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Seven Takeaways From Game 1 of the NBA Finals

For starters, the Cavaliers should slow the game down and not have LeBron James guard Kevin Durant

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The Warriors made a statement in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. Cleveland may have been about as dominant out East as Golden State was in the West, but that doesn’t mean the teams are on the same level. The Cavs are massive underdogs who have to play nearly perfect basketball to have a chance of pulling off the upset. Their margin for error is zero, and when they play as badly as they did on Thursday, they will get run out of the gym. The Warriors won 113–91 in a game that was over by the end of the third quarter. Rihanna’s antics on the sidelines were more entertaining than anything that happened on the floor.

The scary part for Cleveland is that Golden State didn’t play that well. No one on its roster other than Kevin Durant and Steph Curry scored in double digits. Klay Thompson and Draymond Green combined to shoot 6-for-28 from the field. Mike Brown’s team left plenty of points on the board in Game 1, cycling through five different players at center as they experimented to see which lineups would be most effective in the series. Green picked up two early fouls that threw off his rhythm, while Curry, who had been averaging 6.3 free throw attempts per game in the playoffs, didn’t get to the line once.

The Cavs will have to do a lot of soul searching during the two days off before Sunday’s Game 2. Tyronn Lue has to make big adjustments to his game plan, while the players need to actually give a good effort on the defensive glass and get back in transition. The addition of Durant changes everything about the matchup between the two teams, and a lot of what worked for Cleveland in 2016 will not be successful in 2017. The good news for them is style points don’t matter in the playoffs: The Cavs will still be in excellent shape if they win on Sunday. Of course, that’s looking like an awfully big "if" at the moment.

Here’s a look at seven key story lines from Game 1, and what they could mean going forward:

1. Cleveland Can’t Run With Golden State

The Warriors are at their best when they can go from defense to offense and get out in transition. They play so many playmakers and shooters at the same time that it’s impossible to cover all of them. When Durant is pushing the ball up the floor and Curry is spotting up in the corner, the defense is helpless. To combat that, the Cavs have to control the tempo, keep the game in the half court, and lower the total number of possessions. Instead, they played right into the Warriors’ hands in Game 1 by trying to beat them at their own game.

Cleveland pushed the ball at almost every opportunity, even when it didn’t have an advantage in numbers. While the Cavs were able to maintain that pace for a while, they didn’t have the energy to keep it up for all four quarters. It was as if a pickup truck had decided to challenge a sports car to a race. The bigger and slower team should want to turn the game into a wrestling match, not a track meet. Watch Kevin Love in this sequence after LeBron forces up a tough shot through two defenders. He jogs back up the floor, completely gassed:

There’s nothing wrong with selectively running when you have a two-on-one or a three-on-two break that will result in a dunk or a wide-open 3-pointer when executed properly. However, the Cavs were racing up the floor to take shots the Warriors were more than happy to give them. Golden State isn’t even bothering to contest Iman Shumpert’s shot when he’s spotting up in the half court, so having him take a pull-up 18-foot jumper in semitransition is puzzling, to say the least. This is the type of situation where Cleveland has to pull the ball back out and run some clock. The team doesn’t gain anything from taking this shot:

2. LeBron Shouldn’t Be Guarding Durant

The last time these two faced each other in the Finals, LeBron was 27 and Durant was 23. LeBron was in the middle of his prime, while Durant was entering his. Five years later, Durant is at the top of his game. King James is still playing offense at as high a level as ever, but he’s no longer capable of locking up an opposing team’s primary option like he was in Miami. He is in his 14th NBA season and he is playing in his seventh consecutive Finals: He has to conserve some energy over the course of the game.

Durant was the best player on the floor in Game 1, with 38 points on 14-of-26 shooting, eight rebounds, and eight assists. He dominated the game on both sides of the ball, seemingly without breaking a sweat. While LeBron had 28 points, 15 rebounds, and eight assists, he also had eight turnovers and was working extremely hard for everything he got. Durant made it look effortless. Watch how easily Durant beats LeBron off the dribble and elevates over him for a floater in the lane. Durant has a 7-foot-4 wingspan, and he’s one of the only players in the league who is longer and faster than LeBron:

The problem for Cleveland is the domino effect. If LeBron is guarding Draymond or Zaza Pachulia, that would force either Love or Tristan Thompson to guard Durant, which is an even less appealing matchup. Put LeBron on Steph or Klay and it negates the whole point of him saving energy. The Cavs will have to play smaller in this series, taking out one of their big men in order to get either Shumpert or Richard Jefferson in the game to guard KD. Cleveland was minus-9 in the 16 minutes LeBron, Love, and Thompson played together on Thursday, and their only really successful stretches in Game 1 came when they played LeBron at power forward with one big man and three wings.

3. Draymond Is the Key on Both Sides of the Ball

Green is the favorite to win this year’s Defensive Player of the Year Award because he is such a disruptive presence on and off the ball. He can switch any screen and guard players at all five positions, but he’s most dangerous playing as a free safety in the middle of the lane. Draymond has long arms, quick feet, and incredible instincts, and he can sniff out a pass before the offense even recognizes that it’s there. Watch how quickly he covers ground to intercept this lob for Love. You always have to be aware of where he is on the floor:

Draymond finished the game with two steals and one block, and he played a huge part in forcing the Cavs to rack up more turnovers (20) than assists (15). Cleveland can’t allow Green to speed up its offense and dictate the pace of the game. The goal should be to force him into guarding a 3-point shooter as much as possible, and then take advantage of all the times he helps in the lane. Draymond is drawn to the ball like a magnet, and he’s not going to be able to resist if he sees an opportunity to strip an offensive player or contest a shot.

On defense, Cleveland needs to do to Draymond what he does to them. That’s one of the reasons putting LeBron on him is so appealing: LeBron would be a great center fielder in the middle of the defense. The Cavs should give Green the Harrison Barnes treatment on the perimeter, and force him to be a scorer instead of a playmaker. Even when he’s making his shots, it’s still going to be at a lower percentage than Durant, Curry, or Thompson. Watch Love on this play. He needs to rotate over and force Durant to give Green the ball:

4. The Warriors Made Tristan Thompson a Nonfactor

After averaging 11.6 points and 7.2 rebounds a game on 73.9 percent shooting in the Eastern Conference finals, Thompson was held scoreless in Game 1. He was such a nonfactor that Lue played him only 22 minutes, more than 10 minutes fewer than his playoff average this season. Thompson still helped on the offensive glass, but he couldn’t make the Warriors pay for refusing to guard him and his defense wasn’t nearly as good as it was in last year’s Finals.

One of the keys to the Cavs’ 3–1 comeback in 2016 was Thompson’s ability to switch screens and stay in front of Curry, but that was a hobbled version of the two-time MVP, who was coming off a knee injury. Now that he has his full burst and explosiveness back, Curry is too creative with the ball and too dangerous a shooter for a big man to guard him without any extra help. Part of Thompson’s value is his ability to simplify the defense by allowing everyone else to stay at home in the pick-and-roll, but that may not be possible in this series:

On offense, Thompson has the same challenge as Pachulia, in that the defense isn’t respecting him as a roll man after he sets a screen. Both teams have trapped the pick-and-roll whenever the other center has been involved, essentially daring the opponent’s big man to take two dribbles and finish at the rim. Zaza and David West, in particular, are two of the weakest links in the Warriors’ perimeter defense, and the Cavs have to punish them when they are in.

5. The Warriors Played Great Perimeter Defense, Particularly Klay Thompson

Klay has been in one of the worst offensive slumps of his career in the playoffs, averaging 14.4 points a game on 38.3 percent shooting, and that continued on Thursday, when he scored six points on 3-of-16 shooting, including going 0-for-5 from deep. While Klay’s struggles didn’t seem to affect his confidence, his inability to make even simple layups kept Cleveland in the game. However, for as bad as he was on offense, he was every bit as good on defense.

The Cavs were 1-for-12 with Klay as the primary defender on Thursday. It didn’t matter whether he was giving up size to Love or LeBron in the post, or having to shadow Kyrie around the perimeter; Klay was locked in on that side of the floor, and he never gave Cleveland anything easy. It was a remarkable turnaround from Golden State’s loss in the Christmas Day game, when Klay couldn’t contain Kyrie off the dribble, allowing him to explode for 14 points in the fourth quarter. Watch him force Irving into an almost impossible fadeaway:

There weren’t many cracks in the Warriors defense in Game 1. Durant, Andre Iguodala, and Green all played great individual defense, preventing the Cavs from ever getting into much of an offensive flow. LeBron and Kyrie were still able to score, but Love and J.R. Smith, their two secondary options, combined to shoot 5-of-17. Cleveland has to be much more disciplined in hunting down Curry and Golden State’s centers on the pick-and-roll going forward, because attacking the Warriors on the wings wasn’t an effective strategy on Thursday.

6. Cleveland Needs to Get Longer and Faster on the Perimeter

Golden State began to create separation from Cleveland at the start of the second quarter, the stretch of the game when both Durant and Curry were sitting. Those are the minutes the Cavs need to win to have a chance in this series, yet somehow they managed to lose ground on Thursday. The Warriors went on an 8–2 run in the first five minutes of the quarter, when they had West at center going up against a frontcourt combination of Love and LeBron.

It’s difficult to go small up front when there isn’t length and athleticism on the perimeter to make up for it. That’s what makes the Warriors’ Lineup of Death so effective, and it’s what the Cavs were missing at the start of the second with Deron Williams, Kyle Korver, and Jefferson on the perimeter. Williams and Korver, playing in the first Finals game of their careers, combined to go 0-for-7 from the field, an issue considering how much they give up on defense. Williams looked two or three steps slow against the younger Warriors:

Cleveland needs more active bodies on the perimeter, particularly if the Cavs are going to continue switching screens. Shumpert, at 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, is one of their only reserves who can keep up with the Warriors athletically, and they will need to give him a bigger role going forward. Derrick Williams might be another option, but the Cavs’ decision to not keep guys like DeAndre Liggins and Jordan McRae on their team is starting to look short-sighted, especially with washed-up veterans like Dahntay Jones taking up roster spots instead.

7. The Cavs’ Activity Level Has to Improve

It’s astonishing how flat Cleveland came out in Game 1, especially since it might have been its best chance in this series to steal a game in Oracle Arena. They were a step slow all night, not rotating over fast enough, boxing out their man, or getting back on defense. Golden State won every hustle category by a significant margin, and if that trend continues, this will not be a long series. The underdog has to win the possession battle to beat the more talented team, and the Cavs took 20 fewer shots than the Warriors on Thursday.

Maybe the most emblematic play of the game was when Steph outworked LeBron for an offensive rebound in the second quarter. LeBron had boxed out his man (Iguodala) and put himself in position to secure the board, but Steph got a running start because Kyrie, his defender, stood behind the play watching instead of competing. Golden State came out determined to attack Cleveland’s switches on the offensive glass, and the Warriors repeatedly killed the Cavs’ perimeter players:

It seems a little counterintuitive to go smaller after giving up 14 offensive rebounds, but that’s exactly what Brad Stevens did when the Celtics were down 2–0 in their first-round series with the Bulls. The Cavs need to gang-rebound in Game 2: Love and LeBron had 36 rebounds in Game 1, and no one else had more than five. Nine different Warriors, in contrast, had at least one offensive rebound. Lue has to hope that slowing the game down can get his players playing harder. If not, a Finals series the NBA desperately needs to be competitive could be anything but.