OAKLAND, Calif. — Throughout the regular season the Cleveland Cavaliers struggled on defense, weighed down by poor habits, poor focus and, frankly, a roster loaded with offensive-minded players.
Head coach Tyronn Lue even went so far as to declare heading into the NBA Finals that part of the Cavs’ defense would be their offense. This was a reference to how floor spacing and limiting turnovers on offense was important to keeping the Golden State Warriors out of their deadly transition.
But it was also a mantra — the Cavs believed their array of offensive weaponry was fierce enough to survive their defensive shortcomings. After all, it had carried them this far and at a historic rate.
The Warriors, however, are a fearsome operation, a historically great team that has the ability to find cracks and open them wide. That was indeed what went down in Game 1 on Thursday, when the Warriors exploited the Cavs’ great weakness and danced on it in a 113-91 victory.
It’s correct to say that no series is defined by the first game. Case in point, LeBron James now has lost six consecutive Game 1s of the Finals, yet he has come back to win three of the previous five. That noted, it sure is tempting to question whether the Cavs can solve the extreme problems the Warriors presented to them.
“We made a lot of mistakes. There’s nothing really needs to be said,” James said. “We know we’re capable of playing a lot better. We didn’t play as well as we know we’re capable of.”
Golden State toasted Cleveland’s interior defense until it was carbon. It happened in so many ways, too. Mismatches because of switches. Vicious basket attacks. Lackadaisical rotations. Business decisions, camping down on stars and allowing role players to get free looks. Fear.
Basically, it was a horrifying combination of talent and execution. The Cavs don’t have great size and they don’t have basket defenders — that is known. But this was a result that unmasked so many of their issues, both shallow and deep.
Everyone who played was guilty, whether it was Kevin Love getting caught in switches, James taking bad positions, JR Smith getting blown by the perimeter and so on. Tristan Thompson, the Cavaliers’ interior wrecking ball, was rendered nearly useless. Of course, the Warriors smelled blood and attacked the interior like a pack of sharks, which was a huge factor as well. Thompson played just 22 minutes, with the Warriors’ plan to bracket him going for rebounds forcing him off the floor in a wholly unexpected development.
The Warriors made an incredible 21 baskets in the paint in the first half against the Cavs, and 19 of them came in the restricted area. Six of them were dunks by Kevin Durant, whose return to the NBA Finals ended up being quite pleasant and probably with less resistance than he could have dreamed of.
The most breathtaking stat was that the Warriors missed 15 layups in the first half, some because of rust and some because of weird luck, but seeing them get 39 shots in the paint in such a game of consequence in just 24 minutes was mesmerizing. And none of that speaks to the 11 offensive rebounds the Warriors got.
In last year’s NBA Finals, the Cavs outscored the Warriors by 78 points in the paint. For a while, it felt like Golden State would even that in one night.
Durant had 23 at the half and Stephen Curry had 12. It was a certified miracle the Cavs were within eight points, but that was fool’s gold. Four minutes into the second half, Curry had drilled three 3-pointers and Durant had splashed another and it was essentially over.
“They are a high-powered offensive team,” James said. “They can shoot the ball from the perimeter, they can get into the paint. They do everything exceptionally well, if not great.”
James performed admirably, as he almost always does, with 28 points and 15 rebounds. For the first time in his career, he had a double-double in the first half of a Finals game. But he also had eight turnovers, and they were almost all harmful. The Cavs ended up with 20 turnovers, while the Warriors had just four, the largest differential in Finals history. Even without all the dunks, that was probably unsurvivable.
Kyrie Irving tried to live up to his offensive reputation and kept the game respectable for a while with 24 points, but there wasn’t much else. The Cavs were 3-of-23 shooting when James or Irving didn’t shoot or create the shot.
Love had 15 points and 21 rebounds, which looks better than it was. As has been the case in the past, Love was often foiled by the Warriors’ quickness.
The Cavs likely will make some adjustments and find ways to defend with more emotion and competitiveness as the Finals go on. But in Game 1, the Warriors’ margin for error looked as large as it ever has against their Eastern Conference rivals.
“I know we will play better,” Lue said. “When we’re not making shots and they get off in transition off of rebounds and stuff like that, they’re tough to guard. So I know we can play better. We will play better.”