The opening game of the 2016 NBA Finals was not an encouraging one for the Cleveland Cavaliers. LeBron James and Co. suffered a 15-point loss at the hands of the Golden State Warriors, and there were several signs that the Cavs could have just as much trouble in Game 2.
It wasn’t just the fact that Cleveland lost. The Cavaliers were easily outplayed on a night in which Golden State didn’t come close to playing at their highest level. If the Cavs are going to get blown out when the defending champs play like they did on Thursday, it could mean this year’s series will be shorter than the 2015 finals, which saw the Warriors win the title in six games.
A year ago, Cleveland rebounded from a tough Game 1 loss to steal Game 2 at Oracle Arena. But a few reasons that stand out make a win for the Cavaliers on Sunday seem unlikely.
Splash Brothers Find Their Rhythm
If one thing is certain for Game 2, it’s that Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson will play better than they did in Game 1. The NBA’s best backcourt had its worst combined performance since the start of last season, as they totaled just 20 points. The Warriors were outscored by one point when Curry was on the floor, and Thompson played just 24 minutes because of foul trouble.
Curry has had his ups and downs since returning from injury in the second round, and he’s proven to be capable of playing poorly despite being the league’s first ever unanimous MVP. Even last year, he missed 18 of his 23 field goal attempts in Game 3. But Curry’s too good to score just 11 points and shoot 4-15 from the field in consecutive games. The same goes for Thompson, who missed eight of his 12 shots.
The Splash Brothers are more likely to take over Game 2 with "unguardable" shots, like they did in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals, than they are to have another awful game. If they combine for 60 or 70 points, there might be nothing the Cavs can do to win.
Bench Play Doesn't Let Up
The biggest difference in Game 1 was the play of both benches. Golden State outscored Cleveland’s second unit 45 to 10, led by Shaun Livingston’s 20 points. It’s easy to write off the bench play in Game 1 as an anomaly, and it was to a certain extent, but it’s an area in which the Warriors have a clear advantage.
Even if Livingston had missed all of his 10 shots instead of making eight field goals, the Warriors’ bench still would have outscored Cleveland’s by a comfortable margin. Andre Iguodala played better than almost anyone on the Cavs, and his performance was no fluke. He was the MVP of last year’s finals and an integral part of the team’s comeback against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the conference finals. Curry, Thompson and Draymond Green never run out of gas because coach Steve Kerr can rely on his bench, while James will be forced to play over 40 minutes per night this series.
Cleveland’s bench has been very important at times in the playoffs. Channing Frye has made 56.5 percent of his threes in the postseason, and Matthew Dellavedova had some big games in last year’s finals. But Dellavedova can’t be relied upon for much offensive production, and coach Tyronn Lue didn’t give Frye many minutes in Game 1.
Golden State Has Cleveland’s Number
Because the Cavs were able to push last year’s series against the Warriors to six games without Kevin Love or Kyrie Irving, it appeared that a healthy Cleveland team might be able to compete with Golden State. But the Warriors have won six straight against the Cavs dating back to Game 4 of the 2015 finals, and they seem to match up very well against the East’s top team.
Golden State hasn’t had much trouble over that six-game span, winning four times by double-digits, including a 34-point victory in January. The Cavs came closest with a six-point loss on Christmas Day, but the Warriors were in control for most of the way. After falling behind 2-1 in last year’s finals, Golden State relied on their smaller lineup and pick-and-rolls against Cleveland, and the Cavaliers have yet to find an adjustment that gives them much of a chance.
It’s a small sample size, and Love and Irving have only been active for the last three games against Golden State. But Cleveland hasn’t proven that they can beat Golden State, and doing so at Oracle Arena, where the Warriors have won 49 of 52 games, is looking to be more and more difficult.