After wasting 51-point effort from James thanks to a mental gaffe and some shaky officiating, Cavs try to bounce back
The Warriors were so good and the Cavaliers so shaky outside of LeBron James that Cleveland entered these NBA Finals as the biggest underdog since the 2001 76ers. But the Cavs played about as well as they’re capable of in Game 1, riding a playoff career-high 51 points, eight rebounds and eight assists from James. The only problem? They still left Oracle Arena down 1-0, meaning they’ll need to beat the defending champs four times in six games.
Where to even begin? The controversial blocking foul called on LeBron James as Kevin Durant drove to the basket with 36.4 seconds left is a good place to start. Initially ruled a charge by Ken Mauer, the officials initiated a review to determine if James was outside of the restricted area, which it was pretty clear at full speed he was. Upon looking into that, the three-man crew decided to change the call from a charge to a block, giving Durant two free throws that would tie the score at 104.
James and Curry exchanged driving layups – Curry’s turned into a three-point play thanks to a foul on Kevin Love – and the Cavs had a chance to take the lead with 4.7 seconds left after George Hill wound up at the free throw line. Hill made the first to tie things up but missed the second, and though J.R. Smith grabbed an offensive rebound, he dribbled away from the basket, seemingly thinking the Cavaliers had the lead. The Warriors caught fire in OT, going 3 for 3 from 3-point range and beating Cleveland at home in Game 1 for a fourth straight Finals.
How can the Cavs bounce back? Thanks to some whistles that didn’t go their way and their own lack of execution late in the 4th and in OT, James’ first 50-point playoff game was wasted. Cleveland had an excellent game plan attacking Golden State with Andre Iguodala out, often getting James the ball in the high post and letting him go to work. It sought out switches above the arc and let LeBron run downhill and attack with either Curry or Kevon Looney in front of him.
What the Cavaliers didn’t do is hit 3s. They were just 3 for 17 from beyond the arc on passes from James and 3 for 25 overall on catch-and-shoot 3s. Love, who put up 21 points and 13 boards after being cleared from a concussion suffered in Game 6 against Boston, especially struggled, going 1 for 8 from downtown – all looks where the nearest defender was at least four feet away.
19. That’s the number of offensive rebounds the Cavs had in Game 1, and while impressive that they managed to grab 35.8 percent of their own misses, crashing the offensive glass hasn’t helped against the Warriors. For one, it means shots aren’t falling initially. When the Cavs have secured fewer than 10 offensive boards in the 19 Finals games they’ve played against Golden State in the last four seasons, they’re 4-1. They’re 3-11 in the other 14.
For the Warriors, it’s plus-10. That’s what their lineup of Curry, Durant, Green, Klay Thompson and Shaun Livingston was in just 4:58 together – the first 4:58 of overtime. Livingston is a perfect complement to Golden State’s four stars in that he’s a switchable defender who’s perfect at midrange shots and floaters while being an excellent distributor. Steve Kerr started with Kevon Looney as the fifth wheel, went to JaVale McGee to provide a spark to start the third quarter, then stuck with Livingston in OT. Look for that lineup to play a lot more – and continue causing problems – for the Cavs in Game 2.
“This one hurt. This one hurt bad.” Those are the words of Hill a day after he missed the potential game-winning free throw, and it’s probably good for the Cavs that they’ll have two days to clear their heads after a loss that ranks among the most devastating in recent NBA playoff memory.
You have to finish the Warriors when you have the chance, which the Rockets found out the hard way in the Western Conference finals. The recipe is there for Cleveland to make this a competitive series, and it’s hard to imagine the supporting cast shooting worse from 3-point range. But it’s also hard to imagine James playing better than he did, and it’s difficult to fathom Durant – who had perhaps the quietest 26-point Finals game you’ll ever see – being held down again.