“Gut punch” is probably one of the more overused sports cliches, but it’s hard to describe game one of the 2015 NBA Finals in any other way for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Not only did they lose a game in which they played quite well, missing out on a vital chance to wrest home court advantage from the Golden State Warriors, but Kyrie Irving also was knocked out with an apparent knee injury. Quite clearly, if Irving – magnificent on both ends of the floor before appearing to knock knees with Klay Thompson midway through overtime – can’t go or is severely hobbled for the remainder of the series, it’s hard to see much joy for Cleveland. The Warriors are too good, the Cavs were too thin to begin with, and being down a game, home court advantage and their second and third best player against such an opponent is unenviable to say the least.
However, before the funereal dirges hit full volume, the things which worked for the Cavaliers should be noted and celebrated. Chief among those things was Cleveland’s decision to stay big across the front line. A worry heading into the series was that Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov were not going to be effective enough to share the floor for extended minutes. That tandem not being able to play big minutes would have deleterious consequences for Cleveland’s depth, interior defense and probably most importantly offensive rebounding.
Essentially, the power of Thompson and Mozgov would have to do enough damage on the interior to make up for the benefits Golden State would have from the quickness advantages of Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes and any other of Golden State’s wings who Steve Kerr decided to play “up” along the baseline. But if Thursday night showed anything, it’s that Mozgov and Thompson were fully capable of doing just that. The Cavaliers outscored the Warriors by 5 in the 27 minutes Cleveland’s two bigs shared the court. Setting aside the disastrous overtime frame, this rose to +9.
As expected, the biggest contributions were on the offensive glass. The Cavaliers secured 36% of their own misses during the stretch Mozgov and Thompson played together, while only managing 16% over the other 26 minutes of game time. These rebounds extended possessions, put fouls on Golden State’s bigs (especially Green) and, perhaps most importantly, kept the game at a grinding pace much better suited to LeBron and company, rather than allow Golden State to play at the breakneck speed at which they are most dominant.
It wasn’t just rebounding where the duo contributed offensively. Mozgov in particular had a fine game both finishing the pick-and-roll and with intelligent cuts to the basket when Golden State rotated defenders to double and triple James on post ups, punishing the Warriors’ help rotations in ways which Cleveland’s shooters (particularly the profligate and brickish J.R. Smith) could not.
Defensively, the space given to Green barely registered, as Green missed a few early jumpers, before becoming reticent to take anymore, finishing 4-13 from the floor. Nor was he able to really able to do much damage as a passer, recording only three assists. Similarly, Bogut was too timid to even attempt to finish around the rim on many occasions. It wasn’t until Kerr dusted off Marreese Speights in the second quarter that the space being conceded by Mozgov and Thompson aggressively rotating to the ball allowed Golden State’s big men was exploited to any real extent.
The Cavs won the size battle to the point where Steve Kerr seemingly blinked first in terms of matchups. The Draymond Green at center lineups which had been terrorizing opponents all postseason saw just under four total minutes of game action, while Bogut and Festus Ezeli played an uncharacteristically large amount during the closing stages of regulation and overtime, an interval where the Warriors often play smallest.
That forced adjustment might be the single most surprising aspect, as the Warriors thrived all season long by almost inviting the opposition to play with size before running the lumbering lineups off the floor. In a series which might largely be determined by pace of play, game one was contested on ground far more familiar and comfortable to Cleveland than to Golden State. But if the news on Irving’s injury is bad and he is ruled out, the competitiveness on display and matchup advantages enjoyed by the Cavaliers for the first 50 minutes will only exacerbate Cleveland’s feelings of “what if?”
One of the major questions surrounding this matchup has been answered decisively in the Cavs’ favor, if only for one night. And now it might not matter a bit.
All stats per NBA.com