Game 1 was all kinds of amazing. However I really feel that the Cleveland Cavaliers had to win last night to have any hope of knocking off the Golden State Warriors. Lets run it back, and I’ll explain why.
The Cavs Played as Well as they Can and Still Lost.
LeBron played out of his mind, going off for 44 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists. That is damn well close to as good as James can play. In other words he does not have another level to go to.
Timofey Mozgov won the battle of the bigs, outplaying the more heralded Andrew Bogut. Mozgov contributed offensively, scoring 16 points on an efficient 5/10 shots. Bogut on the other hand had little impact on the game, scoring 4 points and pulling down just 7 rebounds. Bogut was so below par that the Warriors down-sized towards the end of the 4th and stayed small in OT with Draymond Green anchoring the defense.
Kyrie Irving confounded the doubters by going out and having a huge game. Playing on a wonky knee, he scored 23 points, dished out 6 assists and even managed to snare 7 rebounds. He looked to be operating at close to his full capabilities. The bad news is that he appeared to reinjure that troublesome knee early in Overtime. Irving left the court and was seen to be in visible discomfort in the locker room. We await official confirmation on his health, but it does not look good. The Cavs have no chance without Irving.
LeBron, Irving and Mozgov all dominated, and still the Cavs came up short.
This was well flagged coming into this series but the Cavaliers bench does not have the requisite depth to stay alive when LeBron and Irving are off the floor. David Blatt played 8 guys last night. There is nothing wrong with having a tight rotation, but every player in the rotation needs to be making a positive difference when his number is called.
Up to this point the bench had been adequtate, scoring baskets using smoke and mirrors, as opposed to due to any real consistent offensive talent. But sooner or later you are going to be found out when you are trotting out an (at a stretch) 8 man rotation. James Jones sometimes hits 3’s when he is open, but is inconsistent and is well past his peak years. He is close to LeBron, and while I am not suggesting that’s why he is seeing so many minutes, it is truly baffling that he played 17 minutes in an NBA Finals game. Jones went scoreless in those 17 minutes of action, and was a liability on defense.
Mathew Dellavedova gives you hustle and effort on defense, but is largely irrelevant on offense. He is a nice player to have as your 11th man, but he should not be your back-up point guard. Dellavedova is likely to have a bigger role thrusted upon him in game 2, due to Irving’s injury, a role that he is not equipped to fill. He played 10 minutes last night and also went scoreless.
So far we have looked at 2/3rd’s of the Cavs bench. The final member, J.R. Smith lacks for nothing in the talent department. He has been an integral piece in Cleveland’s run to the finals, but it won’t shock you to hear that he is player that is plagued by inconsistency. J.R. takes tough shots every night, he can win you a game on his own with his shot making ability, but he can shoot you out of one just as fast. Last night it looked like J.R. was in for one of his better outings, at the half he had 9 points, going 3 for 5 from three. However Smith failed to register a single point in the second half or overtime. He attempted 8 more shots in the game, all jumpers, and therein lies the problem. Smith has the ability to get into the lane and score easy baskets, he just chooses not to. He is a luxury player, who unfortunately for the Cavs is going to have to take on an increased role in the offense with the liklehood of Irving missing game time.
The Warriors bench conversely is stacked with talent and was huge last night. They outscored Cleveland’s reserves 35-9. Iguodala had one of his best games in a Dubs jersey, both offensively and defensively. Iggy chipped in with 15 crucial points, and along with another Warriors bench player, Mo Speights, led the Warriors resurgence in the 2nd quarter of the game. Iggy was assigned to LeBron towards the end of the 4th and O.T, and did a fantastic job, particularly on LeBron’s potential game winning jumper. Speight who hasn’t been on a basketball court since the 9th of May, gave Golden State a big lift also on offense.
Shaun Livingston Festus Ezili and the eternal Leandro Barbosa all gave the Warriors solid minutes also.
I was horrified by the amount of isolation plays I witnessed Cleveland, and LeBron and Kyrie in particular, run tonight. I am writing this directly after the game, (yes the early hours of the morning, and yes I may be insane) so the numbers on the exact amount of isolations that they ran are not currently available. Nevertheless, I would be quite confident in saying that was the most 1 on 1 basketball we have seen in an NBA Finals game in atleast 10 years.
We are in the “pace and space” era when it comes to offensive basketball, but what the Cavs ran last night was harping back to a bygone era when ever player tried to go 1 on 1 with his man and resolutely refused to move the ball. I am not some romanticist when it comes to ball movement. Isolations work very well in certain situations, for example at the end of games when a superstar wishes to quickly set up a high percentage shot. It is also a useful tool to use when a defender is on the verge of fouling out. The guy in danger of fouling out is likely to defend more passively than normal, giving the ball handler a greater chance to score, if he doesn’t drop off, then the ball handler can attack and look to draw the foul. In either case it’s win win.
But you cannot utilise the isolation as your primary offensive tool, as The Cavs did last night. LeBron took and made some exceptionally tough shots out of isolation, but the effect of him holding the ball had numerous subsidiary negative consequences. When we see the ball constantly stopping with LeBron and him calling for a clearout and then either taking the defender off the dribble, or else backing him down into the paint it isolates his teamates. The Warriors decided that they were going to stay at home on shooters, and not come and help. This meant that James did not have the option to hit the open man with a pass. As a result guys like Iman Shumpert, James Jones, Mathew Dellavoda and Tristan Thompson got shut out of the offense.
Essentially The Warriors said, you can get your 40+ points, but we are going to bet that if we defend the rest of the team tight then you will not have enough points to beat us with. This is exactly how it played out, James had a game for the ages, but it was all in vain.
On a sidenote, Mark Jackson really got my back up when he started deriding Jeff Van Gundy for pointing out that the Cavs were relying too much on iso-ball. Jackson made some comment like “Ofcourse LeBron and Kyrie are playing iso-ball, they are elite offensive players.” He displayed a complete lack of awareness of the fact that moving the ball actually makes it easier for the superstars to get their buckets. It throws the defense off balance, and is less predictable than simply tossing the ball to LeBron and asking him to try and create a score of the same play time and again.
The irony here is that Jackson got fired from his job with Golden State because he neglected to put in place an offensive scheme that went beyond give the ball to Curry and let him figure it out. Jackson being moved aside for Steve Kerr has seen the Dubs go from an above average playoff team to an historically great team. The irony is not lost on us Mr. Jackson.
But back to my point, the Cavs cannot continue to be so predictable on offense, especially now that Irving is likely to miss a lot of game time. The Warriors will simply make adjustments, and completely nullify the threat posed by Cleveland running isolations
All of this being said, one cannot ignore the fact that Cleveland came oh so close to winning this game. If LeBron had hit that tough go ahead jumper, the Cavs are 1-0 ahead in the series, Kyrie Irving never reinjures his knee, and The Warriors have blown home advantage. On such moments do series turn. Those are the breaks of the game as David Halberstam once eloquently wrote.
Regardless, I can see no way back for Cleveland in this series if Irving cannot get back out on the floor. I predicted Warriors in 6 in yesterday’s column. If Irving cannot get back on the floor I would revise that down to 5.
Thanks for reading and check back after game 2 to read my take on that game.