NBA Finals: Game 1 Recap, Plus What to Expect the Rest of the Series

NBA Finals: Game 1 Recap, Plus What to Expect in the Rest of the Series

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This is the Finals we’ve been waiting for—the one we expected and the one we wanted; the Cleveland Cavaliers, hungry to win a title for a city starving for a championship, and the Golden State Warriors, attempting to establish a dynasty and cap of the greatest season in NBA history, doing basketball battle in a rematch of last year’s Finals.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite the Game 1 we expected and hoped for; the Warriors won in a blowout. But that’s fine; it’s a long series, and if there’s one thing we’ve learned from watching the Western Conference Finals, it’s that one or two blowouts don’t necessarily decide an entire series. There’s still a lot of time left, and you can bet the Cavs will punch back in Game 2. Here are some thoughts and questions, in no particular order, that impacted Game 1 and will shape the rest of the series:

The Cavs are healthy this time around.

The fact that the Finals even went six games last season was due almost exclusively to a superhuman performance from LeBron James, who averaged a 35.8/13.3/8.8 for the series. But this year, the Cavs might not need him to put up those historic numbers again. Kyrie Irving only played in the first game of the series last year, and Kevin Love missed the Finals entirely; LeBron had to play like that for the Cavs to even have a chance. Cleveland is a totally different team than they were last year, and the Cavs are clicking at the right time.

The Cavs are 12-3 in the playoffs so far, and LeBron, Love, and Irving are playing their best basketball of the season. Cleveland’s role players have been solid all playoffs (although Channing Frye and J.R. Smith mysteriously disappeared in Game 1), and their lights-out three-point shooting has just obliterated teams, as have the incredible shot-making abilities of James and Irving.

Again, just because Game 1 was a blowout doesn’t mean the series is decided. The Cavs are too good a team to just lie down and get punished for the whole series. I expect Cleveland to play a much more efficient game.

How much will LeBron be asked to do?

While Cleveland isn’t relying on LeBron as heavily, its offense still starts and stops with him. He won’t need to score 35 every single game, but there will be a couple games where he will need to take over down the stretch. James scored 23 points on 9-of-23 shooting in Game 1, and while he did put up 12 rebounds and nine assists, it will take more from him for the Cavs to win. They may not need him to be a historic stat-stuffer like he was last year, but LeBron will be called upon to do almost everything for Cleveland to win.

The obvious place to start would be with LeBron’s efficiency; James wasn’t all that inefficient, but 23 points on 21 shots isn’t going to cut it against the Golden State Warriors. Now, James missed a few shots around the rim that he normally converts, and only attempted four three throws all game. Both of those things will almost certainly change in Game 2, even with Andre Iguodala continuing to smother him (we’ll get to more on that).

Additionally, James will probably have to take on a heavier defensive load as the series progresses. A lot of people forget how good a defender LeBron can be when he needs to. He’s one of the most freakish athletes and specimens the league has ever seen, which gives him the ability to guard nearly every position on the floor. By position, he matches up with Harrison Barnes or Andre Iguodala, but there will be times when he’ll need to cover Klay Thompson on the perimeter for a few possessions or check Draymond Green in crunch time, depending on the Cavs’ personnel. That leads me to one final point on LeBron:

He didn’t need it for heavy minutes in Game 1, but Steve Kerr will play the Death Lineup as much as he needs this series. It is going to happen. I’m interested to see how Tyronn Lue counters it. Cleveland got demolished playing small lineups in Game 1, but maybe the problem wasn’t that they were too small; maybe it was because they weren’t small enough. At 6’8’’, James has the size, quickness, and playmaking ability to match up with the 6’7’’ Draymond Green when the Warriors do go small, and I’m intrigued by the possibility of seeing James play the five against Golden State’s small lineup. James is, in a sense, a rich man’s version of Green—bigger, quicker, a better passer and better ball handler—and the Cavs have the depth to put four competent guards on the floor with him. Of course, this strategy would require Lue to bench Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson, and Channing Frye, and the Cavs haven’t played a lineup with LeBron at the five all season, so Lue might be (understandably) reluctant to play it, but it might be Cleveland’s best answer to the most dangerous five-man unit in the league.

The Splash Brothers will play better.

Steph Curry and Klay Thompson were surprisingly quiet in Game 1—Curry tallied just eleven points while Thompson only managed nine. But the Splash Brothers are no strangers to struggles in the NBA Finals. Last year, Thompson averaged only 16 points, and Curry averaged a relatively inconsistent 26. This time, the Warriors are used to the pressure and the circus that comes with playing in the Finals, and more importantly, both Curry and Thompson are much better players.

Cleveland did, for the most part, a good job of taking away Curry and Thompson’s looks, but it came at the cost of giving up wide-open layups and threes for other players. Cleveland will have to give more attention to the Warriors’ role players off the ball, and when they do, Curry and Thompson should get free for more open looks. It seems unfair for the Cavs to have to pick their poison like that, but such is the challenge of trying to stop an offense as potent at Golden State’s.

Andre Iguodala might be the most important player Golden State has.

Andre Iguodala is a flat-out joy to watch. At 6’6’’, he consistently takes on bigger forwards (Kevin Durant and LeBron James in back-to-back series, for example) and stifles them about as well as anyone in the league. He has some of the best hands in the league, and his ability to use them to strip the ball from players is, in Curry’s words, “uncanny.”

In Game 1, Iguodala reminded the world why he’s the reigning Finals MVP. In addition to his 12 points on five-of-nine shooting, Iggy added seven rebounds, six assists, and nearly perfect defense on James. A major question coming into the series was whether Iguodala would start right off the bat, or if Steve Kerr would stay with both Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut. Iguodala still played more minutes than both of those guys, and you get the sense that Kerr won’t hesitate to start the Death Lineup or make an Iguodala-for-Barnes swap, like he did in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals, if he needs to (see two sections above this one).

To me, the question is not if, but when that will happen. Last year, Kerr famously placed Iguodala in the starting lineup in Game 4, after the Cavs had won two games in a row, and the Warriors dominated the rest of the series. My guess is that he won’t start Iguodala until the Warriors lose a game or two; Golden State’s bench won them Game 1, and Iguodala was a huge part of that; changing up the lineup could alter the flow and chemistry of that second unit. Additionally, Barnes and Bogut each played well in Game 1—the two combined for 23 points on 11-of-17 from the field; even if both of their minutes are reduced, keeping them in the starting lineup could keep their confidence, and their play, at a high level.

On the other hand, inserting Iguodala into the lineup next game could have some major benefits, as well, none more important than on the defensive side of the ball. LeBron torched Barnes in the first quarter, but cooled down significantly once Iguodala got settled onto him. Those first few minutes at the start of the game are enough to swing a close game, and Iguodala helps swing it in the Warriors’ favor.

Either way, Iguodala is going to play a massive role in deciding this series, and if Thursday night was any indication, he could be on his way to a second consecutive Finals MVP.

Can the Warriors’ role players continue what they did in Game 1?

The Warriors’ bench was fantastic in the first game of this series. Golden State’s depth has been one of its strengths all season, and on a night when Curry and Thompson weren’t on their games the role players stepped up. The Curry-Thompson backcourt might not have dazzled the way it normally does, but the Shaun Livingston-Leandro Barbosa duo off the bench was marvelous. Livingston had a team-high 20 points on eight-of-ten shooting, and Barbosa was a perfect five-for-five for eleven points. But the contributions didn’t just come from the bench; Barnes and Bogut each had outstanding games, especially in the first half. (Again: this is one of the big reasons why I don’t think Kerr will start Iguodala just yet.)

You could look at the Warriors’ second unit’s Game 1 production and say that once Curry and Thompson get rolling the series will be over; but there’s reason for Cleveland to remain confident that Game 2 won’t turn out the same way. As fun as it was to see guys like Livingston and Barbosa have such a huge impact on a game, that production isn’t sustainable for an entire series. Now, some of the open looks Golden State’s role players got were results of the huge amount of attention being paid to Curry and Thompson, but the Warriors can’t count on the same hot shooting for the rest of the series.

Series Prediction: Warriors in 6. The Cavs are a great team, but I just don’t think they can beat a team that is currently 86-15 four times in six games. (By the way, I made this prediction before Game 1.) The Warriors look like a team that has already played their toughest series of the playoffs, while Cleveland looks like they’ve coasted through the playoffs without being seriously challenged. The Cavs will play better in Game 2, but so will Curry and Thompson. Ultimately, you can break down the series all you want, but the most important point is this: LeBron James is indisputably one of the best five basketball players of all time; for his Cavaliers to win, he’ll have to play like it.

 

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and ESPN.

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