- There are plenty of reasons for Cleveland to be optimistic for Game 2 despite the debacle that occurred at the end of Game 1.
OAKLAND, Calif. — Two days had passed, and George Hill was still wondering whether anyone had a “time chamber” so that he could go back and erase the painful memories from Cleveland’s Game 1 loss to Golden State.
The Cavaliers’ point guard, who missed a potential game-winning free throw in the closing seconds of regulation, was hardly alone in his regrets. LeBron James had been on the wrong end of a crucial block/charge review that was undertaken via questionable circumstances. J.R. Smith had committed an all-time blunder by dribbling out the clock during a tied game. As a team, Cleveland had come undone in overtime, conceding a 9-0 run and losing Tristan Thompson to an ejection. Tie the missed opportunities, mistakes and misfortune together, and the Cavaliers were left to reckon with the knowledge that a legendary 51-point performance from James had been squandered in a 124-114 defeat.
“It's one of the toughest losses I've had in my career,” James said Saturday. “Because of everything that went on with the game and the way we played. It was a tough 24 hours for our whole ballclub.”
There’s no question that the onus is on Cleveland to prove that it can steady itself on the court in the wake of such a demoralizing defeat. The Cavaliers entered the Finals as huge underdogs, and their collective unraveling following the one-two punch of James’s overturned call and Smith’s mistake was worrisome to any observer hoping for a competitive series.
Even so, there are genuine silver linings for the Cavaliers when it comes to disciplinary matters, health updates and strategic developments heading into Sunday’s Game 2 in Oakland.
As bad as Game 1 felt for the Cavaliers, the aftermath absolutely could have made it worse. Thompson was hit with a Flagrant Foul 2 for fouling Shaun Livingston in the closing seconds of overtime, and he shoved the ball in Draymond Green’s face before exiting the court. Neither action earned Cleveland’s starting center a Game 2 suspension; instead, the NBA league office downgraded his Flagrant 2 to a Flagrant 1 and slapped his wrist with a $25,000 fine.
All-Star forward Kevin Love also escaped possible punishment for drifting onto the court and away from the Cavaliers’ bench during the overtime fracas. After missing Game 7 of the East finals due to a concussion, Love responded with 21 points and 13 rebounds in Game 1 of the Finals. Given Cleveland’s limited bench production, losing Thompson or Love for a game would have stretched coach Tyronn Lue’s rotation in uncomfortable ways and forced the Cavaliers into less familiar small-ball lineups.
Most importantly of all, James reported progress on an eye injury he sustained when Green poked him on a drive to the hoop. James’s left eye was red during and after Game 1, but he had no issues completing shooting drills in front of the media at Saturday practice.
“I'm taking my medication that I've been given by the doctors,” James said. “My eyedrops and my antibiotics to help me with the recovery as fast as possible. But it's an eye. It's going to recover as fast as it can on its own. There is nothing you can do. I can't ice it or anything like that. It's been better. But it's better today than it was in Game 1. It doesn't look better, but it feels a lot better.”
Cleveland also stands to benefit from a pair of Golden State health concerns. Andre Iguodala, who has missed five straight playoff games with a bone bruise in his knee, remains “doubtful” for Game 2, according to Warriors coach Steve Kerr. Meanwhile, All-Star guard Klay Thompson limped around on Saturday on a sprained ankle he suffered when Smith rolled onto him while diving for the ball early in Game 1. Although Thompson initially went to the locker room for treatment, he returned to finish with 24 points in 45 minutes. He told reporters Saturday that he was “planning on playing” in Game 2 despite the injury.
“My ankle is just sore,” Thompson said, adding that he wasn’t sure if he would have been able to play if Game 2 had been on Saturday. “It's stiff at the moment, but I'm going to do what I can in these next 24 hours or so to loosen it up as much as possible. Get some stability back. I'm optimistic for [Sunday].”
Prior to the chaotic endgame, Cleveland had plenty of reasons to smile. James’s individual success was the most obvious, but he wasn’t a one-man show. The Cavaliers were +3 in the five minutes he rested, even surviving a brief stretch against all four of the Warriors’ All-Stars.
Stylistically, the Cavaliers largely controlled Game 1. They weren’t intimidated by the Oracle Arena crowd or overwhelmed by Golden State’s signature third-quarter push. They were able to play big with a center all night, pounding the glass for 19 offensive rebounds and receiving quality minutes from reserve big man Larry Nance Jr. in his first Finals appearance. Plus, they were able to keep up with the Warriors’ high-octane offense even though they shot poorly (10-37) from outside and missed numerous open looks.
James also won a clean head-to-head victory against Kevin Durant. As Cleveland’s four-time MVP drained three-pointers at will and powered through the paint, Durant struggled with his shot (8-22 from the field, 1-7 on threes) and bogged down in isolation at times. The 2017 Finals turned on Durant’s ability to light up Cleveland’s defense at every turn. In Game 1, he never achieved that same level of comfort, and he narrowly escaped significant blame for failing to box out Smith in the closing seconds of regulation.
“I didn't take smart shots,” said Durant, the 2017 Finals MVP, after finishing with 26 points, nine rebounds and six assists. “I took risky looks. I took some shots that I know I can hit, but I'd rather get better shots than that. I'm not worried about my makes or misses. It's just [whether] I am getting good, quality shots. After that, the rest will figure itself out.”
But the Warriors’ chief concerns heading into Game 2 are on the other end of the court. The defending champs must show greater commitment to defensive rebounding, and they must offer more thoughtful and forceful resistance to James, who posted a playoff career-high 51 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in Game 1.
“I didn't think we made [James] work hard enough,” Kerr said. “Everything was smooth sailing for him. It's one thing to have a philosophy where you make this guy beat us and shut everybody else down. Lots of teams have done it with superstars in the past, whether you're talking about Kobe [Bryant] or Michael [Jordan] or LeBron or whoever. But it only works if you actually make the guy have to really use a lot of energy. … I thought our defense was subpar.”
There are plenty of ways that this Finals could go sideways for the Cavaliers. Stephen Curry could get scorching hot, Durant could rediscover his shooting touch or the Warriors could crank up their team defense. James could play like a mortal, his shooters could remain cold or his centers could be neutralized on the glass. Regardless, the takeaway from Game 1 was that the Cavaliers—despite a tumultuous season and an obvious talent disadvantage—have more than a prayer.
“We're not broken, all right? We lost a game,” Lue said on Friday. “It was a tough game for us. We played well enough to win, but we didn't. The guys' confidence is not shaken. We have the blueprint, so now we have to execute at a higher level.”