In the modern 24-hour sports news cycle, every event is treated as a legacy-altering shift in the very fabric of the NBA. Welcome to the NBA fan club, here’s your complimentary neck brace to avoid hot take whiplash. One day LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers is trying to muscle into the conversation for greatest player of all time. The next he’s too old to play both ways against an in-his-prime Kevin Durant. Life comes at you fast.
The Golden State Warriors’ dominating 113-91 victory in Game 1 of the Finals essentially confirmed for a lot of people that Cleveland has no chance in this series. Much of the talk has shifted to how likely is it that the Warriors finish this postseason 16-0. Where would that rank them among the greatest teams of all time? How disappointing for the league would a Finals sweep be after a largely uncompetitive postseason?
In the wake of Durant registering as a late entry for the 2017 Slam Dunk Contest and Steph Curry high-kicking his way down the court, it’s easy to forget that none of this is new territory for LeBron. King James is just 1-7 in opening games of the NBA Finals, yet he has gone on to win three of those first seven series. He’s also 6-1 in the not getting swept category, and I’m going to go way out on a limb and assert that Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are much better running mates than Boobie Gibson and Drew Gooden. To quote the esteemed NBA analyst Rihanna, “the King is still the King, b—h.”
Looking at Game 1, there are a number of reasons to believe the vast chasm between the two teams’ performances was an outlier. The biggest example would be the 20-4 turnover differential, which almost directly led to the 27-9 advantage in fast-break points for the Warriors. Golden State’s four turnovers not only tied the record for fewest in NBA Finals history, it was the best the franchise had ever taken care of the ball.
Did a search for as far as I can go back & can't find a game (reg. season or playoffs) where Warriors committed < 5 turnovers. 4 tonight.
— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) June 2, 2017
Not only is it reasonable to anticipate the Warriors to cough it up more going forward, but there’s no reason to expect the Cavaliers to be quite as careless. Cleveland averaged only 13.7 turnovers per game in the regular season; their 13.8 TOV% was the 10th-best mark in the league. They did not experience increased difficulty in that department in their previous two Finals meetings with the Warriors, averaging 13.3 turnovers in 2016 and 12.2 in 2015. LeBron is too good of a floor general to repeat this sort of careless pass.
Another reason for optimism if you’re a Cavaliers fan was the unexpected disappearance of Tristan Thompson, the patron saint of extra effort. Coming off a tremendous series against Boston, in which he averaged 11.6 points and 7.2 rebounds, Thompson went scoreless on 0-for-3 shooting and collected just four rebounds.
There’s not some secret formula Golden State employs to stifle the former fourth overall pick. We saw Thompson remain remarkably consistent in the previous two Finals, averaging 10.3 points and 10.1 rebounds in 2016, and 10.0 points and 13.0 rebounds in 2015. There’s every reason to expect his numbers to normalize going forward in this series.
Finally, the Cavaliers decidedly lost the battle of the hustle stats, a clear no-no for a team entering play as an underdog. The Warriors tallied 16 deflections against just eight for the Cavaliers and collected 22 of the 28 loose balls. While Cleveland’s roster has gotten older and the addition of Durant certainly helps the length of the Golden State defense, the disparity in this area shouldn’t remain as drastic.
The Cavaliers won both categories last June (14.6 to 10.9 deflections and 6.0 to 5.3 loose balls recovered). One could make the argument the Cavaliers weren’t ready to face a team ostensibly better than them after a month and a half of steamrolling inferior competition. Postgame, Cleveland made a point of repeating that you can’t simulate the Warriors in practice.
With all that in mind, let’s not go searching for those brooms in the back of a closet quite yet. LeBron may have struggled with turnovers Thursday night, but does anyone really think he doesn’t have at least one mind-blowing performance in him? The Cavaliers have been in much more dire straits before than losing Game 1 on the road. 3-1, anybody?
Of course, I reserve the right to change my mind. The 73-win Warriors swapped Harrison Barnes for Durant after all. Sometimes, these things aren’t rocket science.
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