OAKLAND — The NBA Finals have a very different feel about them since Kyrie Irving went down in overtime of Game 1 with what was a fractured kneecap.
For 50 minutes Thursday night it looked like we were in for an excellent series, but now the Cavaliers will have to scramble to replace their second best player and the only guy they trusted to create shots outside LeBron James. On paper, it’s difficult to see how they do that in a way the Warriors don’t crush.
But as the cliche goes, the games are not played on paper. LeBron is the best player in the world and is on a mission to bring a title to Cleveland. J.R. Smith can get hot. A lot of things can happen that would again change the feel of this series.
Rather than what might be, here are five things I think will happen in Game 2.
1) Expect the Warriors to start the game on a run. The Warriors to a man do not think they played well at all in Game 1. They are not so much making adjustments for Game 2 as much as just trying to execute better what they wanted to do the first time around. That game saw them admittedly come out a little nervous and shoot 4-of-18 to open the contest, which will not happen this time. Look for the Warriors to start the game on a run, something even the Cavaliers’ Iman Shumpert said they expect. The Cavs just want to not turn the ball over to fuel the run, and withstand it, then climb back.
Also, expect the Warriors to try and play faster.
“I think we can still ramp it up a little bit more, get out in transition a little bit more,” Draymond Green said. “But LeBron, he controls the pace on offense, we’ve just got to make sure we’re ready to push the ball off a make or a miss. I still think we can get more into our pace.”
2) Matthew Dellavedova, it’s time for your closeup. With Irving out, Dellavedova will get put into the starting lineup for Cleveland. He was forced into a starting role against the Hawks and played well, particularly on defense where he had an average defender distance of 3.97 feet to his shooter — the best of any non-center in the Conference Finals (minimum of 50 shot attempts). But it’s one thing to do that against Jeff Teague, another to do it against Stephen Curry.
3) LeBron the distributor. LeBron attacked a lot in the last game in isolation, often trying to back different defenders down into the post. A few times the Warriors sent Andrew Bogut and others to double team and help out, but for the most part the Warriors defenders on the weak side stayed home and Golden State took their chances one-on-one with LeBron. He put up 44 points but didn’t get his teammates involved and going — the Warriors can live with that. The Cavs can’t.
“I’ve got to do a better job as well getting my other guys involved,” LeBron said. “I’m okay with getting big numbers and things of that nature, but I feel much better when I’m able to get my guys in rhythm and get them guys some more looks.
“So I think one of the things is trying to stay at home on a lot of my shooters. They didn’t give James Jones as much air space. J.R. got a couple good looks, it just didn’t go down.”
The Cavaliers on the weak side didn’t cut or flash into the lane in Game 1 but Cavs players said that was by design — they didn’t want to bring help defenders closer to LeBron, they wanted to space the floor. Expect that to change a little in Game 2.
“We’ve just got to continue to have movement on the back side, continue to add more cuts to make sure, one, that they can’t load up on LeBron and, two, that he has outlets just in case people are caught sleeping,” Shumpert said.
4) Be ready for some small ball. Golden State has had success all playoffs going small, playing Draymond Green at the five, but in Game 1 coach Steve Kerr sat on that lineup and didn’t break it out until overtime — when the Warriors went on a run and sealed the victory.
When Kyrie and Kevin Love have been out, the Cavaliers have had success going small with a lineup of Dellavedova, J.R. Smith, Shumpert, LeBron and Tristan Thompson — in 50 minutes this postseason that lineup has outscored opponents by 26.2 points per 100 possessions.
The Cavaliers are going to lean on this lineup some in Game 2. While it has worked against the Hawks and Bulls, the Warriors love it when teams try to play small and fast against them. Cavs GM David Griffin summed it up best, speaking about the good numbers they have had with Irving and Love out.
“From an analytics standpoint… it’s not a big sample size. I think you have to take a little bit of that with a grain of salt because it’s also about matchups and we were really fortunate the teams we played lent themselves to the style we were going to play. Golden State is a totally different animal. If you get to choose, you’ll always choose more talent. But I’m really grateful we’ve got the mentality we have.”
5) The Cavaliers don’t think this series is all but over. At their practice and team meeting Saturday the players were beat over the head with the numbers about how good the Cavaliers have been when Irving and Love are out. The players were reminded that a few years back Kevin Durant led Oklahoma City to the NBA Finals and the consensus was the Thunder would be back often after that and pick up multiple rings. Bottom line, they were told not to let up because Irving was out or they would pay a steep price. The players said they got the message.
“A lot of people are saying the series is over, but that’s not true,” Klay Thompson said. “This is a team that’s more than capable. They did beat the Atlanta Hawks twice without him, and that was the best team in the East. So you’ve got to respect what the other guys can do. Obviously, Kyrie’s a huge part of their team. He’s one of their best players. But you can’t let your guard down. They’ve still got guys who are more than capable of making plays.”
To a man the Cavaliers think they still can win, they have a history of success these playoffs without Irving in the lineup. They still have the best player on the planet, they still have an improved defense, and they could have won Game 1.
“You know, I said it’s going to be one of the most challenging seasons of my career from the beginning, and this just adds on to it,” LeBron said Saturday. “You know, we’re undermanned right now. But we’ve got guys in the locker room that are ready for the challenge, and we look forward to the challenge tomorrow night.”