Some games you have 'it'. Some games you don't. Good players, by definition, have a higher quality 'it' more consistently than lesser players. Stephen Curry? Yeah, he has a very good 'it', and he has 'it' very often.
On Thursday night, Curry's 'it' disappeared after a couple quick threes. Klay Thompson's 'it' never quite made it into Oakland, after a previous three rounds of Western Conference action with Thompson having 'it'. All year long, the key to stopping this 73-win juggernaut Golden State Warriors squad was to limit the Splash Bros. tandem. On Wednesday, the Cavs held the Warriors' lauded backcourt to 20 points, ahem, total. That's the lowest combined point total since Steph Curry started being voted into the All Star Game.
Points aren't everything, of course. Curry made up for that lack of production by contributing a lion's share (five) of the team's total turnovers (nine). Not a great night for the big, shiny guns. A 73-win team has to come equipped with a secondary battery of options, though -- there's simply no other way to reach such lofty heights. And on a night when the main battery of Curry and Thompson was jammed and malfunctioning, the secondary battery stood loud and proud in front of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
43 combined points from Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, and Leandro Barbosa. They took 24 field goal attempts and converted on 18 of them, a cool 75%. They contributed 23 more points than their combined average, on a night in which the Splash Bros. gave 32 points less than their average output. On December 8, 2015, in the aftermath of a Klay Thompson's injury in Indiana due to a bench collapse forcing the starters to reenter the game, I wrote that the bench would have highs and lows throughout the season. Six months later, that same bench just did its best Atlas imitation, outright willing the Warriors to a Game One victory.
Is it a sustainable way to win? Absolutely not. It was closer to a fluke than a precursor to future events. A blunter observer would call it a fluke outright. Barbosa in particular seemed to be possessed on the court, channeling his usual erratic and ineffective drives into surgical moves and soft floaters. Livingston and Iguodala have performed at this level before, but never for four or more consecutive games. Even Harrison Barnes was engaged early, making more than one successful drive on a player under 6'10.
Winning a Finals series is too much of a burden to do without the big guns fully operational. The Thompson and Curry battery has to get going, soon.
Game One was a contest that could have easily been a blowout either way. If Curry and/or Thompson had performed at even half capacity, the game would have been decided north of 20 points. If Iguodala, Barbosa, Livingston, and Barnes had not played remarkably excellent, the Cavs could have won by 20 without breaking 90 points themselves.
Defensively, the Warriors were predictably excellent. For all the talk of the Cavs' revamped offense, they quickly reverted into old ways when faced by the first formidable defense in their postseason run. Old habits reappear in the crucible of competition. LeBron James and Kyrie Irving took turns in the post and running PnR ISOs, respectively. Kevin Love post-ups and spot-up threes were sprinkled in intermittently. An entirely dry, predictable offense quelled and stopped with attentive off-ball defense that deterred perimeter shots.
LeBron can pick apart an Eastern Conference defense like Peyton Manning with passes out of the post to open shooters. Against an engaged, talkative, intelligent defense like the Warriors, that task becomes more daunting. LeBron's otherworldly basketball acumen still allows him to hurt the Warriors -- and he'll surely have a game or two in which his performance is good enough to upend the Warriors entirely -- but it's no coincidence that the Warriors have now won six straight games against the Cavs.
Iguodala is a veritable LeBron stopper. LeBron still compiled a nice point-assist-rebound "double-double-and-nine-of-the-third-one" stat-line, but Iguodala (with an assist from Draymond Green) contained LeBron's impact on the game. He reduced the King to a mere post-up act, and has now learned the King's royal tendencies to the point where he successfully stripped LeBron on a couple possessions. For all the talk about the Warriors' switch-all defense, which is indeed a genius Ron Adams scheme, consecutive Finals may be decided on the one-on-one battle between LeBron and Iguodala.
Offensively, the Cavaliers successfully bogged down Curry in a mire. Iman Shumpert slapped at Curry on inbounds, bumped him, and generally dared the referees to blow the whistle. LeBron found himself seeking out Curry on switches often, looking to employ the classic strategy of physically tiring Curry out on the perimeter. The Cavs made sure to maintain physical contact with Curry every moment of every possession.
This is nothing new; it's the standard, in fact. The Warriors largely strayed from the Green-Curry PnR outside of a few probes on Love early on. The offense gravitated more towards off-ball movement involving Curry, taking advantage of the gravity he caused to get open looks to tertiary shooters (Green, Iguodala) in the half-court. The Cavs seemed undisciplined on a few sets, as more than one defender needlessly adjusted to Curry, leaving some open shooters more open than necessary.
The Cavaliers, as a whole, played a sloppier, more mistake-riddled game. Yet they took several second-half leads over the Warriors, mainly due to the absence of any scoring punch from Curry or Thompson. The Splash Bros. will absolutely need to ignite at some point soon before Cleveland grapples momentum in the series away from the Warriors.
The good news is that the Warriors can adjust to Cleveland's handsy-ness with Curry with backdoor cuts and on-ball PnR action (and maybe Steve Kerr can invest a technical foul to call attention to the holding). The Cavs have a larger problem, in that their offensive fulcrum (LeBron) naturally retreats into his post-up shell in big moments. After much chest-beating was conducted over LeBron as a screener in the PnR, he set approximately one screen the entire night (as part of a triple-screen play), which was whistled dead when Tristan Thompson was caught moving early. Does Tyronn Lue have the rank to tell LeBron to play the game the correct way? He might, and it's crazy to be questioning the command of a coach in the Finals.
And that's the scary part for Cleveland. LeBron dictates every facet of reality in the Cavaliers' offense, and past Finals experiences has shown that when times get tough, LeBron doubles down on his domineering hold on the reins. With Iguodala looming, and an intelligent, whip-sharp doubling scheme in his path, is LeBron's preferred isolation ways the correct avenue to take?
We will find out on Sunday in Oakland. Game 2 can tilt the entire series on its head, or it can position the Warriors to take the series in 4 or 5 games. For Cleveland, nothing is given and everything is earned. They'll have to play a much cleaner, intelligent game on both ends to earn a win in Oakland.