To the surprise of many, it appeared as if the Cleveland Cavaliers were going to steal Game 1 of the NBA Finals from the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena. The game was tied at 107 with 4.2 seconds left with George Hill at the free throw line.
Everything fell apart after that, but aside from the tragic and frustrating ending, the Cavs actually played well enough to win.
Beginning with the overall team performance, Cleveland shot a respectable 44% from the field. Not terrible, but not fantastic either. The Warriors were able to connect on 51% of their shots, despite the Cavaliers’ solid defense. One thing to note is that even with the five extra minutes of overtime, Golden State attempted just 90 shots total. This is a sign that the game’s pace was slowed down, which is very good for Cleveland.
Unfortunately, the Cavs were just 10-37 (27%) from beyond the arc, as compared to the Warriors’ 13-36 (36%). This shooting disparity was especially apparent in overtime, when Golden State hit three triples to put the game out of reach.
Still, despite not shooting well from deep, Cleveland was in a position to win the game. In order to continue their success, they will have to find a way to improve their three-point shooting without relying on the deep ball too much.
As is the case in many playoff games, free throw shooting was crucial to the outcome. The Warriors went 19-20 from the stripe, while the Cavs were just 16-22, including Hill’s miss to keep the game tied late. If Cleveland makes just one more free throw throughout the game, they probably end up winning.
On the glass, the Cavs dominated, out-rebounding the Warriors 64-42, including 19-4 on the offensive end. Kevin Love and Larry Nance Jr. lead the team with 13 and 11 respectively. Getting second-chance points on offense and preventing the other team from getting any is key, especially against the Warriors, as they make you pay for giving them any extra opportunities.
The Cavaliers did have 12 turnovers, which lead to 14 extra points for Golden State. That number has to come down. The Warriors had a total of eight, and half of those were from Stephen Curry and Draymond Green. If the Cavs want to limit the volatility of outside factors, they have to win the turnover battle.
One of the biggest factors for both teams was going to be the fast break. Transition baskets are a huge part of the Warriors’ offense, and the Cavaliers needed to limit the amount of chances Golden State had to run the floor. The Warriors outscored the Cavs in transition 28-18. While that is not a great number, it’s not as bad as the 17-point advantage Golden State had in game 7 of the Western Conference Finals against the Houston Rockets.
It’s probably not realistic to expect the Cavaliers to outscore the Warriors in transition, but they need to at least keep things relatively close. A difference of more than 10 points would have been difficult to overcome.
The game was tied at 56 going into halftime, and Cavs fans braced for the Warriors’ dreaded third-quarter run. It happened, as Golden State put up 28 points in the third period, but the Cavaliers weathered the storm, scoring 22. They were able to stay within striking distance, and outscored Golden State by six in the fourth quarter to tie the game at the end of regulation.
Individually, the Cavs had some solid performances. LeBron James was unstoppable, scoring a playoff career-high 50 points on 59% shooting to go along with eight rebounds and eight assists. He was able to score almost at will, as no one on the Warriors could slow him down.
Kevin Love had one of his best games against Golden State with 21 points and 13 rebounds. He was just 1-8 on three-pointers and 9-20 overall, so he will need to improve his efficiency going forward.
Larry Nance Jr. scored nine points along with his 11 boards. Jeff Green spent most of the night settling for three-pointers, making just one of his six attempts. He was 2-3 inside the arc, and the Cavs need him to be more aggressive offensively. George Hill struggled with foul trouble for the entirety of the game, and finished with seven points on 2-6 shooting.
Kyle Korver only took three shots in his 16 minutes of play, making one triple. Jordan Clarkson was 2-9 with four points and a turnover. The supporting cast outside of Love did not play well enough, but the Cavs were still in a position to win.
For the Warriors, Stephen Curry lead the way with 29 points, including a demoralizing buzzer beater before halftime, and a key and-1 late in the game. Kevin Durant scored 26, but on 8-22 shooting. Klay Thompson had 24 after returning from an early leg injury. Draymond Green had a typical night with 13 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists, five steals, and two blocks.
The Cavaliers controlled the pace of the game, as well as both the offensive and defensive glass, and they would have won had it not been for a few unfortunate calls and a boneheaded mistake by J.R. Smith.
With 4.2 seconds remaining in the game, George Hill missed his second free throw, which would have given the Cavs a 108-107 lead. J.R. Smith got the offensive rebound right in front of the basket, but instead of putting a shot up and drawing a foul, he dribbled the ball back to almost half-court, before realizing that the game was still tied and passing to George Hill in the corner who put up an off-balance three-point attempt that fell short.
The Cavs were then blitzed by the Warriors 17-7 in the extra period, and are now down 1-0 in the series. The defeat was incredibly demoralizing for the team, and there could be implications for Game 2 that go beyond morale.
With 2.6 seconds left in overtime, Tristan Thompson was ejected for allegedly attempting to elbow Shaun Livingston in the face during a shot attempt. Draymond Green began taunting Thompson and the Cavs big man retaliated by shoving the basketball in Green’s face. Both teams began to scuffle as Thompson headed to the locker room.
Thompson faces a risk of being suspended for Game 2, but so do other Cavaliers such as Kevin Love, who left the bench during the altercation. Any suspension would have a major impact on the second game of the series.
Despite the devastating loss, all hope is not lost. The Cavs found a strategy that works. They let Kevin Durant take shots in isolation, especially in the third quarter, and he missed most of them. They let Draymond Green take shots, and even though he made two of his five three-point attempts, he is still shooting just 29% from beyond the arc this postseason.
If someone on the Warriors is going to be shooting threes, the Cavaliers should try to make sure it’s Green. Cleveland also utilized screens to switch Stephen Curry onto LeBron James often, and James took advantage of that mismatch. Even when it wasn’t James, the Cavs targeted Curry on drives, as he is the Warriors’ weakest defender.
On Sunday, either the Cavaliers will still be demoralized from Thursday and be blown out, or they will have a fire lit under them and even up the series. It’s all going to depend on how this team responds to extreme adversity. As we’ve seen this postseason, LeBron James can will his team to a victory, and he’ll have to do that if the Cavs want to come back and win this series.