The Golden State Warriors rode a 12-0 start to the playoffs into the NBA Finals, but their toughest challenge of these playoffs lay ahead of them. The Cleveland Cavaliers started the playoffs 10-0. They would have also entered the Finals with a perfect record barring a sick day from LeBron and Marcus Smart's ridiculous outlier of a performance from beyond the arc. With more than a week of rest entering tonight's game and a poor start to Game 1 against the Spurs, Golden State could easily have opened the Finals with a dud.
However, the Warriors demolished the Cavaliers on both ends of the floor en route to a 113-91 victory. Golden State missed a number of layups in the first half but still led 60-52 after two-quarters. They then blew the doors off with a spectacular third quarter performance. While some elements of this game will be nearly impossible to repeat (a fantastic sign for any Cavaliers fans), the Warriors have the decided advantage heading into a critical Game 2 on Sunday night.
1. Battle of the role players
The 2017 Finals features seven All-Stars from this year's game in New Orleans, but the less-heralded players on each roster had a massive impact on the result of Game 1. For the Warriors, their secondary pieces factored in across the board. Andre Iguodala dispelled any lingering injury concerns with some solid offensive contributions and great defense on LeBron James. JaVale McGee grabbed five rebounds, including three offensive boards, and made two of three shots in only six minutes. Shaun Livingston made only one of his five shots, but he kept the offense humming with and without Steph Curry on the floor with him.
The role players for Cleveland, on the other hand, had a miserable Game 1 in Oakland. J.R. Smith scored the game's first points on a shot from deep--and then did not score again. Kyle Korver failed to score in 20 minutes of playing time. Deron Williams played 19 minutes and also did not score. Tristan Thompson did not score either and grabbed only four rebounds in 22 minutes. While his ability to switch screens and defend in space makes him worth major minutes despite his offensive shortcomings, it is nonetheless concerning that he finished last among Cleveland rotation players with a Defensive Rating of 132.8. That number does scream "small sample size" but Thompson should never have the worst defensive numbers among Cleveland's rotation players.
The old saying says that role players always play better at home, and that was certainly the case in this game. However, if Cleveland's role players are this subpar on Sunday night Cleveland will have a very tough road ahead of them.
2. Ball control
The Golden State Warriors are the league's deadliest transition team. Their willingness to run at nearly any opportunity, combined with their lethal shooting from deep, makes them nearly impossible to guard when they are on the run.
Cleveland did everything they could to feed the Warriors' transition game, as they committed 20 turnovers in Game 1. LeBron James was responsible for eight of those miscues.
On the other side of the ball, the Warriors turned the ball over just four times in the opening game of the Finals. That mark tied the record for fewest turnovers in any Finals game. All four of those were unforced errors, as Cleveland somehow finished the game without a single steal.
It would be basically impossible for the turnover margin to be anywhere near that wide in Game 2. A smaller gulf between their respective turnover numbers will not be enough to swing the game on its own. However, cutting down that turnover differential will help Cleveland to keep the scoring margin closer on both ends of the floor.
3. KD 1, LeBron 0
LeBron James put together a solid performance in Game 1. While he missed a couple of defensive rotations, he was still one of Cleveland's better players on that end of the floor. He turned the ball over eight times, but also grabbed 15 rebounds and dished out eight assists to go along with his 28 points. His performance did not live up to the ridiculous pace of his 2017 playoffs thus far, but his first game in Oakland was still a top-notch performance.
However, LeBron was thoroughly outplayed by the man who has been living in his shadow for basically his entire NBA career. Kevin Durant put up 38 points on 26 shots, along with grabbing eight rebounds and handing out eight assists. Durant became just the third player in NBA history to score 35+ points without turning the ball over in a Finals game. He also did this to his old rival:
This game was arguably the greatest of Durant's career. While LeBron was Cleveland's best player in this game by far, he certainly cannot say the same about his performance. Durant has an easier job than LeBron on both ends of the floor, but the Warriors cannot expect the disparity in the level of play between the two superstars to be this large going forward.
4. Don't count out Kevin Love
On the surface, Kevin Love had a very poor outing in Game 1. He put up only 15 points on 13 shots. He also got blown by frequently on the defensive end and looked a step slow every time the Warriors drove the ball into the lane. It is certainly not a coincidence that Love was cross-matched with Kevin Durant in transition on many of KD's easy dunks.but also had 21 boards and best +/- among starters at -11. Best defensive rating for Cavs starters at 96.1; Tristan the worst at 132.8 Worth playing him more despite defensive struggles because Thompson was dogshit; even if Love is a negative against Dray and KD, he's Cleveland's best option by far and has already been far better than he was in last year's Finals before locking up Steph on that one play)
However, Love's obvious deficiencies in this game (and in this matchup) underscored what may have been his best performance against the Warriors since joining the Cavaliers. Love grabbed a staggering 21 rebounds in this game and finished with the best +/- among starters at -11. While the one game sample size makes it difficult to draw conclusions, Kevin Love sported the best defensive rating for Cavs starters at 96.1.Tristan the worst at 132.8 Worth playing him more despite defensive struggles because Thompson was dogshit; even if Love is a negative against Dray and KD, he's Cleveland's best option by far and has already been far better than he was in last year's Finals before locking up Steph on that one play)
On the other hand, Tristan Thompson had the worst defensive rating at 132.8. Although Thompson would normally be a better fit than Love in this matchup due to his defensive versatility, Thompson struggled mightily in Game 1. Even if Love is a negative on defense against Dray and KD, he at least provides value on offense by spacing the floor to the three-point line. If Thompson struggles again to start Game 2, Ty Lue may be better served by playing Love at center and trading a presumable defensive downgrade for a leap on the offensive end.
5. 3rd quarter control
The Golden State Warriors have often appeared to coast in the first half of games, only to turn on the afterburners in the second half. They showed this during Game 3 against the Portland Trail Blazers, Game 3 against the Utah Jazz, and Game 1 against the San Antonio Spurs. There were clearly other factors involved in the Spurs game, or really one factor called Kawhi Leonard, but these playoffs are not the first time that the Warriors have turned disappointing first halves into third quarter blowouts.
During the regular season, the Warriors had a scoring margin of +5.8 in the third quarter, which made up a significant portion of their +11.6 average scoring margin overall. They have outscored opponents by 5.3 points per game in the playoffs and 16.8 points per game overall; however, that number is skewed by games such as Game 2 against the Spurs that were blowouts by halftime.
The Warriors followed this trend almost perfectly in Game 1. They were up eight at halftime; while some missed layups undersold Golden State's control over the game, Cleveland was close enough that a strong second half could have carried them to victory.
However, the Warriors refused to allow that hope to come true for the Cavaliers. They outscored Cleveland 33-20 in the third quarter, and thoroughly controlled the game on both ends of the floor. The fact that the Warriors effectively played the first half on cruise control and still won by more than 20 points says quite a lot about the strength of this team. While luck was certainly on Golden State's side in Game 1, they were dominant enough to make a repeat of last year's Finals loss seem nearly impossible.