OAKLAND, Calif. — Ever since Stephen Curry slipped on that wet spot in Houston more than a month ago, Golden State has been on a perpetual wobble, vacillating between brilliant streaks and head-scratching stretches, with just enough of the former to vault into a Finals rematch against Cleveland. In the opening game, the Warriors found the steadiness that they have been lacking, the control that can carry a team through individual struggles, and a level of stability that, frankly, made the defending champions look like presumptive champions.
The Warriors defeated the Cavaliers 104–89 at Oracle Arena on Thursday, a double-digit win that easily could have been much worse. Yes, it was only one victory and all mandatory disclaimers about the dangers of overreacting certainly apply, but there were plenty of reasons for LeBron James and company to feel uneasy afterward.
The biggest: Golden State’s All-Star backcourt turned in its weakest combined performance of the playoffs, and yet the rest of Steve Kerr’s roster plowed forward as if nothing was the matter. The one-sidedness of the supporting cast battle was mesmerizing: The Warriors’ bench outscored their Cavaliers counterparts by a 45–10 margin, with Shaun Livingston scoring a season-high 20 points to double up Cleveland’s reserves all by himself. Livingston hit eight of his 10 shots, peppering the Cavaliers with his signature mid-range jumpers.
“Obviously the game ball goes to Shaun Livingston,” said James, who finished just shy of a triple double with 23 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists. “Came in, gave them a huge spark.”
Livingston’s spark was noteworthy because he generally showed restraint and found his points within the game’s normal rhythm. The Warriors moved the ball well, registering 29 assists on 43 shots, and they did so with real comfort. Livingston wasn’t alone in getting loose in Game 1, as Harrison Barnes (13 points) and Leandro Barbosa (11 points) registered 2016 playoff-highs, and the general sense was that Golden State has enough favorable matchups and such a significant depth advantage that it will be able to pull hero nights from any number of sources as this series unfolds.
On numerous occasions, possessions that began with multiple passes ended with uncontested layups or wide-open jumpers, two commodities that were especially hard to come by against the Thunder. In turn, the Warriors’ confidence seemed to rise with each exploited breakdown. By the end of the night, Golden State looked like a team that knew it was better, top to bottom, than its opponent.
For the Cavaliers, there was little solace to be found in the struggles of Stephen Curry (11 points on 4-of-15 shooting) and Klay Thompson (nine points on 4-of-12 shooting). While the duo combined for just 20 points, they left nearly that number on the table with missed open jumpers. Forced to search for crevices against an engulfing Thunder defense in the West finals, the Warriors’ guards had a much easier go against the Cavaliers, bathing in space and easily creating favorable mismatches.
Curry’s struggles, in particular, looked correctable. Early on, he seemed overly eager to score against James in one-on-one situations. He also sought out highlight plays, both with the dribble and the pass, too aggressively. Nevertheless, his freedom of movement and his percentage of clean looks were both higher than in the West finals, and Cleveland doesn’t appear to have a great individual defensive matchup for him.
“I missed some shots and didn’t get a rhythm,” Curry said dismissively. “We’ll be able to find some adjustments for Game 2. Not worried about that.”
Once Curry and Thompson finally hit back-to-back three-pointers in the fourth quarter to slam the door, an ominous question swept through the building: What will Cleveland do if both get hot on the same night?
The Cavaliers’ issues weren’t limited to the defensive side of the court. On offense, James’s physicality was a clear positive, but Golden State did well to hold him in check by taking away easy driving lanes to the rim and shading an extra help defender when James was in the post or threatening to attack. James shot 6-of-14 in the basket area and attempted just four three throws, more than manageable numbers for Golden State. Meanwhile, his teammates weren’t able to take advantage of the attention he garnered, as the Cavaliers hit just 7-of-21 (33% from deep) and squandered numerous possessions with turnovers and forced shot attempts.
“We’ve got to do a better job of taking care of the ball, especially against a good offensive team like this,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said after Cleveland committed 17 turnovers that led to 25 points for Golden State. “We can’t gift them points and give them points like that. We’ll be better next game.”
After three rounds of often-beautiful offense, Cleveland devolved into inefficient, predictable choppiness. A big issue for Lue: Offensive no-shows from J.R. Smith (three points on 1-of-3 shooting in 36 minutes) and most of his bench, including Channing Frye and Matthew Dellavedova, made it easier for the Warriors to pay extra attention to James and Kyrie Irving without fear of reprisal.
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Credit Kerr for making a key lineup adjustment to slow down one of Cleveland’s top-performing groups, a unit that features James and four substitutes. Kerr tweaked his substitution pattern early in the second quarter to ensure that Draymond Green was in the game to match up with James, and the move helped Golden State carry a nine-point lead into halftime. The ease with which Golden State stymied Cleveland’s go-to second-unit lineup spells trouble going forward, as Lue’s bench isn’t overflowing with alternate options.
Cleveland enters Game 2 with a clear bounce-back vision: cut down on turnovers, move the ball better, knock down open shots, limit Golden State’s easiest opportunities and continue to hold Curry and Thompson in check. That’s an imposing checklist against any team, much less a 73-win Warriors squad that has now beaten the Cavaliers in six straight games.
Scarier even than the ever-present threat of Curry and Thompson going off, or the offensive execution problems for Cleveland, or the prospect of rotation adjustments, is the building sense that Golden State is done messing around. During an arduous West finals showdown, the Warriors made life more difficult by dropping Game 1 and then getting caught up in unnecessary distractions.
Early in the West finals, Kerr regularly appeared exasperated with his team’s sloppy play, to little effect. In Game 1 on Thursday, he became so enraged over a second-half stretch of miscues that he shattered a whiteboard. His team responded immediately, and he was able to laugh about it afterward.
“Destruction tends to ease some of the anger,” Kerr said. “I try to take it out on a clipboard instead of a player.”
After its opening loss to Oklahoma City, Golden State then suffered through two atrocious losses on the road, in large part because Green was embroiled in controversy following his flagrant below-the-belt kick to Steven Adams. Immediately after Green kicked Adams in Game 3, the Thunder went on a game-changing run, building momentum that carried over into Game 4.
Golden State responded better when things got tense on Thursday. After Andre Iguodala was on the receiving end of a below-the-belt shot from Cavaliers guard Matthew Dellavedova, the exchange led to finger-pointing and jawing between the two players. But this time it was the Warriors who ripped off an 11–0 run following the drama. With the win comfortably in hand, Iguodala didn’t need to think twice about taking a subliminal dig at Dellavedova.
“I respect a lot of guys’ hustles in this league,” he said. “You’ve got guys who got to get a little dirty, got to get a little physical to make a life and feed their families. I can only respect that. For me, it’s just keeping my composure.”
While Golden State seemed to turn a corner mentally by digging out of its 3–1 hole against Oklahoma City, Curry also pointed to the Warriors’ 2–1 deficit to the Cavaliers in the 2015 Finals as another source of motivation and focus early in this series.
“We’ve definitely got an edge and picked up a lot of momentum winning three straight just to get here,” he said. “That taught us a great lesson of how important it is to start a series off on a good foot and win Game 1, especially when you’re at home. And we obviously learned a lesson last year. … I think that [focus and energy] was missing last year and obviously at the beginning of the Thunder series, so we’re better because of those two situations.”
A composed, motivated and focused Warriors team is a truly fearsome power, one that seems too much for these Cavaliers, who are still in the process of reshaping themselves under Lue, to handle. If the Cavaliers are going to spring an upset in this series, they will need assistance: The Warriors will need to beat themselves, something that never came close to happening in Game 1.