There was that moment in the third quarter when you thought maybe it could happen again, that maybe the Golden State Warriors would drop Game 1 in Oakland on Thursday night and sacrifice home-court advantage in the NBA Finals the same way they had against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals. That same nervous pall overcame the crowd at Oracle Arena as the Cleveland Cavaliers erased an 11-point deficit, fueled by the notion that both Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson had somehow transformed from two of the best shooters in NBA history to a pair of intoxicated bar patrons attempting to conquer a Pop-a-Shot machine.
And then, just like that, in the midst of a 15-0 run that propelled the Warriors to a 104-89 victory over Cleveland in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, the moment was gone. Because here is perhaps the most underrated thing about the Warriors: They go extremely deep, and they always have, as evidenced by the run, which was fueled almost entirely by Golden State’s bench. All the talk heading into this Finals was that the Cavaliers were at full strength, unlike last year, when they were down a pair of superstars in Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. But the truth is, that may not matter at all if the Warriors can go 10 deep like they did last night; it may not matter if the Warriors can still win a game by 15 points when Thompson and Curry combine to put up one of their lowest point totals of the season.
“This was a strange game for us,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said afterward, and if anything, that was probably an understatement. Here was Curry, putting up an airball from the corner on a 3-point attempt, and here was Thompson, bricking the pull-up 3’s he usually nails with reckless abandon, particularly at home. But it didn’t matter, because Curry’s backup, Shaun Livingston – the same Shaun Livingston who, it should be mentioned any time he does something like this, nearly lost a leg following a gruesome knee injury – put up 20 points in 26 minutes on a series of the mid-range jumpers that have come to define his game the past couple of years. And it didn’t matter because Leandro Barbosa, who barely played in the Western Conference Finals against the Thunder, put up 11 points on 5-of-5 shooting; and it didn’t matter because the Warriors put up 45 bench points in all, compared to the Cavaliers’ 10.
So what do you do now, if you are Cleveland? What does it mean to lose a game like this when both Curry and Thompson were completely flummoxed in a way that isn’t likely to occur again? That’s the thing about the Warriors: Even when they were playing badly on Thursday night, even when coach Steve Kerr was karate-chopping clipboards like a California surfer marooned in a kung-fu movie, they still looked like the Warriors we’ve come to know over the past couple of years. They were moving the ball, they were looking for the extra pass, and they were finding guys backdoor for easy layups.
In other words, Cleveland could not stymie the Warriors the same way Oklahoma City did, by intimidating the Warriors with their size and speed and length, by clogging the passing lane, by playing the kind of first-rate defense that nearly vanquished Golden State in the first place. And maybe the Cavs are still capable of making this a series; they didn’t shoot well last night, and they still have the most intimidating force in the basketball universe on their side in LeBron James.
This is why the Cavaliers are still capable of stealing Game 2 and altering the tenor of this series the way Oklahoma City did, but Thursday night made you wonder if maybe the moment has passed, if maybe the idea that the Warriors could somehow be vanquished in the midst of this batshit-crazy season ended after three remarkable victories in the Western Conference Finals. You don’t get many nights like this, nights where both Steph and Klay are non-factors, and when you do, you have to jump on them and go for the throat. It’s far from over, but if the Cavs couldn’t find a way to at least take it to the wire on a night as strange as this one, you have to wonder what they might do on an otherwise normal evening.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb
Watch the Warriors’ Stephen Curry and the Cavaliers’ Lebron James discuss Game 1.