OAKLAND, Calif. — As the Cleveland Cavaliers engineered their remarkable comeback from trailing 3-1 against the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals a year ago, they created a clear blueprint for their success. Cleveland took every opportunity it could to slow the games down and make them as physical as possible for Golden State, as the Cavaliers hoped they could keep each game close into its final minutes and then let LeBron James and Kyrie Irving — two of the NBA’s best isolation scorers — try to take over and carry them to victories.
It was a formula that proved successful, and allowed Cleveland to climb back from that deficit — including winning twice here at Oracle Arena — to stun Golden State and claim the city’s first championship in over a half-century. But as the Cavaliers woke up Friday morning and tried to process what happened in the 113-91 beatdown they suffered at the hands of the Warriors in Game 1 of this year’s NBA Finals Thursday night, they found themselves in a difficult position: The one strategy they know has worked against Golden State in the past is also one Cleveland is unable to go to again.
“We made a lot of mistakes,” LeBron James said after Thursday’s loss. “There’s nothing [that] really needs to be said.
“We know we’re capable of playing a lot better. We didn’t play as well as we know we’re capable of, so we look forward to the next one.”
There’s little doubt Cleveland can play better than it did in Game 1. The Cavaliers committed 20 turnovers — James himself had eight of them — and, despite the Warriors playing tremendous defense, missed their fair share of open looks throughout the game.
But with the roster the Cavaliers have put together over the last year, they don’t look like a team capable of winning games by grinding their opponent into submission, like they had so much success doing as last year’s Finals went on. Instead, they now feel like a group equipped to try to take down the Warriors in a shootout, rather than knock them out in a slugfest.
And, as Game 1 showed, trying to take down Golden State in a shootout is a daunting task against a team with as much firepower as the Warriors possess.
“They’re tough at home,” Cavaliers Coach Tyronn Lue. “We know that. They probably lost eight games over the course of three seasons. So we know coming into this building they’re going to play — it’s going to be a tough game for us.
“But just getting a chance to see how they play, the style of play, how fast they play, you can’t really simulate that in practices. You got to really get out here and get a chance to do it firsthand.
“When we experience that, we’re able to adjust, we’re a lot better.”
That certainly is what the Cavaliers are going to have to hope is the case after the drubbing they received Thursday. Cleveland looked completely out of sorts defensively — reminding the world that they were the second-worst defensive team in basketball after the all-star break with a series of gaffes that would’ve stood out in a junior varsity game, let alone Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
Twice the Cavaliers allowed Kevin Durant to dribble down the middle of the court uncontested for dunks because they were paying too much attention to shooters at the three-point line. Then, when Cleveland reacted to a Durant drive later in the game, he kicked out to Stephen Curry for a wide-open three-pointer — one that he calmly buried.
It underscores the difficulty of the proposition facing Cleveland now. The Cavaliers have to find a way to slow down this Warriors team, but has few weapons to actually do it. Irving and Kevin Love are both minuses defensively, and can be exploited at will. It was no coincidence that a concussion suffered by Love, relegating him to a lesser role when he returned, allowed Cleveland to build a much stronger defense as the series progressed.
Meanwhile, Cleveland’s bench is filled with pieces like Deron Williams, Kyle Korver and Channing Frye. All talented players capable of knocking down several three-pointers, but who also are, to varying degrees, liabilities at the defensive end. That will make it difficult for the Cavaliers to try to turn these games into the kind of physical battles they likely need them to be to make this series competitive — or, even more simply, to even find a way to routinely guard the Warriors, who seemed to be able to overwhelm the Cavaliers’ porous defense almost no matter what combination of players was on the court in Game 1.
If the Cavaliers want any chance of making this competitive, though, they’ll have to figure out something, as they got run off the court in this one despite the Warriors getting nothing once again from Klay Thompson (3-for-16 overall and 0-for-5 from three-point range) and shooting poorly overall as a team (42.5 percent overall and 36.4 percent from three). The lack of force Cleveland displayed on that end was not only evident in the number of wide-open looks the Cavaliers gave up, but also in that they had no steals and Golden State committed only four turnovers, tying an NBA Finals record.
“First of all, we got to stop the ball in transition,” James said. “There was a few times where we fanned out to the three-point line and let guys just go right down the middle for a dunk.
“So when you turn the ball over, you got to know that that’s their best. That’s when they become very dangerous because those guys, they sprint down the lane, they sprint to the 3-point line, they put a lot of pressure on your defense.”
Golden State put a lot of pressure on everything Cleveland did Thursday night, and it didn’t take long for the cracks to show. Now the Cavaliers have two days to try to figure out a way to change the narrative here, and to find a way to even this series at a game apiece going back to Cleveland next week, as opposed to finding itself heading home down 2-0 to the Warriors for a second straight season.
But as the Cavaliers attempt to figure out what changes they can make, only one thing seems certain: last year’s blueprint doesn’t seem to be workable with this year’s team. And, given that playing that way still seems to be the best chance Cleveland has of winning this series, that is a serious problem.