Game 1 offered a specific reminder of last year’s championship bout: the Finals MVP wasn’t any of the three marquee names on the Warriors roster. On a night when Steph Curry and Klay Thompson combined for 20 points on 8-for-27 shooting, the Warriors bench more than made up the difference in Golden State’s 104–89 win over Cleveland. Shaun Livingston, Andre Iguodala, and Leandro Barbosa scored 43 points on 18-for-24 shooting; Barbosa’s net rating for the game was comically high after a perfect 5-for-5, 11-points-in-11-minutes performance; the Warriors were dominant in the 26 minutes that Iguodala and Livingston shared the court — and those gaudy numbers still might understate the bench’s impact on the game.
Iguodala looked to be on his way to repeating as Finals MVP last night. He was the primary defender on LeBron James, and despite giving up a ton of size, he used his long arms and quick hands to prevent LeBron from getting a lot of easy looks in the paint. James has a tendency to settle for jumpers when he’s going up against Iguodala, and the Warriors don’t mind one bit. LeBron scored 23 points on 9-of-21 shooting; he’s going to have to be a lot more efficient for Cleveland to have a chance.
Iguodala was almost as important on offense. He’s the player the Cavs try to hide their worst defender on, particularly when the Warriors go to their small-ball Lineup of Death. Iguodala was 2-of-4 from 3 on Thursday, shots that Cleveland will have to live with. But even when he’s left open, he does a good job of not settling, and attacks the open spaces in the defense to get the ball moving. He had six assists without a single turnover in Game 1, the best ratio of the night.
If Iguodala’s steady two-way play was the initial jab, Livingston’s barrage of midrange jumpers was the knockout punch. The Slash Brothers took over where the Splash Brothers left off, demolishing whomever Cleveland put on them. At 6-foot-7 with a 6-foot-11 wingspan, Livingston is a terror to smaller guards in the post and within 15 feet of the basket. There’s a huge drop-off in length and athleticism from the Thunder roster to the Cavs roster, and no Warriors player benefits more from that than Livingston. He’s simply shooting over the top of Cleveland’s corps of slower and shorter defenders, who might as well be chairs when they’re on him. Livingston attempted seven shots last night with a defender within 3.5 feet of him and made six of them.
That has to be the most pressing concern for Tyronn Lue. Matthew Dellavedova and Iman Shumpert are supposed to be his two best defensive guards; they got cooked by their bench counterparts in Game 1. Dellavedova, in particular, was a far cry from his 2015 playoff hero self. He made a 33-year-old Barbosa look 23.
There are no obvious adjustments for Lue to make; Kyrie Irving and J.R. Smith didn’t look much better on defense. He could play Timofey Mozgov to help clean up dribble penetration and contest shots in the paint, but that would leave the Cavs more vulnerable on the perimeter when the Warriors are playing five-out. Conversely, he could give Channing Frye (who played for only seven minutes last night) more burn, which would open up the floor on offense and give Cleveland more of a chance of going point-for-point with Golden State.
The Cavs may just have to pray for a regression to the mean, especially when the series moves to Cleveland. It’s unlikely that they’ll have to deal with 43 points from the Warriors’ trio of veteran guards again, and bench players traditionally perform worse on the road. The problem, of course, is that Klay and Steph are due for a regression to the mean the other way. The Splash Brothers probably won’t have too many off shooting nights in the Finals, so it was incumbent on the Cavs to try to steal a game when they could. What makes the Warriors so tough is they can still dominate games when their stars aren’t playing well. Steph, Klay, and Draymond may get all the press, but you don’t win 73 games without getting huge contributions from everyone in your rotation.