Those of us who picked Cleveland to win the NBA Finals have to answer this question—if the Cavs couldn’t get a road win on a night when LeBron dropped 44 and Cleveland’s inside personnel decisively won the battle against Golden State and when the Warriors were clearly tight for a quarter-plus, then when exactly does Cleveland intend to get the necessary road win?
It’s a fair question and one that I’m pondering this morning after Golden State’s 108-100 overtime win in Game 1. Cleveland had control of this game through much of the first half because they controlled the pace. When they keep it a halfcourt game, it’s much tougher for the Warriors to get loose for open threes in transition and easier to play physical defense on Steph Curry without fouling.
Golden State was able to gradually open up the pace of play, but they still ended up converting only ten trey attempts. For a game that went into overtime, that’s not a high number and should spell danger for the favorites.
I’ve been hyping Cleveland’s Tristan Thompson and Golden State’s Draymond Green all postseason and had them circled as key performers again here. Thompson only scored two points, but he got 15 rebounds. Six of them were in the offensive end, and that doesn’t count several balls he kept alive by tips enabling a teammate to get to keep the possession alive.
Green had his moments and played pretty well, but with 12 points/6 rebounds, I didn’t find him as consequential as Thompson.
The battle between the big guys in the low post, Timofey Mozgov for the Cavs and Andrew Bogut for the Warriors was a decided advantage for Cleveland. Mozgov had a 16/7 line, while Bogut was 4/7. Mozgov seemed to be more active offensively, making himself available on cuts and receiving passes from LeBron at key points. One of those points was Mozgov dropping two clutch free throws to tie the game 98-98 towards the end of regulation.
Through much of the game, Curry seemed reasonably under wraps. The final stat line is good—10/20 from the field for 26 points, but there are two mitigating factors. The first is that I’m saying through “much” of the game, not all and we’re getting to the end point in a little bit. The second is that even as Curry shot reasonably well, he never really got unleashed the way you’re looking for an MVP to do at home.
Kyrie Irving looked, if not 100 percent, at least close to his old self. He had 23 points and two spectacular blocks on Curry, one that kept the score tied at the end of regulation.
Finally, LeBron was just spectacular. While the problems with the three-point shooting that have plagued him throughout the playoffs are still there, the jump shooting from the perimeter was much sharper. His 44 points came on an efficient 18-for-38 shooting. That’s a bit over 47 percent, and I would consider anything on the high side of 45 percent to be a good level of efficiency.
Given all this, how does Cleveland not win the basketball game? We can start with the play of Andre Iguodala. The Warrior guard came off the bench and immediately got his tight team going in the first half, with aggressive drives to the basket. He defended LeBron as well as can be expected and hit 6-of-8 from the field. He got Golden State through its most challenging portion of the game in the first half.
But it’s the end of the game that ultimately defined how this played out and in no short order, here’s what happened…
*Curry stepped up. He hit a big jumper down the stretch of regulation and in overtime, with both teams struggling to score, he brilliantly drew two fouls on the perimeter, drained four free throws and sent Golden State on its way.
*Irving went down in overtime and will have an MRI on his knee. His status is now on doubt.
*And we come again to LeBron. After Irving’s block on Curry at the end of regulation, the King had the ball in his hands for the last possession and made a decision that can only be described as awful. With Iguodala guarding him, James did not go to the hole. He never even got to the perimeter. He just hung out on the three-point line, the way guys in my Wednesday night league do when we’re all gassed, and just launched one.
His three-pointers had not only been missing, but in the second half they were missing badly and this one was no exception. He has to go to the hoop. The likelihood of a good shot is high and that of a foul—either a legitimate one or a gift to the superstar from NBA officials is even higher. There was absolutely no reason to attempt a three.
Even allowing for the quality defense played by Igoudala, there was open space immediately behind the on-ball defender and if LeBron can’t beat him off the dribble, then we have to ask if the King is losing a step.
Cleveland then looked broken in overtime, and didn’t score until James scored an uncontested layup with eight seconds left that no one cared about. It was a very bad ending to a very good game by LeBron, one that summarized the game of his team.
One loss isn’t going to change my pick of Cavs in six. If they win on Sunday night (8 PM ET, ABC), they’ll have done what they needed to do in the Bay Area. Even if they lose, Cleveland is capable of answering with two wins at home and LeBron is also perhaps the only player in the league I would give a chance at for stealing a road Game 7 if it comes to that. But the way things went down on Thursday night are something to think about.