If the Cleveland Cavaliers had been waiting all season for a Finals rematch against the Golden State Warriors, then surely Game 1 didn’t quite go as planned. It was the Warriors who won the opening game of the Finals on Thursday, beating the Cavaliers 104-89.
The Warriors led most of the game, although Cleveland bounced ahead in a couple spots during the third quarter, and never truly felt in danger of losing the game. By the middle of the fourth quarter, a bench-led unit helped the Warriors go up by 20 points, and while the Cavaliers cut back into that lead, the game was never really close after that.
That’s the feeling this game had from the opening tip, with the Warriors threatening to pull away early after leading the first quarter 28-24. When Golden State went up 43-29 early after consecutive Klay Thompson buckets early in the second quarter, the game seemed ripe to turn into a blowout. Cleveland and LeBron James wouldn’t go that easily, though.
James was the most aggressive player in the opening minutes of the game, and his play helped make sure the Cavaliers hung around in the first half. Golden State led by nine points at halftime, but the Cavaliers made sure the lead remained manageable. In the third, Cleveland surged ahead several times, only to see the Warriors bounce right back and answer with a shot.
Stephen Curry wasn’t nearly at his best, nor was Klay Thompson, but both hit huge dagger triples on back-to-back possessions in the final three minutes of the game. That was enough to down Cleveland, with Tyronn Lue opting to empty the bench after that. Game 2 will be played on Sunday, giving the teams a two-day break and two days for the Cavaliers to stew about their one-game deficit. But the question of whether they can find actual solutions to help solve the problems which appeared in Game 1 looms large.
1. The Warriors’ depth was supreme
In the fourth quarter, Shaun Livingston and Leandro Barbosa were the biggest difference makers in extending the lead late in the game. In the first half, Ian Clark gave the Warriors minutes. Anderson Varejao was plugged in and surprisingly, all things considered, held his own against the team for which he had played his entire career. In total, 11 players took the floor for Golden State (until the benches emptied) during the opening game of the NBA Finals, an abnormally high number in contrast with Cleveland’s nine.
The Warriors are the Warriors because of the three players on top and a few other key contributors, but they won 73 games this season thanks to their depth. Having a full bench you can trust when they’re needed is huge during the grind of the regular season, but Steve Kerr and the Warriors just proved it can be useful during the most important series of the entire year. That’s an enormous advantage for Golden State.
2. Cleveland’s three-point shooting didn’t show up
The Cavaliers beat teams these playoffs — particularly the Hawks — on the strength of their incredible shooting from behind the arc. A lot of the shooting came from their bench unit, but unlike Golden State, their shooters coming into the game just didn’t show up like expected on Thursday. Channing Frye was a non-factor, playing only seven minutes with just one shot attempt. J.R. Smith played 36 minutes but — despite coming into the series with more made threes than Curry these playoffs — didn’t hit a single shot until late in the fourth quarter. After the Thunder couldn’t put Golden State away in large part because their poor shooters didn’t hit open shots, many thought Cleveland would have the players needed around the perimeter to make it work. Instead, the Warriors swarmed the arc and never gave them a chance to make an impact.
3. Many of the stars should be better
Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson were both very average, shooting just 8-of-27 for the evening while Curry had nearly as many turnovers (5) as he did assists (6). Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving weren’t at their best either, scoring 43 points combined but doing it on only 14-of-39 shooting (36 percent). Curry has had a strange playoffs after his first round injury, sometimes looking like he was still bothered by it and other times looking like the two-time MVP he is. But in general, all four of the stars should be better throughout the rest of the series.