Game 1 was never close outside of the initial minutes as Boston opened up a 36-18 lead after the first quarter and led by as many as 29 in a comfortable 108-83 victory.
It was the second time in three series the Cavaliers dropped the opener after falling to Indiana in round one, but the gulf between the teams amplified the result.
It was the second-largest Game 1 loss suffered by James in his career, trailing only the 27-point defeat in the 2006 conference semi-finals.
The Celtics held a significant edge in 3-point shooting – 11-of-30 compared to Cleveland’s 4-of-26 – and points in the paint – 60 to 38.
James’ six-game playoff win streak in Boston came to an end as he registered one of the worst postseason performances of his career, scoring 15 points on 5-of-16 shooting to go with nine assists, seven rebounds, seven turnovers and a team-worst plus-minus of minus-32.
LeBron James with a playoff-high seven turnovers already. He had eight total turnovers in four games against the Raptors.— Brian Robb (@BrianTRobb) May 13, 2018
Despite all the concerning signs that were on display, James played it cool afterward and preached patience.
“I have zero level of concern at this stage,” James said. “I didn’t go to college, so it’s not March Madness. You know, you get better throughout the series. You see ways you can get better throughout the series.
“But I’ve been down 0-1, I’ve been down 0-2, I’ve been down before in the postseason. But for me, there’s never no level of concern, no matter how bad I played tonight with seven turnovers, how inefficient I was shooting the ball.”
The Celtics needed a team effort to keep James in check, but at the centre of that was Marcus Morris, who was inserted into the starting lineup and served as the primary defender on LeBron.
After claiming he was the second-best James defender in the league behind San Antonio Spurs star Kawhi Leonard a day before the series tipped off, Morris backed up his talk by holding LeBron to eight points on 3-of-10 shooting and four turnovers in 39 possessions.
“I’m a competitor,” Morris said. “He’s the best player, you know? I’m going to be able to tell my kids [about defending James] one day. It’s exciting. I love the challenge, but like I said, man, it’s a team effort.”
James and the Cavaliers absorbed a haymaker in Game 1. Now, they’ll look to return the favour.
“Game 1 has always been a feel-out game for me, if you’ve ever followed my history,” James said. “So I’ve got a good sense of the way they played me and how I’ll play going into Game 2.”
How soon will we see the Death lineup?
The lineup has had a dominant net rating of plus-40.9 points in 54 playoff minutes, so even if it doesn’t start the game, it will be on the floor often.
Can Durant be slowed down?
You know why the Warriors are so difficult to beat in a playoff setting? Even when you take away their primary actions and muck up their beautiful ball-movement, their failsafe is putting the ball in Kevin Durant’s hands and letting him work.
And there’s no one on the planet capable of completely stopping Durant in a one-on-one setting.
Golden State broke out iso Durant in Game 4 against New Orleans and the approach yielded 38 points on 15-of-27 shooting.
It’s an ace-in-the-hole that’s also a back-up plan – a terrifying reality for Houston.
Will Harden isolations backfire?
Harden especially is used in isolation a bunch – 35.1 per cent in the regular season and 35.2 per cent in the playoffs.
That strategy won’t change against the Warriors, but with as versatile as Golden State’s defenders are, he’ll have to be careful not to go down swinging with step-back 3 after step-back 3.
How much will Curry be hunted?
Stephen Curry is far from a bad defender. In fact, he’s fairly underrated on that end of the floor. But in this series, he’s going to be the weak link in the Warriors defence that the Rockets will look to exploit.
Golden State will likely start him matched up against a lesser offensive threat like P.J. Tucker or Luc Mbah a Moute, but expect the Rockets to use his man to screen for Harden in an attempt to get a switch.
The Warriors will do everything they can to avoid that because Harden will both score and draw fouls.
Who will hit open 3-pointers?
As crazy as it sounds, it’s possible this series could come down to something as simple as who makes their open 3-pointers, because there will be opportunities on both sides.
Houston will be happy to help off Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala on the perimeter, while Golden State will live with 3s from Tucker and Mbah a Moute.
As much attention as the stars are going to attract, the ancillary players will have to leave their mark and take advantage of their chances to give their team the edge.
Houston have done all they can to increase their variance to give them a legit shot at pulling off the upset. But if the Warriors reach top gear, the odds just won’t be in their favour.
Warriors in 6
Whether or not they can is another matter, but Houston represent the greatest challenger this iteration of the Warriors juggernaut has come across.
It’s as if Rockets general manager Daryl Morey went into a lab, crunched the numbers and came up with a blueprint best suited to pose a legitimate threat to the defending champions.
Beyond the backcourt duo, the Rockets are stocked with shooting and versatile, long defenders to make them a handful on both ends of the court.
They finished with the league’s best record this season at 65-17, but were somehow even better when all three of Harden, Paul and Clint Capela played, boasting a ridiculous mark of 50-5.
Going by efficiency, Warriors-Rockets is the best offensive matchup in modern NBA history.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 9, 2018
Since team turnovers became official in 1973-74, this is the 1st NBA playoff series between teams that both averaged at least 112 points per 100 possessions that regular season. pic.twitter.com/Nh15XlbO36
The Warriors got a taste of what Houston are capable of during the three regular-season meetings – two of which went the Rockets way, including the season-opening statement on the night Golden State received their championship rings.
Off the floor, Houston have been vocal in their desire to knock off the incumbents. Now, they get what they’ve been asking for.
“Obviously, we know what’s ahead of us,” Rockets forward Luc Mbah a Moute said. “That’s the champs. It’s going to be a tough task. You better be ready. But we have what we need. We’ve been that way all season. We’re ready. They have to be ready for us as well. I think we showed all season we match up well with them.”
A narrative has emerged that Houston are also the hungrier team, with Harden and Paul having yet to win a title while several of the Warriors’ key players have two to their name.
Paul, especially, is in search of a championship that has so far eluded him in his 13-year career. This series will mark the first time he’s ever played in the conference finals.
Harden, meanwhile, was next to Durant on the Oklahoma City Thunder the last time he reached the NBA Finals, and is eager to overcome his own playoff shortcomings.
Golden State coach Steve Kerr, however, dismissed that there’s more desire on the Rockets’ side and lauded his team’s winning experience.
“No, I like where we are,” Kerr said. “Our guys have rings. That’s a good position to be in. To me, the hardest championship is the first one, as an individual player and as a team, because you don’t know – you don’t quite know – if you can do it.
“Once you get the first one, there’s a little bit of house money. But you want it again because it’s an unbelievable feeling. I like our position. We’re going to go in here knowing we’re the defending champs, knowing we got a couple of championships here the last few years. Let’s go get another one.”
With the West fielding the two best teams this season, the match-up between the Warriors and Rockets could likely be the most important series of the playoffs.
On one side sits one of the most talented teams in league history, on the verge of being considered a dynasty. On the other, a challenger that has done everything possible to show they’re up to the task of taking the throne.