The greatest basketball player on the planet looked helpless on Thursday night in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. If LeBron James and two other All-Stars in Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love have no answer for the new and improved Golden State Warriors, then who does?
Yes, overreactions, quick takes, hot takes, and premature declarations abound after Game 1 of any series, let alone the NBA Finals. There’s going to be talk about legacies and proclamations that this Finals series is over, forgetting, of course, that the same two teams met last season and the Cavaliers overcame a 3-1 deficit and lost Game 1.
However, these aren’t really the same two teams as the ones who met in last year’s NBA Finals. There’s one key difference: Kevin Durant.
In Golden State’s 113-91 Game 1 victory, Durant was the unquestioned star. He led all scorers with 38 points while also adding eight rebounds and eight assists. Durant was the difference-maker in all facets of Golden State’s high powered attack. And while Steph Curry chipped in 28, it was clear that this performance is what Durant leaving Oklahoma City was all about. It should go without saying, but the team with the best regular season record in the history of the NBA adding a former MVP and future Hall of Famer has made them even more better and even more scary.
No, Golden State did not recreate their absurd 73-9 regular season record, but their mark of going 13-0 in the postseason might be even more impressive. And in truth, just reaching 16 postseason wins is all that matters this year.
And if Game 1 didn’t end the series, it at least showed what’s possible for Golden State, not only in these Finals series but in the years ahead. Their Game 1 performance was so efficient and effective, especially from an offensive perspective, that it was spellbinding. A 31-4 assist to turnover ratio? That is unheard of. It’s just the second time it’s happened in the NBA Playoffs during the last 30 years.
With Durant, the Warriors now have just another way to beat teams when it matters most. Golden State blew out Cleveland with Draymond Green and Klay Thompson combining for just 15 points on 6-for-28 shooting from the field. And quite honestly, with Durant they don’t need Green and Thompson firing on all cylinders. Imagine what might be possible if Green and Thompson shoot just 50 percent from the field. Or if the Warriors made just some of the many layups they missed from point blank range on Thursday night. It could have been even worse for the Cavaliers.
This is what the entire NBA feared when Durant left Russell Westbrook and the Thunder and upgraded to Curry, Thompson, Green, and the Warriors. All of the backlash geared towards Durant, the criticism that he was taking the easy way to getting his first ring, and the belief that the Warriors could just coast to title after title after title. They feared that Golden State would be even more unstoppable. They feared that no other team in the NBA could match up with their scoring and their starpower. And they feared that the championship would be a formality. What they feared was adding Durant’s 38/8/8 to a Warriors team that was already at the top of the league.
It’s an entirely different matchup for the Cavaliers which makes this year’s Finals exponentially more difficult than last year for James and Cleveland. Durant is that good, as he’s shown over the course of his entire NBA career. After Game 1 was so lopsided, it’s going to take James playing even better than 2016 and 2015 for the Cavaliers to even have a shot.
What stood out about Game 1 wasn’t just the statlines, it was the little things. When the Cavaliers switch on a pick-and-roll and Kyrie Irving is stuck trying to guard Durant at the free throw line, it’s a gimme two points. In last year’s Finals, that would have been Harrison Barnes on Irving. Which matchup do you think the Cavaliers would prefer? And if the Cavaliers can’t match up with the Warriors, then who can? Not just for this year, but for next year and the year after that.
In the open floor, Durant leading the break with his freakish speed, athleticism, and length can go coast to coast in the flash of an eye. Just a mere glance to a sprinting Steph Curry at the three-point line can open up the entire floor. Again, maybe it’s not a fair comparison to Barnes who is a decent player in his own right, but does he create that kind of space? Does he make that kind of play? Perhaps not.
And let’s say the Cavs come out and focus entirely on shutting down Durant in Game 2. That would work perfectly into the Warriors hands because then it opens up space for Curry and Thompson. That might as well be Cleveland’s Finals death sentence. And it would prove one of the NBA’s great misnomers – that there’s too many stars on the Warriors and not enough basketball to go around for everyone. Here’s what our Harry Lyles Jr. wrote just after Durant signed about that thought:
The addition of Durant will make for an improved Death Lineup that will make for some of the most exciting basketball you will see in the NBA next season. The first thought by many is that there might not be enough basketball to go around and get Curry, Thompson and Durant their shots, but the Warriors’ brand of basketball and selflessness should negate that obstacle, on top of being a great defensive team.
It looked like there was just enough basketball for everyone on Golden State’s roster in Game 1. And as long as they are winning, it won’t matter whether it’s Durant or Curry or Thompson or Green or even Zaza Pachulia getting the buckets. Judging by Game 1, the winning isn’t stopping anytime soon.