The beauty of the NBA Finals, beyond the superstars who step up to bless us with iconic performances, always lays in the hidden subtext. Each possession on both ends of the floor is meaningful and in a seven game series, the deciding factor invariably comes from the squad whose role players rise up to the challenge.
Last night, despite LeBron James’ largest scoring output ever in the Finals and Stephen Curry’s brilliance on the offensive end, the outcome was ultimately decided by Golden State’s deep supporting cast.
Early on, it seemed like James and the Cavs were picking up where they left off in their dominating run through the Eastern Conference playoffs as they steamrolled their way to an early 14-point lead. Golden State struggled early on, converting only six of their 21 first quarter shots.
But once the Warriors found their rhythm, they exchanged heavy punches with Cleveland to draw even and forced a seesaw battle of 13 lead changes and 11 ties that wasn’t decided until the final minutes of overtime.
Going into this series, it was obvious that Cleveland had little margin for error. In order for them to flummox the Warriors' well-oiled machine, they would need to be dominant on defense, overwhelm with their rebounding and get significant contributions from players other than LeBron and Kyrie Irving.
LeBron bullied his way to 44 points, along with eight rebounds and six assists while Kyrie stepped up with 23 points, seven rebounds, six assists and two blocked shots. Tristan Thompson’s contribution of 15 rebounds was exceptional, but the Cavs will need much more from him on the offensive end in Game 2. Timofey Mozgov showed that he was not intimidated by the bright lights, scoring 16 points and snagging seven rebounds, but the rest of Cleveland’s supporting cast left much to be desired.
Heading into this series, I thought J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert would be the X-factor. If the Cavs have any hope of winning this series, LeBron and Kyrie will need much more from them. Smith was atrocious shooting the ball last night, making only three of his 13 shots while chucking up a plethora of ill-advised, off-balance, contested jumpers.
New York Knicks fans rejoiced, shouting, “Aha! That’s the J.R. Smith we know.” Shumpert, as he always does, played outstanding defense and collected four steals, but Cleveland will need much more than the mere six points he produced in 34 minutes of action.
LeBron and the Cavs had a chance to steal Game 1, but they couldn’t do anything offensively in overtime. Curry’s 26 points and eight assists were masterful, but the outcome was decided by the timely contributions of Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green, Andrew Bogut, Klay Thompson, Andre Igoudola, Shaun Livingston, Festus Ezeli and Marreese Speights.
They got bludgeoned by LeBron, but LeBron alone will not be enough to beat Golden State. With Kyrie Irving questionable for Game 2, Cleveland will rue the fact that they let this game slip away.
Who knew that heading into the opening game of the 2015 NBA Finals, Andre Iguodola would be the deciding factor?
That’s the beauty of this time of year. Stars are going to be stars, but the best team, and the deeper squad will always get contributions from places that are least expected.
There’s no need for Cleveland to panic yet. But LeBron cannot do this on his own. Golden State is too good and too balanced. Stephen Curry is their undisputed star. But their depth and supporting cast is a force to be reckoned with.