Finals Game 1: Warriors 108, Cavs 100 (OT) Golden State leads series 1-0
It's not fun or macho to look back on championship series, regardless of sport, and analyze them based on injuries. It sounds like excuse making and sour grapes and detracts from the victors. The players and coaches want to feel like they earned their rings and their fans certainly don't want any asterisks attached. We want our winners to be the judged conclusively as the best team, not just the healthiest (and by extension, the luckiest). It's one thing to play the "what if" game about teams that lost important pieces during the regular season or even in the early rounds of the playoffs, but in the Finals? Forget it, nobody wants to hear it.
Unfortunately, fate is a cruel, fickle mistress. Injuries can and do influence the NBA Finals all the time. It's not like the basketball gods turn injury slider to "off" with their controllers just because it's the league's showcase event. It'd be awesome if nobody ever got hurt and winners and losers were decided on the court with both teams at their best, but it's just not realistic. If anything, by the time the Finals roll around a critical injury is more likely, with all the bumps and bruises guys accumulate over the marathon regular season and three intense, grueling rounds of playoffs. Things are bound to come to a head at the worst time, especially with the most important players logging 40-plus minutes.
One of the most iconic NBA moments is Knicks center Willis Reed coming out of the tunnel to take the floor with his teammates for Game 7 of the Finals against the Lakers despite tearing a thigh muscle in Game 5. You can see the highlights in your mind's eye, Reed hitting two mid-range jumpers early on. What you may not know is that he retreated to the bench soon after and that it was Walt Frazier who carried the Knicks to a ring, with 36 points and 19 assists.
The reason Reed stands out even 45 years later though is that it was the rare circumstance of a team winning it all despite one of their stars suffering an injury at the worst time. We don't think about Kevin McHale and his broken foot in 1987 or Isiah Thomas and his hamstring the next year or Magic and Byron Scott both pulling their hamstrings the year after that or James Worthy and Scott again getting hurt in 1991 against the Bulls. Patrick Ewing in 1999, Karl Malone in 2004, Kendrick Perkins (no, for real) in 2010, Tony Parker in 2013, all of them got hurt just enough to influence Finals.
And now, it's happened to Kyrie Irving, on a seeming non-contact injury he suffered to his left knee midway through overtime in the Warriors 108-102 win over the Cavs in Game 1 at euphoric Oracle Arena. It was particularly unfair that the injury happened to Irving, of all people, after he had played brilliantly on both ends of the floor for 44 minutes despite being severely limited in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Hawks. It was downright unfair for it to happen in overtime, after Cleveland had a chance to win the game in regulation, with a LeBron James jumper bricking as the clock ticked down and Iman Shumpert just rimming out the carom that came to him at the baseline.
The Cavs, who've had to make do without Kevin Love the last two rounds and won with Irving far from his best against the Hawks just didn't deserve another setback, but in sports as in life, deserve has nothing to do with anything.
Early on in the game two things became very evident. One, the Warriors came out rusty, nervous and tentative. All to be expected for a squad who hadn't played in over a week and have no one the roster with any Finals experience. Two, the Cavs ready to pull out all the stops, do whatever it takes to steal a Game 1 begging to be stolen.
We saw Irving, who heretofore has been a defensive liability throughout his career, make a handful of huge plays in his own end against league MVP Stephen Curry, blocking two of his would-be layups, including what looked to be a potential game-winner late in regulation. Irving threw his body around all night, diving to the floor for steals and showing a scrappiness that we've never seen from him.
Even more glaring was James, who has always been reticent to work down low despite being such a load in the post. Against the Warriors, he seemed to sense from the outset that the only way to neutralize the Warriors multifaceted, versatile switching defense was to eschew all pick-and-rolls and rely on iso-ball, repeatedly turning his back to the goal and backing his defender down.
Steve Kerr and defensive coordinator Ron Adams refused to take the bait, contrary to so many who came before them. They refused to double or send any kind of help to James, no matter how much he was abusing Harrison Barnes or Klay Thompson at times (James was far less effective against the longer, sturdier Andre Iguodala). They realized that for all his prodigious scoring, what's truly made James one of the best handful of players to ever play has been his court vision and passing, his ability to turn ordinary players into game breakers by feeding them open threes time and again. The Warriors didn't leave the shooters and dared James to beat them by himself.
He almost did, fading just enough down the stretch, missing five of his last six shots, with the only make a meaningless layup with seconds left in overtime, the only points for the Cavs in the extra period.
Watching James play is the ultimate study in how old school journalists view basketball versus how analytics-driven media breaks down games. The dinosaur in me thinks he played a wondrous, amazing game, with a career Finals-high 44 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists. The nerd in me thinks he was an inefficient chucker, with "only" 44 points on a career-high 38 shots, 34 of which came outside of the restricted area. The Warriors will happily take numbers from him all series long.
Either way it was a terrific, mesmerizing Kobe Bryant impression James put on. Whether you think that's praise or an insult depends on your age, probably.
Even if you set aside Irving's injury and that James likely won't score 44 again, the Warriors have to be feeling good to escape with a win on a night where none of their starers save Curry played remotely well, especially in the first half. Draymond Green was a reckless maniac at both ends, Andrew Bogut hot potatoed the ball at every opportunity and Klay Thompson was mostly off, as he's been throughout the playoffs.
The Warriors were saved by their defense and their bench, particularly Iguodala but also lesser lights like Marreese Speights and Festus Ezeli, who contributed to mini runs in the second and fourth quarters when the starters were resting. Golden State doesn't always get consistent scoring from their subs, but they won the battle with their counterparts to the tune of 34-9 in Game 1, in part because J.R. Smith was awful but also because David Blatt just didn't give the others much opportunity. The Cavs had only six guys score and one of them was Tristan Thompson who had but two points.
James has made a career of adjusting brilliantly to Game 1 setbacks. Nobody's ever been better at watching film of what opponents did to him and figuring out a way to counter it. I really don't want to discount him, because he is the best player in the world.
But man, with Irving going down I have a feeling this will be over in four. Hopefully I'm wrong because I want to enjoy a competitive, compelling series. Six more games just like this one would be awesome.
Timofey Mosgov was really good in Game 1, repeatedly dunking over Bogut with authority and nailing two clutch free throws to tie it up late in the game. Too bad that he too ran out of gas in overtime, but it's fun watching him out there. James has never played with anyone like him and the two have terrific chemistry. Also, Mosgov and Thompson are just relentless on the glass.
Mosgov might've turned in the best Finals performance by any Knicks center since Reed.
At one point late in the first quarter Mark Jackson praised James for stepping in a couple of feet inside of the three-point line and knocking down a "much higher percentage" 22-footer at the top of the key.
Things like that are why Steve Kerr is leading the Warriors in these Finals and Jackson is a part of the broadcast crew.
Damn, Iggy. You nasty.