OAKLAND, Calif.—The Warriors pushed the "Make LeBron James beat you as a scorer" strategy to its absolute limits, flirting with a devastating déjà vu before living to tell about it.
An exhilarating Game 1 of the NBA Finals turned on the last play of regulation, and Andre Iguodala found himself in a familiar situation, guarding James as the clock ticked down. About 16 months ago, on this same Oracle Arena court, James faced up Iguodala from the top of the key, milking the clock before maneuvering left to bury a step-back three-pointer with just 0.1 second left to give the Miami Heat a dramatic one-point road win. James celebrated the shot by patting his chest and demonstratively pushing his hands down, as if to physically maintain the building’s sudden silence, while the Warriors looked to each other for answers that weren’t going to materialize.
Now, after Kyrie Irving stunned a rowdy building by blocking Stephen Curry from behind on Golden State's final possession, James worked on Iguodala from that same left angle. Using two quick dribbles going to his left, James looked to tap that same magic, hoping to break a 98–98 tie.
"Last year he beat us on a similar shot," Iguodala said. "You get a feel for guys, what they want to do. ... I kind of knew what play he wanted to get into. Just going left, step-back. I was right there on him, and he was still able to get it off. At that point, you just want percentages to kick in and help you out."
James launched from just inside the arc, with just under four seconds remaining, but the shot caromed long. This dodged bullet—the end result of a sequence that had been fully anticipated—was immediately followed by a second shooter that no one saw coming. Behind Golden State's defense, which had turned to watch James's attempt, was Iman Shumpert, who chased down the carom in the right corner, directly in front of the Warriors bench, and quickly chucked a double-clutch prayer before time expired. Draymond Green did his best to close out, but the shot cleared the defense and was on line.
"I thought Iman's follow was going in," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said afterward. "It looked good the whole way. It was right on line. It was maybe a few inches short. The whole bench thought it was going in."
Instead, it rimmed off, sending the game to overtime. Golden State pulled away in the extra period to claim a 108–100 Game 1 victory on Thursday, as Cleveland managed one meaningless layup and lost Kyrie Irving to a knee injury during what could become a series-defining five minutes.
If James's shot goes down, the underdog Cavaliers not only steal home court advantage, they leave with a healthy Irving and momentum-generating affirmation that the deeper, more talented Warriors can be toppled. Instead, Cleveland departed empty-handed, knowing it had let a superb team performance go to waste and left uncertain how much Irving will be able to provide as the rest of the series unfolds. If James's shot goes down, this series gets really interesting, really quickly. But it didn't, leaving many in the building to wonder whether it was now a matter of when, not if, the favored Warriors will claim their first title in 40 years.
"I got to where I wanted to get, step-back, [I've] made them before," James said. "We had our chances. It's a make or miss league."
James's errant jumper—similar to his shot against the Warriors in February 2014, as well as the game-winner he hit against the Bulls in the conference semifinals—was the Cavaliers' best chance. Shumpert's toss was an unforeseen second chance. There are no third chances with these Warriors, who made that clear in the one-sided overtime period. As Curry savvily drew fouls on back-to-back possessions and cashed in with four free throws, the Cavaliers' offense sputtered. As Harrison Barnes drained a dagger three-pointer from the left corner, Cleveland kept coming up empty. All told, Cleveland went the first 4:51 of overtime without scoring, falling apart under the strain of a short rotation and a suffocating Golden State defense.
"I thought we came out of the regulation flat and without the kind of energy that we had displayed throughout the game," Cavaliers coach David Blatt said. "We sort of dropped off the map a little bit. Yes, it definitely could have been [fatigue]."
The last act wasn't totally surprising. Cleveland jumped out to an early first-quarter lead and did well to push back as Golden State tried to reassert control in Game 1, but a minutes disparity kept mounting. The Cavaliers' bench managed just nine points in 60 minutes, while the Warriors' reserves combined for 34 points in 78 minutes. Kerr was able to unveil a wrinkle in overtime—going small—while Blatt was left holding on for dear life. Three Cavaliers starters logged 44-plus minutes, out of necessity, while Curry was the only Warriors player to see more than 40. For 48 minutes, Cleveland was able to match Golden State's energy, intensity and focus. The final five were a totally different story.
"[James] did attack and play and perform at the highest level on the biggest stage in the game, which is appropriate," Blatt said. "We've got to do more around him."
On the night, James attempted 38 shots, the most he's ever taken in a game, regular season or postseason, during his career. This particular record-setting performance was due in large part to Golden State's defensive treatment. Even though James developed a rhythm early on, Kerr elected to single-cover him for most of the game, often in such a way so as to encourage James to shoot from outside. James proved, this can be a hair-raising approach, as a single jumper, one that's absolutely in James's arsenal, wound up separating victory from defeat.
Still, it's a sound strategy. There's nothing the Warriors, or anyone else, can do when James gets into the basket area, or when he's in such a groove that his soft floaters are going down. James's perimeter shooting struggles this postseason have been well-documented, and they continued in Game 1: he shot just 7 for 22 (31.8%) outside the paint. Iguodala, especially, did well consistently increasing the difficulty level by challenging the looks.
"We stuck to the game plan," said Curry, who led Golden State with 26 points and eight assists. "LeBron is going to dominate the ball and make plays. We have to just make it hard on him every possession. Don't give him any easy buckets, and don't let anybody else get a rhythm. That's what we're going to try to do every game we play against them."
Golden State overcame another slow start, persevered through some first-quarter nerves, survived a mammoth effort from James, and dodged the pair of bullets before finding validation in overtime, where the quality of its bench and a crowd that spent much of the night standing and screaming paid dividends. Oracle's sighs of relief were matched by Cleveland's sighs of despair, as Irving left the building on crutches following the left knee injury and forced the Cavaliers to again ponder the possibility of life without two of their "Big 3" superstars. Irving, who said he was "a little worried" by the injury, is set for an MRI on Friday.
With the Eastern Conference finals as a guide, Blatt's response to an injured or limited Irving will be to turn to James for even more in Sunday's Game 2, and James's response will be to welcome the responsibility. Irving or no Irving, the Warriors will be ready for another round with James, knowing that they refused to waver when pressed at the last possible moment of Game 1, knowing that they buried some painful flashbacks underneath a crystallizing vision of a championship.