OAKLAND -- Pretty much everyone in the building thought Iman Shumpert's shot was going down, and if it had we'd be having an entirely different conversation this morning.
We'd be talking about how LeBron James hoisted the Cavaliers onto his broad shoulders and carried them to a momentous Game 1 victory with a huge assist from Kyrie Irving, who looked far healthier than he has in weeks. We'd be talking about Warriors coach Steve Kerr's decision to single-cover James throughout the game, which led to LeBron scoring almost half his team's points. We'd also be talking about how Golden State came out flat and squandered home court advantage in what would appear to be a very long and grueling series.
As Shumpert lined up his potential game-winner, Oracle Arena held its breath. In a moment, the crowd of almost 20,000 raving die-hard fans exhaled. Overtime was anti-climatic. The Cavs were spent, the Warriors were deeper and fresher. Stephen Curry made a few big plays. Kerr's strategy was a success and Irving hobbled out of the building on crutches after falling awkwardly on his already-injured left leg. It was that close and now it feels so very far away.
This was the game the Cavs had to have. They did almost everything they needed to do to steal a victory on the road. They pounded the glass, defended the perimeter and limited transition opportunities. LeBron was brilliant, Kyrie was sublime. It was all there, right up until the moment when it wasn't.
"I mean, I didn't even think we were going to have overtime because I thought Iman's follow was going in," Kerr said. "It looked good the whole way. It was right on line. It was maybe a few inches short. But I thought the whole bench thought it was going in. So, we were lucky to get overtime."
Up until that moment, we had witnessed a fantastic opening salvo to these finals. The Cavs were dominant in the first quarter, the Warriors were tremendous in the second. The third and fourth quarters swayed back and forth with momentum -- if there really was such a thing -- rising and cresting with each mini-run and every answer.
LeBron James is on an island against the Warriors
LeBron James took more shots than he's ever taken in any game before in Game 1. He did this against a spectacular defense eager to stop him. He did this because he had no choice.
Having watched LeBron pick apart the Hawks' aggressive double-teams in the conference finals, Kerr had Harrison Barnes and Andre Iguodala single-cover James, with help coming from Klay Thompson and whoever else happened to be unlucky enough to find themselves on the wrong end of a switch. Time and time again, James bullied his way into the post. He finished with 44 points, but they were a hard 44, coming as they did on 38 shots with all but four outside the restricted area.
Iguodala in particular was effective against James. He played the angles and cut off direct paths to the basket. A veteran of 11 years and countless one-on-one battles against the other team's best player has given him a lifetime of experience. As a young player with the 76ers, Iggy also had the fortune of coming under the tutelage of Aaron McKie, himself a tough hard-nosed wing defender who taught him the most important lessons.
"Aaron McKie, when I was a rookie, he was walking me through it, because I was starting and guarding a lot of those guys," Iguodala said. "He always said make it hard for them. NBA is about scoring. You've got a lot of talented players, guys are going to score the points. You've got to get stops. The thing to do is make it hard for them. Don't foul them. Make them take tough shots and the routes hard. He kind of just gave me the ins and outs of how to be a good defender in this league."
It says a lot about these Warriors that Iguodala comes off the bench. He had been an NBA All-Star in Philly and a member of the Olympic team when he signed with the Warriors. In Golden State, Iguodala adapted to life as a role player, which brought him to his current position as an underappreciated sixth man. Never the most efficient scorer, Iguodala is not the kind of player who wins that kind of award, going as it often does to microwaveable scorers. His job is to stop those players, which is a thankless assignment.
"I thought he was fantastic," Kerr said. "Andre is one of the smartest defenders I've ever seen. I mean, he understands angles, he understands where everybody is on the floor. You know, it's funny to say when a guy gets 44 points that the defender did a really good job, but I thought Andre did extremely well. Made LeBron take some tough shots. But Andre has been fantastic all year. The numbers don't always show it, but he's a great player for us."
Context is everything with the Warriors. It's the reason they can miss 17 threes and still make enough of them to be effective. It's why Draymond Green can emerge as an effective force and why Harrison Barnes starts over Iguodala. It's why Kerr can wait until the very last minute -- or at least the last three -- to go with a smaller lineup in overtime that helped put this one away. It's also why Kerr can use 10 players and all of them can make a positive contribution, from Mo Speights scoring eight points in eight minutes to Festus Ezeli starting the overtime to try and win the tip and gain an extra possession.
The Cavs don't have that kind of luxury. They have eight players in the rotation and really only six when you get down to it. Four of them: LeBron, Irving, J.R. Smith and Timofey Mozgov took 83 of Cleveland's 94 shots and scored 92 of its 100 points. Their offense was reduced to its blunt essentials, which were James isolated in the post and Irving creating shots off the dribble. And it almost worked. This was star power stripped down to its essential core: Give the ball to your best player and get out of the way.
It was good enough to bring this game to its breaking point and may be good enough to get a win in Game 2, provided Irving is able to play. That looms as a very large qualifier. He's scheduled to have an MRI on Friday and the next two days will be critical. Irving was every bit the second star the Cavs desperately needed in Game 1 and if he can't play up to that standard, the supporting offense will have to come from somewhere else. The Warriors have thrown down the gauntlet, daring the best player in the world to beat them by himself, and again, he almost pulled it off.
"At the end of the day, we gave ourselves a chance, man," James said. "I missed a tough one. But we had so many opportunities to win this game, and we didn't."