”
It’s doubtful any sane person will make the foolhardy attempt to write the Cavs’ obituary after Thursday’s opening frame. Surely, LeBron James won’t give up the ball eight times again. “I pride myself on not turning the ball over, and I did it too much,” James said. Tristan Thompson won’t fail to score a single point while bringing down a measly four rebounds. Perhaps, like in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Cavs have one bad game in them, and they got it out of the way early this time—an elaborate rope-a-dope. Or maybe not.
Cleveland’s bench remains in shambles, finishing 6-of-24 Thursday after being outscored 45-10 in last year's Game 1.
Kyle Korver, acquired to give the Cavs a potent long-range weapon from their second and third units, turned absolutely invisible and went 0-of-3. Deron Williams looks like anything but a useful alternative to Irving. Only the ageless Richard Jefferson provided anything resembling a spark, finishing with nine points and four rebounds (and five fouls, but better for Cleveland to forget that if we’re trying to find bright spots).
Once again, it appears the Cavaliers are going to need a superhuman performance from both James and Irving to win this series. To Irving, there are “things that are correctable.” Most crucially, they must play with discipline to limit turnovers and pray that Thompson recovers from one of the worst Finals performances in recent memory. James cannot turn in another minus-22 performance. Thursday, they were, as James told the press corps, “victims of ourselves.”
This Warriors team exploits weaknesses. They taste blood in the water and they will not hesitate to finish you off. If this Game 1 is the first round of a seven-round boxing match, Golden State didn’t just win on points. It practically knocked Cleveland’s head off.
Then again, the Cavs might have them right where they want them. They just need to show they've learned from their mistakes and that their one bad game is officially behind them.