OAKLAND -- A starved basketball nation sloshed through the 82-game obstacle course known as the regular season, then endured a drama-free two-month lead-up in the postseason, and in total waited 345 days since Kyrie Irving’s jumper to see a compelling NBA Finals three-match between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers.
Well. What’s a few more days?
In some ways, the 2017 championship series hasn’t yet begun, or at least the series that you anticipated, because the Warriors saved their best punch for first. They controlled virtually every aspect of Game 1, won more impressively than the 113-91 score suggests, although this is perhaps the right time to gently remind you the Warriors took the opener last summer by 15 points and then Game 2 by 33 and ultimately fell hard on the wrong side of history.
Back then, their second straight championship appeared safer than a Stephen Curry step-back jumper, and then stuff happened, and then the series that appeared lopsided in Golden State’s favor ended with LeBron James’ tears of joy and the city of Cleveland’s salvation.
There is an obvious and major difference between then and now, however. Then: Kevin Durant was watching from home. Now: Kevin Durant sent folks home early.
“This is where every player wants to be, the highest level of basketball,” he said. “This is what you dreamed about as a kid, so I’m just trying to be there for my teammates and play up to my standards as an individual.”
More than anything, this is what he signed up for last summer, why he left the Oklahoma City Thunder to further elevate a team that already lived in the clouds, to send a chill through the defending champions should they meet once again in June. The Cavs had no defense for him in the opener, couldn’t prevent him from scoring 38 points and at times completely broke down and gave him free passes to the rim for dunks.
A good portion of those buckets came against LeBron, who has the tricky challenge in this series of checking a high-volume scorer on one end and also churning out points by himself on the other.
It was, in all, a startling display of dominance from the third quarter on by the Warriors, and perhaps a sign they’ve overcome the nightmare of a blown 3-1 lead and can overcome anything Cleveland throws their way. (Although we’ll see what LeBron and pals bring Sunday for Game 2.)
Until then, the advantage belongs to Golden State, which neutralized James, used some Draymond Green-infused defense to make for a miserable Thursday night for Cleveland and undoubtedly will send the Cavs soul searching the next few days. The Warriors remained undefeated in the postseason in 13 tries (and winners of 28 of their last 29 games) by treating the Cavs as rudely as all the others.
“They’re the best I’ve ever seen,” said Cavs coach Tyronn Lue, who sounded sincere.
He added: “I mean, no other team has done this, right? So they’re 13-0, and constantly break records every year, last year being 73-9, this year starting the playoffs 13-0. So they’re obviously playing good basketball.”
Actually, both teams entered this series on a basketball high, and that’s why anticipation of greatness was, and perhaps still is, steep for this series. The Cavs only lost once in the playoffs and LeBron’s performance stirred up plenty of comparisons with Michael Jordan. He has arguably his best team ever in Cleveland, one which carries more depth than last year’s championship winner.
And yet: During their romp through the Eastern Conference, the Cavs never experienced a defense as intense as the Warriors’ and it shook them. Shots were contested and silenced and the Cavs shot just 34.9 percent in Game 1. They were also pressured into 20 turnovers (compared to four by Golden State, tying the Finals single-game record), allowing the Warriors to take 20 more shots. Imagine, giving Durant, Curry and crew 20 more chances to see the rim. It’s a recipe for defeat.
“We made a lot of mistakes,” said LeBron. “There’s nothing really needs to be said. We know we’re capable of playing a lot better. We didn’t play as well as we know we’re capable of, so we look forward to the next one.”
A few scenes are worthy of being replayed: Green stuffing Kevin Love (who shot four-for-13 and was barely involved offensively). Green stripping Irving then falling on the floor while saving the ball. Curry cutting off passing lanes and coming up with a few swipes. It was a collective effort to keep Cleveland pinned and pained and, after spotting them 30 points in the first quarter, the Warriors didn’t allow more than 22 in any of the final three.
“I thought Draymond set the tone,” said Warriors interim coach Mike Brown. “Draymond was the first one to the floor, came up with it and we were off to the races, knocking down a 3, and from there, with the fans in this building, it’s tough for anyone to recover from that.”
There would be no stirring comeback for the Cavs, and now the recovery process begins in earnest. Do they believe they were simply sloppy and chose the wrong time and team to throw away the ball? That’s what the Cavs hinted at, and also believe Game 1 served as a meaningful get-to-know-you.
“You’re not going to see crazy celebrations. You’re not going to see us getting ahead of ourselves.”
“It was just getting a chance to see how they play, the style they play, how fast they play, you can’t really simulate that in practice,” said Lue. “You’ve got to get out here and experience that first-hand. (Now) that we’ve experienced that, we’re able to adjust, and we’re a lot better.”
Meanwhile, the Warriors, in their soul, believe they gave away last year’s series and had to live with that burning inside their guts for a year. They also believe they can improve upon Game 1, citing a batch of missed bunny shots that prevented them from blowing the Cavs away from the jump. Also: The Klay Thompson watch continues; his shooting slump worsened by a 3-for-16 game and his teammates suspect a breakout is looming.
There was the cautionary yellow flag thrown up by Curry and for good reason.
“You’re not going to see crazy celebrations,” Curry said. “You’re not going to see us getting ahead of ourselves.”
That’s really not their style, but it also would be far too premature to do that considering what happened last year, considering they’re playing against LeBron James, considering the series is just getting started.
And then there’s also a very good reason for the Warriors to feel good about where they are and who they have right now, and for the Cavs to be concerned about him. Durant says he plans to “stay locked in” and if so, expect more of the same from the front-runner (yes, it’s early) for Finals MVP. Look no further than Durant to discover what makes this third championship meeting between the Cavs and Warriors different from the previous two.
“KD,” said LeBron, citing the difference-making player in Game 1. “I mean, you take one of the best teams that has ever been assembled last year, that we saw in the regular season and in the postseason, and then in the offseason you add a high-powered offensive talent like that and a great basketball IQ like that? That’s what stands out.
“I mean, there’s no if, ands or buts. It is what it is. We’ve got to figure out how to combat that, which is going to be a tough challenge for us.”
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