The Cleveland Cavaliers needed to win individual matchups against Golden State. In Game 1, no Cavalier – not even LeBron – outplayed his opponent.
Before Game 1 of the NBA Finals, one of my friends texted a group chat of which I’m a part of, writing, “Well-kept secret that LeBron isn’t a very good one-on-one defender anymore. I think KD is going to eat with Steph.” (Note: No, neither my friends nor I text with such impeccable punctuation.)
Ignore the LeBron take for one second. Let’s just acknowledge that Kevin Durant did indeed eat. He finished with 38 points, 8 assists, 8 rebounds, and not a single turnover, shooting 14-of-26 from the field. The Golden State Warriors won the game 113 to 91. Durant was the best player on the floor, even though he was sharing that floor with the best player in the world.
The “Trilogy” storyline has largely overshadowed one of this series’ most intriguing subplots: The world’s two best players matched up against one another. It’s widely recognized that the Warriors play better “team basketball” – whatever that means. As a result, the Cavaliers need to win their individual battles to stand any chance of repeating as champions. Kyrie Irving needs to outshine Stephen Curry, Kevin Love needs to outplay Draymond Green, and so on. But in the marquee matchup at small forward, Durant dominated Game 1.
For the majority of the playoffs, LeBron has guarded a big man or a limited perimeter player, allowing him to play free safety along Cleveland’s back line. Thursday night, however, he was assigned to Durant, who is big but certainly not limited. Just as my friend predicted, LeBron was caught flat-footed numerous times in the first quarter alone:
The King let KD get hot, which is a problem. Add that to some Steph Curry one-on-one magic against Irving, J.R. Smith, and LeBron himself, and it’s almost an automatic loss:
To be fair, LeBron had an okay defensive game. He contested a ton of shots, of which the Warriors made just 35.3 percent. Given the burden he carries on offense, LeBron has to be almost perfect to lead the Cleveland attack and play excellent on-ball defense. He did, after all, post a 28-15-8 line on just 20 shots.
That said, in mano y mano situations, Durant got the best of him. Andre Iguodala has proven himself a capable LeBron defender over the last two Finals, but when engaged, Durant may be even better. His combination of size and lateral quickness is unprecedented, and even when he gets beat, he can use his length to contest shots and cause turnovers.
This stint of individual defense is just unfair pic.twitter.com/JDLN0udPxO— Cole Zwicker (@colezwicker) June 2, 2017
It wasn’t just Durant who locked in defensively. Iguodala is still a force on that end. Klay Thompson put the clamps on Irving, especially in the first quarter. For the game, Cleveland players shot just 2-for-14 from the field with Thompson as the primary defender. Even with a roster less talented than the Warriors, this is how you beat the Cavs. No team has finished more possessions out of isolation than Cleveland this postseason, and only the Raptors have scored at a higher clip on those plays. Shut them down at the point of attack, and your chances of winning skyrocket.
In a recent column for The Ringer, Kevin O’Connor wrote about the importance of one-on-one scoring (and, by extension, defending) in this series. Who knew the Warriors would win so convincingly in that department?
Outrageous ISO defense by GSW tonight. KD was great at the rim, too. CLE was sloppy, but a lot of those TOs were forced by good defense— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) June 2, 2017
It was the same story on the boards. The Cavs won the rebounding battle 67-to-60, but only because Golden State hoisted 20 more field goal attempts. The Warriors outscored the Cavs 18 to 13 on second-chance points, many coming in the first quarter when the game was still tight. And tellingly, Golden State hauled in 19 “contested” rebounds, compared to just 12 for Cleveland. Once again, in one-on-one situations, the Warriors came out on top. Even Curry, a basketball welterweight, was crashing the boards and snatching the ball away from Cleveland’s behemoths:
You can lose to the Warriors in many ways, but the way the Cavs lost on Thursday night was especially demoralizing. You can’t lose individual battles and still win the war against such an historic juggernaut. Cleveland thrives in situations with just two men and the ball; that’s not really Golden State’s game. But even when Game 1 came down to isolations, rebounding, and hustle plays, the Cavs couldn’t make a run.
Golden State won all three jump balls that occurred on Thursday night. Those jump balls were ultimately inconsequential, but they were nevertheless indicative of how Game 1 panned out. The Cavs lost too many 50/50 battles. They failed to punish switches, played shoddy isolation defense, forgot to box out their matchups, and got spooked at the rim.
The Cavs can’t afford to get outrun, outjumped, and outworked. But they did. Even LeBron James.
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