The Cavaliers have shown the formula. Their way to the NBA title is through strong defense and the steady hand of LeBron James, who still rates as the league’s most terrifying shot creator. Cleveland leveraged his ability in the post on possession after possession in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. By the final buzzer, 44 of the team’s 100 points came off James's fingertips—an amazing sum, even for the NBA’s predominant superstar in a league ruled by them.
Somehow, it wasn’t enough.
James’s bludgeoning offense helped keep the Warriors on their heels through regulation. Golden State, in an uneven offensive performance, responded by scoring just enough to force overtime. It was then that Cleveland’s offense turned dry. The shallow, exhausted Cavaliers fizzled out as their deadlocked game churned beyond the planned 48 minutes, scoring only a meaningless basket in the extra frame to the Warriors’ 10 points. Game 1, which swung like a pendulum from one team’s small lead to the other’s, ultimately went to the Warriors in a 108–100 final Thursday night.
A series with eight days of preamble turned out two considerable surprises. Andre Iguodala, while taking the brunt of James’s post work throughout the game and wonderfully contesting every attempt along the way, played one of his best games as a Warrior. It’s been years since Iguodala looked to the basket with any consistent intent to score. Early in his Finals debut, he crossed up James on one of his very first touches and drove into the teeth of the defense for a dunk. This is the same player who scored in single digits for 12 of the Warriors’ first 15 playoff games. Then, against Golden State’s stiffest competition in its highest-stakes game yet, he kept looking for opportunities to contribute in a way that has largely eluded him during his time with the Warriors.
Cleveland benefited from the welcome contributions of Timofey Mozgov, a player whose role in a matchup against the well-spaced, fast-paced Warriors seemed reasonable to question. It took Mozgov time to feel out how he might participate in Cleveland’s offense. After some initial awkwardness, he found the right cadence to roll and cut to the rim without getting in James’s way as he worked from the opposite post. Mozgov corralled passes and finished strong around the rim to beat the Warriors’ help outright. Bolstered by his solid work on defense and a handful of tap-out offensive rebounds, Mozgov staked claim to a place in Cleveland’s finishing lineup and its greater plans for this series.
This is the beauty of the NBA Finals. Players likes James and Stephen Curry (26 points, eight assists) are expected to show. The swing of the series often comes from the play of their less heralded counterparts: Those like Iguodala and Mozgov who give their teams just the right lift at just the right time. Had the Cavaliers hit another shot or two in regulation, Mozgov—who also made two clutch free throws to tie the game with 31 seconds remaining—would be a folk hero in a Game 1 upset. Instead, Iguodala will ride high knowing he turned out to be a perfect complementary ingredient on a night when his team wasn’t quite clicking.
One can only hope that every game the rest of the way in these Finals is decided by so thin a margin. Unfortunately, an overtime collision between Kyrie Irving and Klay Thompson ended Irving’s strong performance in a limp. He was forced to exit the game early, his televised retreat marked by evident and considerable pain in his left leg. Irving was a necessary counterbalance to James and a surprisingly effective defender in his Finals debut. Everything Cleveland does changes without him, if only for the effect that losing a player capable of playing 44 quality minutes must now be replaced by piecemeal role players.
A game like Thursday’s, by the nature of its tied score through four quarters, was decided by the smallest of plays. It’s possible that the series could now pivot on that single one—a fateful possession with unfortunate, incidental contact. We’ve seen how close these teams are and how competitive their bouts might be. Losing a healthy Irving unsettles the entire balance, putting a damper on what had been a fantastic look at a series that may never be.