OAKLAND — Throughout the postseason, LeBron James has referred to the opening games of each series as his feel-out game. It’s a time to take an assessment of how the opponent plans to cover him, and what openings may be available for him to exploit. He also likes to see how his teammates can get their offense, and where opportunities can present themselves for them to get into a rhythm.
Perhaps it’s a credit to the Warriors that LeBron wasted no time in Game 1 of the Finals getting into his own flow. He attacked relentlessly from the opening tip and kept the Warriors off balance with a 51-point effort that worked the paint more than the perimeter. In a postseason full of brilliant performances, this may have been his best.
That it wasn’t enough to secure the victory in Game 1 spoke to Golden State’s own offensive barrage, as well as a multitude of events ranging from the controversial to the bizarre. That was a game the Cavs should have won, but it didn’t leave the Warriors feeling great about their defensive effort.
“I didn’t think we made him work hard enough,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said. “I thought everything was smooth sailing for him. It’s one thing to have a philosophy where you’re going to say, hey, we’re going to make this guy beat us and shut everybody else down. But it only works if you actually make the guy have to really use a lot of energy.”
LeBron was able to play 47 minutes in Game 1, including overtime, and he established the pace of play for most of the night. Rather than try to run with Golden State as the Cavs did when they had Kyrie Irving, LeBron settled his team into a deliberate offensive rhythm in the halfcourt. As Golden State’s defensive mastermind Ron Adams put it, “Everything about him is of concern, because he completely controls the game.”
Besides the final score, the biggest takeaway from Game 1 was that LeBron is indeed fully prepared to go toe-to-toe with Golden State’s collective might. The other is that he can actually pull it off, given a few more breaks and a little less weirdness.
We’ve all become numb to the daily examination of LeBron’s legacy, but just imagine if he could actually steal these Finals. It doesn’t seem that preposterous after Game 1.
Figuring out what to try and do with LeBron isn’t just the game within the game; it’s the whole series. You can’t really double him because he’ll pick you apart with his passing. You can try to turn him into a jump shooter, because it sure beats the alternative of giving up dunks and layups, but that strategy isn’t nearly as effective as it once was.
“There were parts of my game that you could disrespect early in my career,” James said. “You can’t do that now.”
For LeBron, it’s less about seeing what the man guarding him is going to do, than it is reading angles. He’s looking for passing lanes and areas to attack or to set up shop for his array of mid-range floaters and one-legged fallaways.
It’s Golden State’s job to make those angles tougher to see. It remains to be seen if they can, given the injury absence of Andre Iguodala and a lack of quality depth. (Iguodala is still listed as doubtful for Game 2.) The Warriors may be the only team good enough to withstand LeBron’s best punch, but it’s a scary way to live.
“We’ve got to put more pressure on him,” Kerr said. “We can’t just sit back and let him pick us apart.”
As for scoring 50 and still ending up with the loss, Ty Lue offered the perfect comeback. “So that means he has to score 60 now, right? Well, got to score 60, then, I guess.”
Don’t put it past him.
It was a busy off day between games, so here are a few quick thoughts as we head into Game 2 at Oracle.
It was lost in LeBron’s overall brilliance, but Draymond Green was spectacular in the opener. A lot’s been made of Green’s struggles from the 3-point line in the postseason, but he buried two critical shots that capped a 13-11-9 night that also included five steals. Dude was everywhere on defense and under control offensively.
Asked if he considered it disrespectful that teams have been leaving him wide open behind the arc, Green countered: “No, not at all. I think you do whatever best suits you to win the game. Then I’ll just make two big threes and call it a day.”
Klay Thompson’s ankle injury is a very big deal. Thompson was walking with a noticeable limp and he said that he might not have been able to play if Game 2 was on Saturday. Thompson suffered the injury in a first quarter rollup with J.R. Smith, who slipped and wound up taking out Thompson’s legs.
“That’s a tough play on the ball,” Thompson said. “And then just to tumble into somebody’s legs like that. You’ve got to move past it. It’s just life, and I’m going to be better from it. It’s just a minor setback. But I don’t think it was intentional.”
The Warriors are already thin on the wing, so if Thompson is limited or unable to play, get ready to see an awful lot of Nick Young.
Think about that for a moment: Nick Young versus J.R. Smith in the Finals. What a world.
Speaking of J.R. … upon reflection he now says that he isn’t sure what he was thinking when he dribbled the ball out to midcourt after securing an offensive rebound in a tie game with 4.7 seconds left on the clock.
“After thinking about it a lot the last 24 hours or however many since the game was over, I can’t say I was sure of anything at that point,” he said.
J.R. also weighed in on the burden of playing with LeBron.
“It’s a lot of pressure,” he said. “It’s almost — it’s a blessing and — it’s a gift and a curse. You play on his team, and you’re playing with the best player in the world and you get to witness some great historic things and be a part of it. Then, on the other side, if you don’t help that person win, they’re looking at you too. So it’s a lot of pressure, depending on how you look at it. But I tell him all the time he has the opportunity to play with me as well.”
He was joking about that last part. Probably.
J.R.’s blunder also saved Kevin Durant from a whole lot of criticism. It was KD who failed to block out Smith on the missed free throw late in regulation. That would have been bad enough. Durant was also the only Warrior starter to struggle offensively. He shot 8-for-22 and 1-for-7 from 3-point range and forced his action with isolation jumpers.
Durant still had 26 points, nine rebounds, and six assists, which is one hell of an off night, but that’s the standard he’s set. It was only a year ago when KD was clearly the best player on the court en route to winning Finals MVP.
“I didn’t take smart shots,” Durant acknowledged. “I took risky looks. I took some shots that I know I can hit, but I’d rather get better shots than that. I’m not worried about my makes or misses. It’s just more so am I getting good, quality shots? After that, the rest will figure itself out.”
The one thing that bugs the Warriors more than anything is the idea that this series is a wrap. Kerr’s been particularly annoyed by the suggestion, and he has a point. Not much has come easy for Golden State this season, and beating LeBron is never simple, as the Pacers, Raptors, and Celtics all came to understand.
“We’ve been through this too many times.” Kerr said. “We beat Houston on the road in Game 1 and the narrative was, you know, series is over. It seems to always be that way. There is just overreaction after a game. Not blaming all of you in this room. It’s the other media people who are out there on the floor. Those guys don’t get it. You guys get it.”
We try, Steve. We try.