The narrative of James having to face the loaded Warriors on his own was only strengthened in the opener as he single-handedly gave the Cleveland Cavaliers a chance to steal one on the road before succumbing to a 124-114 defeat.
Here are takeaways from the game.
Non-LeBrons don’t do enough
Only six players in the history of the Finals have scored 50-plus points. James is now the only one whose team lost.
Only six players have ever dropped 50+ points in an NBA Finals game.— Rachel Nichols (@Rachel__Nichols) June 1, 2018
(Elgin Baylor, Michael Jordan, Rick Barry, Jerry West, LeBron James, Bob Petit)
LeBron is the only one whose team lost the game.
LeBron delivered a special performance with 51 on 19-of-32 shooting in Game 1, but it went to waste as his teammates provided little help, especially in the closing moments of regulation.
George Hill let him down first by missing his second free throw with 4.7 seconds left in the fourth quarter, which would have put the Cavaliers ahead by one. That blunder was somehow topped by J.R. Smith, who grabbed the rebound on Hill’s miss and instead of putting a shot back up, getting the ball back to James or calling a timeout, dribbled out to waste time before the clock expired as he clearly forgot the score.
Outside of James, Cleveland shot just 37.3 per cent and only Kevin Love (21 points) and Smith (10) managed to get into double figures.
The Cavaliers have gotten away with this type of imbalance on the road to the Finals, but there’s no chance they can beat Golden State unless they get more contributions from their supporting cast.
Attacking weak points
Unsurprisingly, the end of the game whittle down to both teams picking out their preferred mismatch and going at it over and over again.
That meant LeBron seeking out Stephen Curry on a switch on one end, while on the other the Warriors did the same with Love.
Neither defence wants to give into that, but the Warriors will settle for what transpired in Game 1. By refusing to switch Curry onto James as much as possible, Golden State made Cleveland waste time in re-screening, so when LeBron finally got the match-up he wanted, the shot clock was already dwindled to keep him from patiently attacking.
The counter to that is two-fold. One, James has to look to initiate that switch sooner instead of mid-way through the possession. And secondly, he has to be more forceful coming off the screen to catch Golden State’s defence off-guard.
The solution to keeping Love out of those mismatches on the other end isn’t as obvious. Because of Curry’s ability to launch from deep, Love can’t sag off or stunt at the Warriors’ sharpshooter before retreating back to his man.
The Cavaliers can do one of two things to stay out of those situations: not play Love, or trap the ball-handler, which would leave the screen-setter with a free run to the middle of the paint. Considering just how pressed LeBron is for scoring help, the former is untenable. But the latter could be just as harmful. As is often the case against Golden State, there are no good options here.
Crashing the glass
Whether it was a concerted effort or a bit of randomness, Cleveland smashed the Warriors on the glass in the opener to win the rebounding battle 53-38.
Much of the damage was of the offensive kind, as the Cavaliers gobbled up 19 boards off their own misses, compared to just four for Golden State.
Cleveland also missed more shots, but even so, their advantage on the glass was a major reason why they had a chance to win the game.
Cleveland can’t match Golden State’s firepower or defensive tenacity, but by winning on the margins in an area like rebounding, they can give themselves a chance in the series.
LeBron James’ 51 points weren’t enough to steal Game 1 of the NBA Finals as the Golden State Warriors held on for a 124-114 overtime victory.
While the Warriors were fueled by a balanced attack, James had to carry nearly the entire load for Cleveland and almost pulled off an upset before his team-mates ultimately let him down.
Here are the player grades for both teams in the opener.
Golden State Warriors
Stephen Curry – He shot efficiently from deep and was aggressive in attacking mismatches whenever Cleveland switched. A-
Klay Thompson – A scary-looking injury in the first quarter didn’t stop him from returning and knocking down his usual shots. A-
Kevin Durant – Didn’t have an easy time scoring his 26 as Cleveland did well to make him work in isolations. B
Draymond Green – Did it all as he filled up the stat sheet with 13 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists, five steals and three blocks, while also hitting a couple 3s. A-
Kevon Looney – Played his role well by finishing rim runs and offering solid defence to afford the Warriors switchability. B+
Jordan Bell – Like Looney, he was useful as a screen setter and as the roll man, which opened up opportunities for easy baskets. B
Shaun Livingston – Hit all four of his field goals and did his part off the bench in 18 minutes of action. B
JaVale McGee – Only played six minutes but made them count with a couple buckets and good defence when switched onto LeBron. B+
George Hill – Missed a potential game-winning free throw and only took five shots on the night as he played too passive. C-
J.R. Smith – His mental blunder at the end of regulation may have cost his team the game and he was also a team-worst minus-20 on the night. D
LeBron James – What more can you say about the man. He had 51 points and did everything he could to steal Game 1. A+
Kevin Love – Helped LeBron more than anyone else on offence with 21 points, but was also picked on repeatedly on the other end. B
Tristan Thompson – Energy on the offensive glass is all he provided and got swallowed up at times with the ball near the basket. C
Jeff Green – Didn’t carry over his strong play from the end of the Eastern Conference Finals, shooting just 1-of-6 from 3. C-
Kyle Korver – His shooting was mostly a non-factor and he made a couple mistakes on the defensive end, including committing a foul on a 3-pointer. C-
Jordan Clarkson – Was awful on both ends of the court as he bricked several good looks and forced others. D-
Larry Nance Jr – In just 19 minutes, he had nine points and 11 rebounds, including four offensive, to give the Cavaliers valuable minutes and energy. A-
LeBron James is staring at the tallest mountain he’s had to scale yet and the odds stacked against him are just as high.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors have done this dance before – the past three summers to be accurate – but never has the rivalry felt so one-sided as it does now on the eve of a fourth straight meeting in the NBA Finals.
Standing on one end is a foursome of All-Stars in Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. Facing them is James and his cadre of foot soldiers, who’ve done just enough to help their leader get back to a stage he’s been a regular on for eight consecutive years.
It was only two years ago when James did the unthinkable and fought back from a 3-1 series deficit to defeat a 73-win Warriors side in the greatest Finals comeback ever, but much has changed since then. Durant joined Golden State’s budding dynasty in 2016, tilting the balance of power like an anvil dropping onto one side of a seesaw. Cleveland managed to take only one game from the new iteration of the Warriors last June and that was with Kyrie Irving still in the fold.
Irving left to ply his trade elsewhere, leaving an even greater load for James to carry, while Golden State remained intact. Andre Iguodala’s knee injury changes the equation a bit, but even that loss may be somewhat offset by Kevin Love’s concussion, which has kept the Cavaliers forward sidelined since the early minutes of Game 6 in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The rest of James’ supporting cast has undergone massive turnover since the start of the season, with veterans Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose replaced with Jordan Clarkson, George Hill and Larry Nance Jr and Rodney Hood.
The Cavs traded Kyrie Irving. Kevin Love missed two months. Ty Lue missed two weeks. Isaiah Thomas missed two months. They ripped up half the roster in February. LeBron’s played every game. And they’re going back to the Finals— Joe Vardon (@joevardon) May 28, 2018
It’s been one of the most challenging seasons of James’ career, but for all the drama and change that has taken place around him, the Cavaliers have given him a chance at capturing a fourth title – as unlikely as it may be against the Warriors’ juggernaut.
“At the end of the day, the game is won in between the lines, and we have an opportunity to play for a championship. That’s all that matters,” James said. “No matter what the storyline is going to be, no matter if we’re picked to win or not, let’s just go out and play ball. “We’re going to have a great game plan. We’re going to try to get better throughout the series, and we’ll see what happens. I just like to compete. I have a love for the game. I have a passion for the game, and everything else will take care of itself.”
These could also be the final games for James in a Cleveland uniform as he has the option to hit free agency in the offseason, adding more intrigue to a series that already consists of the highest stakes.
For Golden State, this is an opportunity to cement their claim as a dynasty, as three championships in four years would put them in exclusive company, alongside the early 2000s Los Angeles Lakers, the 90s Chicago Bulls, the late 80s Lakers and the 60s Boston Celtics.
LeBron is a superhero, but this is a situation even he can’t overcome on his own. The Warriors are too talented and possess too much firepower for this series to be all that close. Because it’s LeBron and Golden State tend to fall asleep when they’re unbothered, it won’t be a sweep. But five games is as far as this series can go.
Warriors in 5