1. Kevin Durant changes, well, everything: There was déjà vu all over again at the arena in Oakland, with grooves worn into not just the court but the hallways and the bowels of the building from having passed this way before, both 12 months and 24 months earlier. Familiar faces, familiar voices, familiar colors ... and then one very key difference.
Adding Kevin Durant to Warriors-Cavaliers III, based on this one small sample, is what it might have been like dropping Tony Montana into “Godfather III.” Durant came into this Finals, five years after trying to meet everyone’s expectations in a more traditional way with the Oklahoma City Thunder, almost in a no-win situation: If Golden State wins, he “short-cut his way to a championship ring.” If Golden State loses, he somehow knocked last year’s 73-victory team off track, thinned their bench, whatever.
Faced with those conventional-wisdom options, Durant did the only thing he could do -- assert himself as Game 1’s best player. His romps to the rim in the first half (six dunks) exposed a Cleveland defense that over-fretted about the Warriors’ long balls. He scored 38 points with eight assists and zero turnovers in nearly 38 minutes. And with the charge he drew on LeBron James late in the first half, he made it clear Golden State has some superstar neutrality at work in this series to counter James’ vaunted status – any other Warriors defender probably would have been called for a blocking foul on that play.
2. We're all rooting like mad for more first quarter: Be honest: As the first 12 minutes of Game 1 unspooled, you settled in with your favorite beverage and snack, a silly smile on your face and visions of 28 such dazzling, thrill-crammed quarters dancing in your head.
The Warriors’ biggest lead was five, the Cavaliers’ was four, there were five lead changes and five ties. James and Kyrie Irving combined for 21 points to Durant’s and Stephen Curry’s 20. The Cavs had one more 3-pointer and a whole lot more free throws than Golden State. The home team led 35-30, but there was an overall sense that we finally were going to get the postseason competition -- and classic Finals -- for which we’d pined for eight months and two months, respectively.
Then the next 36 minutes happened. No more lead changes. No more ties. Both sides scored in the 20s in the second quarter -- Cleveland’s 10-0 “edge” in turnovers carried more weight then Golden State’s 0-for-6 shooting from the arc -- and then their paths truly diverged in the third. The silly smile was replaced either by some open-mouthed awe at the Warriors’ wonderfulness or by grim, tight-lipped determination that Cleveland will clean up a host of Game 1 failings.
Just so those first 12 minutes aren’t as good as this series gets.
3. It’s too late for LeBron to holler for help: James, as well as Cleveland’s actual general manager David Griffin by extension, got teased when the Cavs star demanded roster enhancements in the winter. First he wanted another playmaker besides himself and nominal point guard Irving. Then he wanted some size. Griffin managed to bring aboard Deron Williams to scratch James’ first itch, and before that, scored another nice pick-up in veteran marksman Kyle Korver.
But journeyman Derrick Williams isn’t a big defender, and when veteran center Andrew Bogut suffered a leg fracture in his first minute with Cleveland and wanderer Larry Sanders wasn’t able to flake off two years of physical and mental rust, that void in the middle never got fixed. That means Tristan Thompson is it, as big as it’s going to get for Cleveland. And he wasn’t nearly enough in Game 1.
In fact, the high-revving motor and tenacity on the offensive glass that makes Thompson such a royal pain for opponents on a nightly basis was glaring in its absence. Zaza Pachulia and JaVale McGee, Golden State’s bigger bodies, outplayed Thompson. And even on his good nights, he’s not a rim protector. The Cavs’ overall D broke down on a lot of penetration, but they had no last-line-of-defense and gave up 56 points in the paint.
Golden State isn’t known for its offensive rebounding, but it reclaimed 14 shots, one shy of Cleveland’s total. Those put even more pressure on a Cavaliers defense that was turned sideways by all the live-ball turnovers coughed up offensively.
“It’s deflating,” Thompson said, a little role reversal of the feeling he normally causes. And any help has to come from those on hand -- no cavalry for James to wave in now.
4. Glamorous has nothing to do with Warriors’ defense: So much of the focus on Golden State goes to its precise and potent offense, it’s tempting to forget the many things it does well defensively. That was on display in Game 1, even if it wasn’t as sparkly as the Warriors committing only four turnovers when they controlled the ball as if on a tether.
Golden State had 12 steals to Cleveland’s none. In the first four minutes after halftime, it shook loose four turnovers and four misses from its guests, cracking things open with a 13-0 run. The Warriors rightfully gave credit to Klay Thompson for his defensive work -- Cavs shooters were 1-of-12 when they tried to score against him -- and the home team found ways not to let Curry be abused via pick-and-roll switcheroos.
Also, as expected, Golden State showed it has more ways to defend James than Cleveland has to guard Durant. Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala have archives from which to draw for that unenviable task, and Durant took his turn in the tank too. But going the other way, only James really fits in a matchup with the Warriors’ thin man, and that’s asking so much of the Cavs’ leader at age 32, when all his skills and energy are needed offensively.
5. Careful! Don’t jump to conclusions: You know what you were reading 364 days ago? This: “Five things we learned from the Golden State Warriors' 104-89 Game 1 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers in The 2016 Finals Thursday at Oracle...” So 15 points isn’t 22, but that remarkable seven-game Finals we got last June, the one in which the Cavaliers became the first team ever to claw back from 3-1 to win the NBA title, featured a similar result in the opener. Then it was followed by your-blowout, my-blowout margins of 33 and 30 points as Golden State went up 2-1.
The Warriors won Game 4 as well, by 11 at Quicken Loans Arena, only to have Cleveland fire back by 15, 14 and finally -- finally! -- four points to end it. All of which is to say, a close series isn’t necessarily built off close individual games. And the team that gets spanked typically has better between-game practices, with more fodder and greater incentive to drill down for adjustments.
Never underestimate James and his teammates’ resolve and ability to essentially erase Game 1 by taking Game 2 to even the series as it heads to Cleveland. After the resiliency they showed a year ago, there will be no putting them down until Golden State stacks up three more performances equal to or better than Thursday night's.
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