When two teams brave the grueling 82-game regular season and then advance through three rounds of the playoffs to get to the NBA finals in their respective conferences, it’s clear that they both have strong starting teams. The difference is often coaching, home court advantage, a little referee love and bench play.
Golden State’s 104-89 victory over the Cleveland Cavs in Game 1 of the 2016 NBA Finals was all about the bench. A 21-4 fourth quarter run that blew the game wide open in Golden State’s favor was fueled by the backups who scored 17 of those points. Shaun Livingston, Leandro Barbosa, Harrison Barnes and last year’s Finals MVP Andre Iguodala were the perfect mix of skills needed to bury Cleveland in a first game funk that can have residual effects on the remainder of the series.
Golden State basically man-handled the King and his court. James scored just 23 points on 9 of 21 shooting. He was hardly the dominant performer that he needs to be for Cleveland to win this series.
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Cleveland has a Big Three to match Golden State’s Splash Brothers plus 1, but the deeper the bench goes, the more the tides turn in the Warriors favor. Traditionally, bench players become more insignificant as an NBA playoff progresses.
Coaches trim their usable parts and basically ride their best players to the promised land or to the depths of defeat. Kerr has refused to be a conventional coach in these playoffs. Despite the fact that Golden State flexes one of the deadliest starting 5’s in the sport, when OKC appeared to have the defending champs on the ropes in Game 5, Kerr didn’t hesitate to go to his bench for inspiration.
Golden State has a plethora of battle-tested veterans who not only add a change of pace from the Warriors’ free-wheeling aerial assault, but can effectively dismantle an opponent’s starting team in Grade A fashion.
Dub Nation was up 52-43 at halftime. With 4:00 left in the game, Golden State had a 96-82 lead and most heads started thinking about Game 2. The Warriors bench finished with 45 crucial points.
When Klay Thompson hit a moon-kissing three to give Golden State a 104-87 lead with 2:24 seconds left in the game, it confirmed that the Warriors were still the team to beat and King James would have to rally the troops and get things going. After rebounding from the brink of sure death against OKC, Golden State is feeling confident and looking invincible and entitled.
In a game where Chef Curry scored just 11 points, Harrison Barnes added 13 points. Curry’s backup Shaun Livingston had a playoff career-high of 20 points in 26 minutes. The Cavs pulled within two at one point, but Golden State’s bench wouldn’t allow a comeback to materialize.
“Just being aggressive is what we did all year,” Livingston told Doris Burke after the game..."and just feed off each other."
In addition to Livingston’s offensive outburst, Iguodala’s lunch pail defense, in the words of Wu Tang Clan, “was nothing to f*ck with.”
"Kevin Durant last series, LeBron this series,” gushed Livingston. “I think it (Iggy’s defense) speaks for itself."
Let’s not forget LeBron won Games 2 and 3 last season without Irving and Love at his side, but it will take more than three players for the Cavs to rebound and secure the first NBA championship in franchise history .