By: Garrett Dean
As I, and most of the nation, sat to watch Game 1 of the NBA Finals tonight, I expected nothing less than to see LeBron James do his best to carry his Cleveland team only to see Golden State stretch out the lead in the second half and coast to a 1-0 series lead. And although Cleveland looked strong in the first half, I couldn’t help but think that the 2nd half Warriors team that we saw in the last two games of the Western Conference Finals would soon emerge. But to my surprise, we saw the Cavs stick with Golden State, and at one point even putting the Warriors on their heels. Then just when it seemed like Cleveland could unexpectedly go up 1-0 on the road, multiple key decisions were made that hindered the Cavaliers from taking the advantage in the series.
Cavaliers (Somehow) Kept it Close
LeBron James played as we all expected LeBron James to play. He dominated on both sides of the floor and, funnily enough, probably surprised no one by scoring 51 points and nearly pulling out a triple double as well. But what was surprising was how Cleveland was able to hold the lead for a good chunk of regulation. The reason this is surprising is due to something we all know deep down: the rest of the Cavaliers team just is not very good. Other than LeBron accounting for 51 of his team’s 114 points, there were only two other players on team that even scored in double digits. TWO. One of these two was Kevin Love who actually did have a good game with 21 points and 13 rebounds. The other was George Hill who scored 10 points on 3-10 shooting. These stats, or the lack thereof, for the Cavaliers team are not going to be good enough if they want any shot at making this a competitive series. The fact that most of the Cavs team played so poorly really does make it impressive that the game was so close down the stretch.
Warriors Win While Playing a C Game
When LeBron scores 51 on your team, it’s usually understandable for the game to be close. But as I mentioned, overall the rest of the Cavs team played a subpar game to say the least. So how did Cleveland keep the game so tight? Well… to their luck, Golden State didn’t play that great of a game either until late in the 2nd half and overtime. The Warriors shot 36.1% from 3 point range, but until overtime that percentage was only in the high 20’s. This is obviously extremely uncharacteristic from a Warriors team that is known for their lethal accuracy from behind the arc. Also, 2017 Finals MVP Kevin Durant ended with 26 points but on only 8-22 shooting. The inconsistency of Durant’s jump shot tonight is not something that the Cavs can continue to bank on throughout the rest of the series. The Warriors also got out rebounded 53-38, allowing the Cavaliers to grab 19 offensive rebounds compared to their own 4. The amount of 2nd shot opportunities that Golden State allowed is maybe the biggest reason that the game stayed so close, and to Cleveland’s credit, it is those types of opportunities and sheer hustle plays that will give them the best chance of keeping games close throughout the series as they did tonight. For the Warriors, if they cut out even 10 of those offensive rebounds, they win by a comfortable double digit margin in regulation without a lot of the drama that happened towards the end of the game. For the rest of the series, look for the Warriors to put an emphasis on preventing those extra opportunities that they gave up to Cleveland, and if they do that then this series could seem as easy as maybe everyone expected it to be.
Debatable Decisions Down the Stretch
After LeBron made yet another incredible play with 51 seconds left in regulation which resulted in an And-One which put the Cavs up 2, the refs made a controversial decision and overturned a call that was originally a charge on Kevin Durant with 31 seconds to play. After going to the monitor the officials changed the call to a block on LeBron, giving Durant 2 shots at the line. This was an extremely controversial call that even had announcers agreeing that the original determination of a charge should have been the verdict. Although James was still sliding ever so slightly, he was still in a legal guarding position while also outside of the restricted arc which should have resulted in the officials confirming their original call. With Durant knocking down the 2 free throws and tying the game back up, there’s no doubt that this reversed call was a game changer which could have swayed the result of the game in a different direction. Had the call remained a charge, the Cavs would have had the ball up 2 with 31 seconds left in LeBron James’ hands… if I was Cleveland, I would have liked my chances in that situation and that understandably makes the call even more upsetting for them.
Almost equally as frustrating for Cleveland fans is the final play in regulation. After George Hill’s missed second free throw with the game tied and 4.7 seconds remaining, J.R. Smith gets the rebound and has basically a wide open layup that could have secured the win for Cleveland. All looked as if they just might do it and against all odds win the first game at Oracle Arena and take the lead in the series with this layup that middle school bench players make with ease. But instead, he dribbles out of the lane… out of the 3 point arc… to half court… before realizing that his team was not winning the basketball game. This lack of awareness is undeniably pathetic for a man who gets paid millions of dollars to play basketball. But this was not just any game, rather it was an NBA Finals game that could have been sealed with a layup after coming in as a 13 point underdog. There is no doubt that had J.R. Smith simply checked the score, Cleveland would most likely be up 1-0 and would have shocked the entire nation. It would have provided a new outlook on the series from everyone and would have given Cleveland momentum going into Game 2 and then into their home games in Games 3 and 4. But instead, the clock ran out, and Golden State proceeded to dominate the overtime period in route to a double digit victory: a victory that could have been avoided had J.R. Smith looked at the scoreboard.
Although Cleveland would have loved to get this win, there is still a chance that they can steal Game 2 on the road and go into their two home games with momentum. Although possible, I find it very unlikely that all of the things that bounced the right way for the Cavs tonight will end up happening again all at once. The steller rebounding, poor shooting from the Warriors, and LeBron passing the half century mark in points is not something that can be relied on game-in and game-out during this series. For this reason I will still keep my prediction of a Warriors championship in 5 games. But with that said, crazier things have happened, and when you have the best player in the world, debatably ever, on your team then there might be more greatness available for us to witness. One thing is for sure: we’ll be watching.