LeBron James, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the rest of the NBA world quickly learned how much of a difference Kevin Durant makes in this rivalry.
After a season’s worth of speculation as to how much the addition of Durant would tilt the balance of power in the Golden State’s favour, the Cavaliers’ worst fears and the Warriors’ wildest dreams were
realised within the first 48 minutes of the NBA Finals.
Durant did more than just provide a boost – he was the best player on the floor in the Warriors’ 113-91 Game 1 victory, outplaying LeBron James on both ends as a fully weaponised Golden State squad continued their domination at Oracle Arena on Thursday.
James, who was at the centre of the previous two Finals between the teams that resulted in 13 games played out of a possible 14, was succinct when asked what stood out in the trilogy’s third opener.
“KD,” replied James.
Durant shined on paper – a game-high 38 points on 14-of-26 shooting, including 3-of-6 from long range, to go with eight rebounds, eight assists and zero turnovers.
But he was somehow even better than the stats suggest. He found an ideal balance between playing unselfishly within the flow of the offence and looking for his shot, while making simple passes to open teammates and aggressively attacking in the open court.
Durant’s defence was just as impressive, with his length and athleticism bothering James in one-on-one settings and other Cavaliers players when they attacked the rim.
Of course, as deadly as Durant is in a vacuum, his other-worldly talent has been streamlined by the players around him, such as Stephen Curry, whose gravitational pull draws defenders out of his path, and Draymond Green, who can trigger fast breaks instantaneously.
“I’m only as good as my teammates,” Durant said. “Steph and Klay [Thompson] and Draymond and Zaza [Pachulia] and the rest of the guys, we just complement each other, try to complement each other and try to make the game easier for each other. And I only can get in transition because we got stops and rebounding.”
Solving the Durant issue may be at the top of the list for Cleveland going forward, but it’s one of many for the defending champions as they face a seemingly impossible task. “They’re the best I ever seen,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said.
“I mean, no other team has done this, right? So 13-0, and they constantly break records every year, last year being 73-9, this year starting the playoffs 13-0. So, they’re playing good basketball. But we can play better.”
FIVE THINGS WE LEARNED FROM GAME 1
Cavaliers tried to match the pace
Cleveland is in somewhat of a pickle when it comes to deciding how fast to play in this series. Their attack is at its best when running the ball down their opponents’ throats, but the same is true for Golden State. But it’s more likely the Cavaliers can be competitive by grinding out games instead of turning them into shootouts, as evidenced by the 0.89 points they held the Warriors to in the half-court in Game 1. Cleveland may be better off slowing it down.
Cavaliers have no room for error
It’s hard enough to beat these Warriors as it is, but if you don’t take care of business with the things you can control, you have no chance. Cleveland learned that the hard way in the opener, in which they turned the ball over 20 times, compared to Golden State’s four, leading to a 21-6 deficit in points off turnovers. In many ways, the Cavaliers’ best defence in this series will be a sound, secure offence if they hope to limit the Warriors’ transition looks. Any second chance points allowed also spells death.
Warriors managed in pick-and-roll D
One of the most obvious areas where the Cavaliers can take advantage is when LeBron James receives an on-ball screen to get Stephen Curry in a switch, which worked time and time against last year. In Game 1, however, Golden State were able to hold their own on that play by doing their best to go under the pick and then shifting their backline to help on LeBron’s straight-line drives. That strategy was a big factor in James turning the ball over eight times and having fewer pathways to the rim.
Thompson’s defence still strong
It’s unrealistic to expect the Warriors to make every shot, but it was an anomaly that Klay Thompson made just 3-of-16 from the field. And yet, it didn’t matter because the shooting guard more than made up for it on the defensive end, where he continues to be perpetually underrated. When Thompson was the primary defender, Cavaliers players shot just 1-of-12, with 11 of those coming from LeBron James, Kyrie Irving or Kevin Love. His size was particularly bothersome for Irving and Love.
Curry looks like a magician again
A lot has been made of Stephen Curry looking fully healthy this time around, as opposed to last year’s Finals when he appeared just… off. Whatever the case may be, he’s making defenders look foolish again, while not hesitating or seeming unsure of himself when drawing a mismatch. Tristian Thompson and Kevin Love both had moments of brilliance defending Curry last year, but that seems like a thing of the past now, with the two-time MVP back to his best.