It wasn’t the heat on Steph Curry’s feet or the abundance of celebrities and professional athletes scattered throughout the crowd that caught James’ eye, rather a lanky seven-footer with a silky smooth jump shot.
“I mean, you take one of the best teams ever assembled last year that we saw in the regular season and in the post-season, and then in the off-season you add a high-powered offensive talent like [Kevin Durant] and a great basketball IQ like that,” James explained to media postgame. “That's what stands out.”
And stand out is exactly what Durant did.
In his first NBA Finals game since 2012, Durant scored a game-high 38 points, grabbed eight rebounds and dished out eight assists — all without recording a single turnover. The Cavs had no answer for his size and unique skill-set which relentlessly put pressure on Cleveland’s defense all night long.
Durant helped to exploit a fundamental difference in philosophy between Cleveland and Golden State. The Cavs believe that their best defense is their offense, meaning that if they can take care of the ball that will in turn limit the number of possessions that the other team gets throughout game.
The Warriors on the other hand believe that their defense is their best offense. If they limit a team to one shot per possession and secure the rebound, this gives their shooters the ability to run the floor while the ball handler looks to attack in transition.
Durant is the piece that has taken the Warriors’ concept of turning defense into offense from a noble idea to a completely unstoppable force.
The Warriors won the battle of philosophies in game 1 by forcing Cleveland into 20 turnovers. The last thing the Cavs want to do when playing an offense as stacked as Golden State’s is to spot them an extra 20 possessions, as this ultimately helped the Warriors finish the game with 20 more field goal attempts.
“It all starts from getting stops,” said Durant. “We get stops, we worry about defense first and offensively we can move the ball around, drive and kick and try to find shots as well. So I'm more focused on defense.”
Cleveland’s offense was stagnate throughout much of the game. If it wasn’t Kyrie Irving creating off the dribble, it was LeBron James bulldozing his way to the basket looking to score or to kick out to a plethora of shooters spotted up around the three-point line.
James admitted after the game that the ball needs to move more than it did in game 1, as the Cavs recorded just 15 assists for the entire game. But excelling in isolation situations is what helped get Cleveland to this point of the season.
“We got to be able to move the ball, we know that,” James said in his post game presser. “But playing iso ball has helped us get to this point, and it has given us success in the last three years. So we don't want to have a high steady diet of it because the defense becomes stagnant and our players become stagnant, but that's part of our package.”
While the Cavs try to figure out their problems on offense, they have even bigger fish to fry on defense as Golden State continually torched Cleveland in transition. The Warriors fastbreak offense is so unique because any number of players can grab a rebound and run in transition.
For instance, when Kevin Durant grabs a rebound and pushes the ball up the floor, that lets Steph Curry and Klay Thompson space out to the wings for a three-pointer. This puts an enormous amount of pressure on the opposing defense because it forces the defender to make a decision: Do I run to the three-point line to stay with the best three-point shooter in history or stop the ball and risk giving up a three?
On about three different occasions the Cavs chose the latter, resulting in Durant cruising down a wide open lane to throw down one thunderous dunk after another.
“We talked about it a lot throughout the season,” said Andre Iguodala “You know how scary things can be, especially when that 7-footer is coming at you full speed with his ball-handling ability and shooters spread across. It’s pick your poison.”
As the series shifts to game two on Sunday evening, the Cavs are left with more questions than answers. If the Warriors protect the ball like they did in game one, in which they tied an NBA Finals record for fewest turnovers in a game with only 4, they will be virtually impossible to beat.
Golden State’s talent far exceeds that of Cleveland. If they continue to stay focused on defense and make good decisions with the ball, they have a legitimate shot at becoming the first team in NBA history to mow through the playoffs without a single loss.
But as both teams learned last year, nothing is guaranteed.
“Last year, as bad as it hurt, was a learning experience and fueled us to get here,” said Klay Thompson after the game. “There are no shortcuts to win a championship. Everybody knows that. We’ve still got a long way to go to win this series.