OAKLAND, Calif. – Most debilitating about the Golden State Warriors’ runaway victory in Game 1 of the NBA Finals for the allegedly healthier and more prepared Cleveland Cavaliers was Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson had little to do with the knockout.
The Warriors won Game 1 104-89 at Oracle Arena on Thursday because of their depth. They battered the bewildered Cavaliers with a series of contributions from players whose NBA lives were derailed by injuries.
Look back to Feb. 11, 2013, when Leandro Barbosa was key reserve for the Celtics, in the last gasp of the Big Three Era. On a simple explosion to the basket, the speedy Barbosa blew out his left knee. He needed nearly a year to recover and then returned to the NBA on a 10-day contract with the Phoenix Suns.
He stunned the sellout crowd with 11 points in 11 minutes.
Nine and a half years ago, Shaun Livingston nearly lost his left leg after tearing three of the four major ligaments and dislocating his knee cap in a game while with the Los Angeles Clippers. He played on a series of 10-day contracts before finally sticking with the Brooklyn Nets and then signing with the Warriors.
He burned the Cavaliers with 20 points on 8-for-10 shooting in 27 minutes.
Curry and Thompson combined for 20 points on a night when they weren’t particularly needed. The Warriors have flourished the past two years because of their depth, a group of guys who could garner bigger roles with lesser teams. Instead, they accept their limited minutes and maximize their production.
“Well, we’ve talked about our depth for the last two years. We rely on a lot of people,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “We play a lot of people, and we feel like we have a lot of talent on the bench that can come in and score when we need it. So it’s a great sign, obviously, that we can win in the Finals without those two guys having big games, but it’s not really that surprising to us. This has been our team the last couple of years.”
When the Cavaliers briefly took the lead late in the third quarter, the Golden State reserves mustered a game-changing 25-8 run that sealed the game and returned the Cavaliers to their insecure ways.
After breezing through the Eastern Conference playoffs and claiming to be ready for the challenge of the defending champions, the Cavaliers melted under the pressure. Kyrie Irving, who missed the final five games of last year’s Finals, and Kevin Love, who missed them all, combined to go 14-for-39 shooting, diminishing a sparkling night from LeBron James – 23 points, 12 rebounds and 9 assists.
We knew James would show up. We knew James would produce, but the pressure and expectations were on the rest of the Cavaliers, the players who celebrated so vigorously after defeating the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Cleveland bench scored 10 points. The Golden State bench scored 45. J.R. Smith, never a player to pass up a bad shot, attempted three field goals in 36 minutes and hit one.
This wasn’t LeBron’s fault. Once again, he didn’t receive any help when it counted, and while another NBA Finals defeat would damage his legacy, it was apparent in Game 1 that his complements, those highly paid players who have made All-Star teams or are considered valuable pieces, weren’t ready for the challenge.
“Yeah, we’ve got some young guys, but as far as confidence in those guys not believing, that’s never been the case for us or any of the guys in the locker room,” James said. “I know they’re excited. We had a chance in that third quarter to do something special, but we didn’t counter and do it. Didn’t make it happen in the fourth quarter. So I’m looking forward to seeing the film session and seeing ways we can get better going into Game 2, and I think our team will as well.”
While the Cavaliers spent the past five months preparing themselves for the Golden State onslaught, acquiring Channing Frye to help spread the floor, turning Love into an improved shooter and floor stretcher, and solidifying their team culture after early bickering, they returned to their old, one-dimensional ways other than a nine-minute stretch in the third quarter.
It was James attacking the paint. It was Irving taking his turn by launching a team-leading 22 shots, 26 percent of the team’s total. It was Love looking completely lost defensively (no surprise there) and then trying to take the Warriors’ big men off the dribble.
After David Blatt was fired in January and replaced by Tyronn Lue, the Cavaliers went 27-14, tore through the Eastern Conference during the first three rounds of the playoffs (12-2 record) and attacked opponents with the 3-point shot, a byproduct of improved ball movement.
Cleveland was just 7-for-21 from the 3-point line Thursday and the Golden State defense forced 17 turnovers. It was mostly a recipe for disaster for the Cavaliers, who trailed by as many as 14 points before a third-quarter run gave them a 1-point lead.
The Warriors countered with that pivotal run sparked by their bench.
What’s was most surprising about the game’s early moments is Cleveland wasted an opportunity to make a major statement. The Cavaliers were the well-rested team that polished off Toronto six days ago and had plenty of time to prepare.
It was Golden State that limped into this series with great vulnerability after being forced to rally from a three games to one deficit to overcome the imposing Oklahoma City Thunder. The Warriors, once considered nearly unbeatable after a record 73-win regular season, were exposed.
They struggled with Oklahoma City’s length, their defense was pounded by the Thunder’s relentless attack, and it required stellar efforts by Thompson in Game 6 and Curry in Game 7 to survive.
Three days later they were here, in the NBA Finals, defending their crown. But they seemed like the more motivated and cohesive team, which was befuddling considering how much the Cavaliers claim to hunger for the title.
Yet, they played with little sense of urgency.
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.