With that strategy, the Cavs managed to hound Curry and Thompson into 8-for-27 shooting (4-for-13 from three) and just 20 total points. In doing so, however, Cleveland made compromises all over the floor that yielded wide open layups and uncontested jumpers to a variety of Golden State’s role players. Even plays that neither Curry nor Thompson were directly involved in seemed to end in some Cavalier or another losing track of their assignment completely. It was as if Cleveland retained the big-picture concept of how it aimed to defend Golden State’s top two scorers but lost all the precious detail that goes into making such a strategy tenable.
Six of the “other” Warriors finished the game in double-digits, led by Shaun Livingston’s career-high 20 points in 27 minutes. So severe were Cleveland’s defensive failures that LeBron James was switched over to defend Livingston during a particularly prolific stretch. His doing so didn’t stop the bleeding. Golden State pulled away by dropping a cool 30 points in the fourth quarter alone, just six of which came from Curry and Thompson.
When it wasn’t Livingston buoying the Warriors with mid-range jumpers, it was Andre Iguodala hitting unguarded three-pointers, Leandro Barbosa shaking free for peppy runners, or Harrison Barnes slicing through the paint when the defense seemed to least expect it. Cleveland’s work in rotation was the furthest thing from reliable. The Cavs would do a commendable job of talking through switches and playing initial defense only to no-show on their help or botch a secondary effort. By no means were the Warriors their best offensive selves, and yet it took only a few clear-headed passes to find some opening in the Cavs’ coverage. More than two-thirds of Golden State’s field goals on the night were assisted—many by Iguodala and Draymond Green. With even modest dedication, the Warriors were producing some of the easiest shots they’ve had in weeks.
In all, this was the kind of game Golden State could afford to stumble through. Iguodala, who won the 2015 Finals MVP out of this same matchup, could make a reasonable claim as the best player on the floor in Game 1. No defender can stonewall LeBron so effectively in the post; Iguodala’s footwork, length, and wiry strength make him a perfect match for the most physically dominant forward in the league. James blew past Barnes to start the game but couldn’t get anywhere against Iguodala. Green, too, did an outstanding job of getting a body on James when he did break through, and on several occasions managed to thwart LeBron’s second attempts after collecting his own miss.
Gallery: LeBron James vs. Stephen Curry
Keeping James in check gave the Warriors leeway, particularly when doing so didn’t come at the expense of containing any other scorer. Smaller defenders survived Love’s (17 points, 7-for-17 shooting, 13 rebounds, four turnovers) forays into the post against switches throughout the game. Sharp initial defense and shading help nudged Irving (26 points, 7-for-22 shooting) into stalled, isolation basketball.
That won’t do for a road playoff game against the Warriors. One might look at the shots Curry missed or Thompson passed up and assume a sort of defensive blueprint. To the extent there is one, it seems quite faulty; Cleveland only managed to contain Curry and Thompson by selling out many of their corresponding responsibilities, producing a superficial sort of success. There’s no good in checking the reigning MVP if doing so leaves the rest of the defense exposed in the process. Cleveland will have to strike a better balance, and quickly. Every passing game gives Curry, Thompson, and the Warriors coaching staff more time to trigger mistakes in the Cavs’ defense and find easier workarounds. Time is simply on Golden State’s side—as is so much else.