OAKLAND — After getting blown out in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, the Cavaliers were not distraught nor did they feel overwhelmed. Rather, they think they beat themselves mostly.
Make no mistake, the Warriors are good, but the Cavaliers think they gave Game 1 away by turning the ball over and not communicating well on defense.
“We have to be much better,” LeBron James said. Game 1 was the feel-out for us, and they definitely took advantage of all our miscues. We just have to get better.”
“Watching basketball throughout the course of the season, you obviously know they’re very good,” J.R. Smith said Saturday. “But one thing about us, it’s all about us. If we take care of what we’re supposed to take care of, it doesn’t matter if it’s the ’96 Bulls, it doesn’t matter. We would win. We just gotta worry about us, understand that no matter what they do, if we do what we’re supposed to do, they can’t beat us.”
Here are the three things to watch, and what the Cavaliers need to improve, if they are going to steal game 2 on the road.
1) Cleveland will play more focused defense, will protect the rim, and they will get physical. If there is one thing everyone agrees on about Game 2, it’s that the Cavaliers are going to get physical.
“You have to be the first one to hit,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said. “I thought they hit us first. You have to be physical. The game is physical. You have to bring a physicality to the game, one through five. And I thought last game we weren’t as physical as we needed to be. We were off bodies, let them run free. So we have to do a better job of being on bodies, being physical and bringing the contact to the game.”
What that means in practical terms is the uncontested layup line the Warriors had in Game 1 will go away. Part of that is being physical, but a larger part is just making better decisions on defense, particularly in transition where the Cavaliers were terrible. Protecting the rim will be a priority.
“We have to stop the ball,” Lue said. “That’s the most important thing. We can’t let Durant get easy baskets like that. With him being probably one of the best scorers in the NBA, you can’t give guys like that easy opportunities at the basket. So we have to do a good job of stopping the basketball, but we also have to get back out to shooters. One guy has to stop the ball and the other guys have to get back and get to Steph and Klay and those guys. But we have to stop the basketball first.”
2) Cleveland needs to clean up its offensive mistakes — don’t turn the ball over and dominate the glass. One other thing both sides expect in Game 2 is for Cleveland to do a better job taking care of the ball — they are not going to turn the ball over 20 times again.
The Cavaliers admitted that Golden State’s defense — aggressive and using their athleticism and length — made them indecisive at points. They also said that was correctable.
“So when we make a move to the basket, we just have to be decisive — take it to the basket or make the pass,” Lue said. And I thought they did a good job of just playing in between, making us be off guard. So we make a move, we have to be direct with what we’re going to do; if not, move the basketball.”
“We had a lot of unforced turnovers,” LeBron added. “Some of them was aggression. I had two charges — that’s aggression, I can take those. But I also had some where I got caught up in the air, trying to make some skip passes, and they were able to pick them off. Those are like pick-sixes. It’s like throwing the ball to Deion Sanders. For the most part, it’s going to be a touchdown going the other way.”
If Cleveland is going to win they also need to dominate inside the paint and on the glass, something they did not do in Game 1. Tristan Thompson needs to be a force for Cleveland on both ends, and in Game 1 he had just four rebounds.
“Trash. Trash,” is how Thompson defined his Game 1. “I have to be better. I have to bring more energy, make it tough for them. I know they’re watching film, and something for them it’s to keep me off the glass. It’s going to be a wrestling match down there, and you have to keep it going and make it tough for them and just try to wear them out.”
3) How fast is this game played? The first game of the NBA Finals had 102 possessions, not lightning fast but right at the Warriors pace for the season — meaning it was right in Golden State’s comfort zone (and faster than the Cavs played this season). Check out this stat from Michael Pina writing for Vice Sports.
During the 2015 Finals, the pace was 95.3 possessions per 48 minutes when James was on the floor. That dropped to 94.8 in last year’s seven-game classic. With James in the game on Thursday night, the pace was 102.1.
So the Cavaliers are going to slow the game down and grind it out, right? No. Not if you ask them. To a man they said they needed to play with more pace.
“We’re a team that plays with pace. We know that,” LeBron said. And in order for us to be as good as we can be offensively, we have to play with pace. But we have to control the ball as well.”
“When we get stops, we have to get out. We have to play with pace,” Lue said. “We’ve got to play in transition. They’re a great team in the half court, as far as loading up and taking away what they want to take away. So when we get stops, we have to get out and run and play with pace.”
To be fair, Cleveland dominated the Warriors in fast break points a year ago. They can do better in this category, but it also is fraught with risk. It makes sense for the Cavaliers to push the ball when they create turnovers or off Warriors misses, but if nothing is there they need to pull out and slow it down. If this turns into a track meet the Warriors will win.