- It's tempting to give the Finals to the Warriors after Thursday's blowout, but Game 1s can be misleading. Here are three questions before we get to Game 2.
The first game of the NBA Finals almost always comes after an extended lay-off for at least one team, and it's followed by an extra day or two off that affords for all kinds of reactions. This can be dangerous. In 2011, for example, the Heat dominated the second half of Game 1 and walked away with an easy eight-point win over the Mavs. LeBron's first title looked like a formality from there. In 2012, KD had 36 points, Russell Westbrook had 27, and OKC beat the Heat by double digits. LeBron was limited to one fourth quarter field goal—still #notclutch. The following year, the Spurs stole Game 1 in Miami, sealing it with this Tony Parker shot, and taking control of the series. It would be another two weeks until this Ray Allen shot. And obviously, last year. The Warriors went on 29-8 run in the second half to go up 20, and they cruised to an easy win. The series looked over. It was not.
So all of that recent history is the obligatory disclaimer as we look ahead after Game 1. But yeah, of course, this year's Game 1 felt different. That was the sum of all Warriors fears. Durant was even better than expected, and Steph Curry was fantastic in his own right. They dominated, and they never even looked threatened past the first quarter. It was a 20-point win that felt like a 30-point win.
The entire night was a reality check. The Warriors and Cavs have lapped the field in the NBA. Now this could be the series where the Warriors lap the Cavs.
Before Game 2, there are three questions.
Can the Cavs get more comfortable?
Maybe this game was about one team recalibrating. Cleveland's spent the past two months playing against JV teams in the East, and it's not surprising that the first 48 minutes against the Warriors' offense was a rude awakening. "You cannot simulate what they bring to the table," LeBron said afterward. "No matter how many days you have to prepare."
Ty Lue and LeBron can make some adjustments. First and foremost, they can find ways to limit transition opportunities and/or improve their apocalyptic transition defense. KD was getting so many wide open paths to the rim, there were times in Game 1 that looked like an All-Star Game. It'd be hard for Cleveland to play those possessions any worse going forward.
Also, LeBron's defense will be better. It has to be if this series is going to be at all competitive. Still, he was caught sleeping over and over again Thursday night. After days of warnings that KD's presence meant he'd have to play both sides of the ball for 40+ minutes, he only played one. He did have 28 points, 15 rebounds, and eight assists, so it's not like he no-showed altogether. But calling LeBron's night a disappointment just underscores how impossible his job will be against this version of Golden State. And because he's LeBron, I have a feeling he'll come back even stronger next time. LeBron's won a road game in 29 consecutive playoff series, and 37 of the 40 series he's ever played. There's always hope when he's playing.
Can Kevin Love play in this series?
Love went 4-of-13 from the field for 15 points and 21 rebounds. All things considered, he was decent. He was active on the glass and he helped stretch the floor offensively (3-of-6 from three). But it wasn't enough, and it was a continuation of some dynamics we saw last year.
Where Kyrie and LeBron at least have flashes where they scare the crap out of the Warriors, Love never really threatens Golden State. Offensively, he's fairly predictable, and when's not floating on the perimeter, he's easily neutralized by Draymond's help at the rim. Elsewhere, he struggled to punish Durant, or Klay Thompson, or even Shaun Livingston with scoring inside. On the other end, Curry got revenge for last year's stop on a couple switches Thursday night, and Love didn't have a prayer containing Durant. The Warriors are just not a great matchup for Love.
It'll be interesting to see whether it gets better or worse after Game 1. If it gets worse, even in light of how well Love's played for the past two months, there will be questions about his future in Cleveland. On Thursday, a radio host asked me if the Cavs could "blow it up" after this series. I laughed because the question seemed insane given how dominant Cleveland's been. Then I thought about it, and honestly, the debate may not be as far away as it seems, at least with respect to Love. He's the most valuable Cavs asset that could conceivably be moved, and if he's only half as useful against the one team Cleveland's competing with every June, that's a problem. In the darkest timeline of this series for Cleveland and Love, the Cavs get blown off the floor and lose in four. As they pick up the pieces from there, they'd have to at least explore what's available on the trade market.
On the other hand, if Love can force the issue in the post and continue to punish the Warriors on the boards, Cleveland's got a much better shot at competing. His halfcourt offense can help hide their biggest weaknesses—transition D—and he can punish Golden State for going small, and maybe get some Warriors in foul trouble. Maybe he can hold his own on defense, too. I'm skeptical Love can make it work, and but if he can, these games get a lot more interesting.
Can Klay Thompson end this series?
The disclaimers at the top of this article may feel perfunctory after Game 1, but there are still genuine reasons to be wary about writing off the Cavs altogether. The Finals take a long time, and these series often get weird. Over the next week, Cleveland should get better, and Durant and Curry won't be that perfect going forward. But if there's one player who can render all that caution irrelevant, it's Klay.
He was 3-of-16 on Thursday night, including 0-of-5 from three. Some of the shots were wide open, and a few others he forced. It was an ugly game for him, and it didn't really matter. His defense on Kyrie was fantastic, and he also held up well on switches against Love and LeBron. He's plenty valuable even when he's not scoring. But if his shots start falling, that would end it.
Cleveland can only do so much. They can hope to harass Steph, maybe LeBron can bully KD and make him more uncomfortable. But as the Cavs scramble to keep up, Klay is going to get open shots in every game of this series. He's the one who can turn six-point leads into 16-point leads, and he's due to break out soon. At that point, there are no good answers.
That's where I am after one game of Cavs-Warriors. It was as lopsided as expected with KD on board, but I know that the Finals are a little different, and this can still get weird. I'm wary of calling this too early. But I'm also wary of Klay Thompson.