LeBron James may not be able to play any better than he did in the opener of the NBA Finals, but the rest of the Cleveland Cavaliers certainly can – and that should give them some optimism heading into Game 2.
There was a sense after Cleveland fell in overtime of Game 1 despite James’ 51 points that the Cavaliers had wasted a masterpiece by their leader and that winning in the rest of the series will only become harder.
While they definitely let the Golden State Warriors wriggle out of their grasp – in large part due to George Hill’s missed free throw and J.R. Smith forgetting the score in the final seconds of regulation – Cleveland showed enough to suggest the series may not be as lopsided as originally thought.
“Listen, we’re not broken. We lost a game,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said. “You got to win four in this series. We understand that and it was a tough game for us. We played well enough to win but we didn’t, so now we’ve got to move on.
“They guys’ confidence is not shaken. We see what we need to do and how we need to perform to win. We have the blueprint and now we need to execute at a higher level.”
Though it was largely the work of James, the Cavaliers offence managed to keep up with Golden State’s prolific attack in spite of an off shooting night.
Cleveland shot just 10-of-37 from long range, including 2-of-12 on open 3-pointers (closest defender is within 4-6 feet) and 6-of-20 on wide-open looks (closest defender is 6-plus feet away). It’s not like the Warriors also struggled to hit shots they normally make as they were 6-of-15 on both those types of looks.
Throughout the playoffs – and all season – 3-point variance has been a barometer for the Cavaliers’ success. They’ve made 37.7 per cent from deep in their 12 playoff wins and 27.2 per cent in seven losses as their nights have often come down to one simple question: are they hitting shots or not?
The shot opportunities will continue to be there as long as James is around and especially if he continues to attack like he did in Game 1, when he took a page out of the Houston Rockets’ playbook and heavily utilised isolations. According to Second Spectrum, James had 28 direction isolations and 30 direct drives in Game 1 – seven and nine more, respectively, than he’s had in any game over the last three seasons (including playoffs).
James is going to be aggressive, that much is known. Golden State will have to choose between sending extra help defenders his way to slow down his scoring, which will open up shots for his team-mates, or to let him keep feasting.
Looking ahead to Sunday...— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 1, 2018
LeBron James has scored at least 40 points in all 3 of the Cavaliers' Game 2s this postseason.
He has scored nearly as many points (131) as the rest of the Cleveland starters combined (135). pic.twitter.com/WLFWQ7uOtK
Though James may not have to play better than he did in Game 1 for Cleveland to win, Lue isn’t putting any limits on his superstar.
“I hope so,” Lue said with a laugh when asked if James can be better. “I know it’s asking a lot, but we need him to lead by example, being aggressive, attacking the basket, and we know they’re going to come and help [on defense]. They’re a helping team and guys are going to get shots. If you don’t have a shot, put it on the floor and make another play. He did that last night and he’s got to keep it up.”
As disappointing as the end of Game 1 was for the Cavaliers, they’re still in position to shift the balance of power by stealing one on the road before the series moves to Cleveland.
One game in, they’ve already proven they can hang with the defending champions. Translating that to a win is the next step.
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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-