On television it must have looked like the Cleveland Cavaliers were fleeing like frightened rats when Kevin Durant stormed through the lane for dunks in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. Who could blame them if they were? Once Golden State’s superstar forward gets running down court, all 6ft 9in of him, few players are willing to jump in his way.
The truth was that Cleveland’s players were striking their own losing bargain in their 113-91 loss to the Warriors: either stop Durant on the fast break and leave Steph Curry and Klay Thompson open for 3-pointers or run out to stop Curry and give Durant the dunk. Instant calculations told them it was better to allow the two points instead of the three, and so they moved away from Durant. But smart math doesn’t always send the right message.
The lasting image of Thursday night was Durant dunking over scurrying Cavaliers. And that won’t win Cleveland much in a finals that was already a losing fight for them.
If the Cavs are going to win a second straight NBA championship, they have to be the more rugged team. They have to be the bruisers, a modern-day Bad Boys, ruling the paint with elbows and hip checks, not scampering from a flying Durant. For a team that needed to show it was going to be the bully of this series, Cleveland was inexplicably soft.
Some of the Cavs’ tentativeness might be a spoiled game plan. Their coach, Tyronn Lue, later called a part of it “kind of backwards”, adding: “When Durant has the ball, you don’t want to leave him and go get the shooters.” He said Cleveland had another intent defensively but did not elaborate on what that might have been.
Last year the Cavaliers won the title by stretching their defense outside, harassing Curry and Thompson and challenging Golden State to win down low, where the Warriors were not as strong. Once center Andrew Bogut broke his leg in Game 5, Golden State became especially fragile inside. But such a plan isn’t so simple with Durant as a Warrior. Since he can play aggressively inside as well as out, defenders can’t simply push out to the three-point line. They have to defend closer to the basket even at the risk of freeing Curry and Thompson to be their most dangerous.
The dirty secret about Cleveland is they are nowhere near the better defensive team in this series. They probably get some undue credit for defensive ferocity because Curry was off in last year’s finals and the Cavs looked tougher at the end of Game 7. But just because Golden State has a beautiful offense doesn’t mean they aren’t also a strong defensive club. On Thursday the Warriors forced Cleveland to miss 65% of their shots and turn the ball over 20 times. When a team shoots that poorly while being careless with passes, it’s usually going to lose regardless of what defensive plan it has designed.
In a game where the Cavs had to be extra-aggressive and stronger defensively, they were the team whose shots were challenged, who had passes snatched away and couldn’t get to loose balls. Thompson and Draymond Green had just 15 points combined and hardly seemed a part of the Golden State offense, and it didn’t seem to matter because both played excellent defense. Green’s battle for a rolling ball at the start of the third quarter ignited the Warriors’ 13-0 run that essentially decided the game.
Even Curry played a scrappy defensive game, attacking the Cavs offense before they could set it up.
“When (Curry) takes it personal like that and he accepts the challenge we are a damn good defensive team,” Green said late Thursday night.
Cleveland needs players to “take it personal” if they are going to get back in this series. They have now lost Game 1 to the Warriors in each of the past three finals. And while injuries to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love kept them from winning the series two years ago, they took last spring’s final by being the more resistant team at the end. This time things feel different. Durant makes Golden State the best team the NBA has seen in years. The Cavs’ only chance is to somehow be rougher and tougher.
On Thursday they were not rougher and tougher. When Durant rumbled through the lane they didn’t run to stop him, they ran away.
Maybe it’s dangerous to leave Curry and Thompson alone (Curry was 6-of-11 on three-pointers in Game 1 and had 28 points), but that might be Cleveland’s only hope. If there is one thing the Cavs can own in this series, it’s the paint. Giving it up is the same as giving up.