The last two possessions of regulation in this enthralling, standing-room-only game were perfect representations of how each team got here — and how narrow the gap between them can be on the right night. With just over 30 seconds left, the Warriors sprang Stephen Curry on a play that had him skitter across picks at each elbow, curl toward the rim, catch the ball, and attack open space. Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes mimed some two-man action on the weak side — a ploy to distract any defender who might rotate toward the basket.
It was an artful little play … and it produced zero points. Kyrie Irving, capping perhaps the best defensive performance of his life, bothered Curry’s layup from behind.
As far as the Cavs’ last possession, they definitely had a chance to steal Game 1 — and that they didn’t feels borderline catastrophic, especially since Irving left the arena on crutches. If Irving is out, or hobbled, this series will be over fast. In the biggest moment of their season, the Cavaliers called, well, nothing. They gave the ball to LeBron James and had him run out the clock before hoisting a contested jumper over Andre Iguodala — a shot that is probably a sub–30 percent proposition, even though James has canned plenty of shots just like it, including a couple in this arena. Everyone in the arena thought Iman Shumpert’s putback heave was going in. Warriors GM Bob Myers was watching from about 10 rows up and directly behind Shumpert, and he told me afterward he was sure the shot was going down.
Heat officials have watched these playoffs and thought back to the 2012 conference semifinals against Indiana, when Chris Bosh got hurt in Game 1. Miami had to reinvent itself, and it did so in part by reverting to prehistoric basketball. It gave the ball to LeBron, cleared an entire side of the floor, and begged him to single-handedly create points. It was the antithesis of what the Heat wanted to be, and of what they would become, but it was all they had at that moment. It was their survival instinct.
Cleveland has taken that to an extreme since losing Kevin Love in the opening round and possibly Irving, again, to injuries. This is an eight-man team, and in Game 1, it was a six-man team. David Blatt could have called a real play to end regulation; the Cavs had been slicing Golden State apart for much of the second half with the James-Irving pick-and-roll. But it’s hard to have everyone stand around LeBron for the bulk of 47 minutes and then snap into some five-man Spurs-esque routine with the game on the line. Golden State officials are quietly confident that LeBron’s one-man show, even when it’s working, will keep his teammates from building any rhythm.
And it’s not as if those teammates are bad players. Irving, J.R. Smith, and Shumpert can do real basketball stuff after a LeBron pick-and-roll bends the defense away from them. But Cleveland went mostly with LeBron isolations and post-ups, and Golden State did well to live in the huge gray area between leaving LeBron alone and double-teaming him. The Warriors flashed help, sent it away, sent it back again, and ultimately made LeBron kill the clock, guessing what would come next. But they almost never sent a hard trap at him.
There was only one place Cleveland would go in the final seconds of regulation. It didn’t work, but that style was damn near enough to get this win. That is the power of LeBron. He brutalized Barnes and Thompson, bowling the latter over when the Warriors would switch that James-Irving pick-and-roll. He took just four of his 38 shots from within the restricted area, but he attempted a bunch from just inches outside of it — borderline layups, really — and drew 10 foul shots.
Draymond Green and Iguodala, a goddamned one-shoed wizard, fared better in keeping James from the deep paint, but LeBron scored efficiently and tossed smart passes through the tiny windows that opened as Golden State help defenders rotated around the floor. It wasn’t pretty, but it was almost enough to beat the league’s prettiest team.
Here are some more thoughts from a trip to Oracle Arena for Game 1 of the NBA Finals:
• Part of me thinks the Warriors should help more aggressively on LeBron — especially when the help comes off Timofey Mozgov standing around the foul line. Mozgov launched a jumper from there late in regulation, and I’m pretty sure everyone with the Warriors was cool with that. But he also cut to the rim for some nifty buckets, and if Iguodala and Green can keep LeBron away from the very best spots, perhaps the Warriors have found the right balance. If they start Barnes on LeBron again, perhaps the equation changes.
• The Oracle crowd was as loud as advertised. A combination of boos and that wonderful singsongy “Warriors” chant drowned out the Cleveland starting-lineup introductions, and the entire arena was standing for most of the fourth quarter and overtime.
• ABC should broadcast the starting-lineup intros. The Finals are a pyrotechnic-infused piece of sporting theater, and those introductions are a chance for fans to fete each star one-by-one. Curry gets the coveted final spot, but he dodges the spotlight by jogging out right behind Thompson — and well before the public address announcer calls his name. I hate that! This is your chance to have a WWE-style entrance all to yourself!
• I loved the Cavaliers’ game plan against Curry pick-and-rolls. They tried to avoid switching, since that leaves a big man tracking Curry at the 3-point arc — a strategy Curry has generally torched. Instead, they had the big guy guarding the screener slide side-to-side with Curry as Irving fought over the pick and tailed Curry from behind.
That left the screener — usually Green — with a free roll to the rim, but the Cavs wanted to coax Curry into passing to Green in space. They wanted the ball out of Curry’s hands, even if it meant Green would have a chance to work 4-on-3. Green hurt the Cavs several times, even as Cleveland was building an early lead behind some strong defense. He drew a foul at the rim, rumbled for a dunk, and hit Barnes in the right corner for a triple here:
LeBron probably provided a bit too much help on that play — one of several instances in which LeBron appeared to be out of sorts freelancing on defense. The Cavs are probably better off forcing Green and Andrew Bogut to make some kind of two-man play in a crowd, rather than sending a third defender crashing off Barnes in the right corner. But those are hard choices to make in real time, and James knew that Shumpert had been instructed to stick with Thompson in the left corner — even though normal help defense requires Shumpert to bump Green here.
The Warriors often slot Thompson into that help position, forcing a terrible choice upon Thompson’s defender.
• Golden State has seen this defense before, and it gradually adapted to the Cleveland version in smart ways. “That’s what they’re gonna do,” Green told me after the game. “I just have to make plays out of it. I’m looking for another dunk.” Irving fought hard to stay close to Curry around those Green picks, but there were times when he fell far behind — leaving Curry dribbling in open space:
There are other ways for Curry to manipulate that space aside from just chucking the ball to Green. In the second quarter, he realized he could use all of that territory to cross back over in front of the screen — a move, sometimes called “snaking,” that often forces the big man to switch onto a ball handler in Curry’s position. Curry pulled that here in the second quarter:
With Tristan Thompson switched onto him, Curry dribbled under the rim, kicked the ball back, and sprinted to the corner for an open 3:
• Creative jersey alert!
• In the second half, the Warriors started having Bogut screen more for Curry, a way of tugging the slower Mozgov into the Curry pick-and-roll:
Also note: The Dubs have no player on the left side of the floor — the spot from which a Cleveland defender would normally help. Golden State ran a bunch of pick-and-rolls with the floor set up this way in the second half; it’s a good way to give Green and Bogut a chance to catch the ball with some room and a clear view of the floor.
Curry froze Mozgov on this play with a hesitation dribble; Mozgov lurched back toward Bogut, anticipating a pass, and Curry turbo-boosted to the rim for a layup. The Warriors are harder to guard when Curry mixes in possessions where he keeps his dribble alive longer.1
Another way to do that: set re-screens for Curry, where he bounces one way around a pick, stops, and then goes back the other way around a pick from the same guy.
• Watch for the Warriors trying to burn Shumpert with backdoor cuts in these next few games.
• Irving played a phenomenal game, considering he’s far below 100 percent. The Cavs have no spacing when Mozgov and Tristan Thompson share the floor, but Irving manufactured points by making sensational, high-degree-of-difficulty plays out of the pick-and-roll. Klay Thompson rode his hip and help defenders took away the rim, but Irving made enough step-backs, floaters, and thread-the-needle passes to keep the Cavs offense afloat.
The job got harder when LeBron hit the bench, but Irving kept making plays. There is no replacement for talent.
• One way to get Irving a bit more of a head of steam are screen-the-screener plays, in which the big guy about to set a high screen for Irving first runs off a pick himself:
With Klay Thompson slithering over picks, Irving just won’t have room behind him to stop and launch jumpers in that open midrange space Golden State surrenders. He has to drive for floaters and layups, and those drives are easier when he has a longer runway to pick up speed.
• What a ballsy move by Kerr to break out the super-small lineup with Green at center in the final 30 seconds of regulation and most of overtime — after not having played it a single second before then in Game 1. It was a huge risk, since Barnes had to guard Mozgov against the Cavs’ double-big unit, but Golden State scrapped hard on the boards and overwhelmed the Cavs with speed. Kerr has to go to that lineup earlier in Game 2, though the strong play of Marreese Speights in the first half partly explains why we didn’t see it until late in Game 1. Speights and Leandro Barbosa were huge in helping the Warriors trim an early deficit with Curry sitting.
• Steve Nash was there to support Barbosa and all the other Mike D’Antoni–era Phoenix people involved in this series: Shawn Marion, Raja Bell (Cleveland’s director of player administration), Cavs GM David Griffin, Kerr, and several other Golden State officials. I caught up briefly with Nash, and he seemed very content with his choice to retire.
• T-shirts attached to mini-parachutes dropped from the ceiling: a winner every time.
• Also a winner: the Warriors’ Kiss Cam, sponsored by Mezzetta, a company that makes, among other things, peppers and pepper-related products. The genius behind the Kiss Cam ranks every smooch with a pepper spiciness scale: mild, medium, and hot. Some couples really go for that “hot” rating. One older fellow seemed legitimately pissed off that he and his significant other only drew the “medium.”
• Another smart Golden State alternative to just having Curry pass to Green on the pick-and-roll is having Green roll into a pin-down screen for Thompson:
Think about it: If Green’s man is dealing with Curry way out on the floor, Green setting a monster flying pick for Thompson is essentially a 2-on-1 — provided Curry can get the ball there. Green slipped free for a dunk on this play.
• Warriors owner Joe Lacob told me after the win that Golden State is breaking all-time NBA records for single-game gate receipts. “They are record-setting,” Lacob says of the totals. There are whispers that Golden State could approach $10 million in gate for an upcoming Finals game.
• Lacob also said that Rihanna, sitting near him at courtside, was cheering loudly for LeBron.
• I miss the “Finals” logo on the court — the one with that fancy script. There were apparently concerns about players slipping on the logo, and aesthetic issues with too many logos cluttering up the court. Fine. I still miss it.
• Most of us thought the Cavs would shift Irving onto Barnes in the event that Irving proved incapable of sticking with Curry, but Golden State’s coaches guessed Thompson would be Irving’s chosen hiding spot among the Dubs’ starters. They were right, and the Warriors went hard at the Klay-Kyrie matchup as soon as the Cavs shifted Shumpert onto Curry early in the second half. Expect more of that. Golden State is itching for Thompson to have a breakout game.
• I’m not sure what drove Blatt to shift Irving away from Curry so fast. Irving smashed into a Bogut screen on the very first play of the second half, and perhaps that was enough to persuade Blatt. It’s also possible Irving began feeling worse as the game went on. His defense appeared to slip in the last five minutes or so of playing time before his knee injury.
• I was surprised Kerr opened with Curry on Shumpert — especially after a season in which Curry defending opposing point guards was a source of great team pride — but it makes sense on a lot of levels. It raises the spectre of those demoralizing cross-match 3s in transition, when Irving has to slough off Klay Thompson and find Curry amid chaos. It puts the onus on Shumpert to be a more active part of the offense, a role that doesn’t come as naturally to him as it does to Smith — his replacement off the bench. More time for Smith could hurt Cleveland’s defense. Curry guarded Smith plenty, and the Cavs experimented late with a James/Smith pick-and-roll that put Curry in the awkward position of having to play help defense on James — and even switch onto him once. Look for that again in Game 2.
• James was so brilliant making reads out of his pick-and-rolls with Irving. When the Warriors switched, he destroyed Thompson on post-ups. The Warriors finally adjusted, having Iguodala leap away from James, wall off Irving’s drive, and then recover to LeBron. The very first time Golden State went that route, LeBron recognized it, cut hard to the basket ahead of Iguodala, caught a pass from Irving, drew the next help defender, and slipped a pass to Mozgov — who dunked.
• The Cavs were plus-5 in the 27 minutes Mozgov and Tristan Thompson played together, per NBA.com. They had averaged 15 minutes together in the playoffs before Game 1. It’s something to watch, especially if James Jones and Matthew Dellavedova continue to struggle.
• A few Golden State staffers have grown playoff beards, but no one can touch Sammy Gelfand, the team’s coordinator for basketball analytics. The Warriors made him take a before-and-after photo recently:
Gelfand started growing his hair out earlier in the season, and he was planning to cut it right before Thompson scored 37 points in a quarter against the Kings in January. Thompson told Gelfand he was no longer allowed to cut his hair until after the season, Gelfand says.
• In Adam Silver’s pregame address, he said the league may move away from giving division winners any seeding advantage by as soon as next season. Halle-freaking-lujah. The plan is to seed the eight teams in each conference by record, with the usual tiebreakers (head-to-head record, etc.) factored in. It’s about time.
• On to Game 2 …