OAKLAND, Calif. – So much about the start of the NBA finals Thursday night felt familiar. It had everything to do, of course, with the two teams that took the court for Game One at Oracle Arena: the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers, back at it for the third straight year.
The general hope before the opening tip was that these two teams would be capable of reviving the playoffs, which had been mostly a glorified snooze-fest through the first three rounds. Between the two of them, the Warriors and the Cavaliers lost a total of one game – one! – as they made their respective marches to the finals, leaving a trail of also-rans littered in their thunderous wakes.
The league has a parity problem – “Obviously, they just blew through the playoffs,” Commissioner Adam Silver said of both teams before the game – but most who tuned in for Thursday’s festivities anticipated improved competition. That was the assumption, anyway. Or maybe it was just the dream.
The Warriors, the league’s resident superpower, delivered a 113-91 victory to strike the first blow in the best-of-seven series. It was nothing short of a drubbing.
Kevin Durant, one of the newcomers to the rivalry, collected 38 points, eight rebounds and eight assists to lead the Warriors, who shredded their defenders. Layups? Midrange jumpers? Distant three-pointers? It was an offensive smorgasbord for Golden State, which sampled a bit of everything on the menu.
And yet, “We could be a lot better than we were tonight,” Durant said.
“We feel like our guys are well-rested,” said Mike Brown, the Warriors’ acting head coach. “We feel like we should be able to attack every single play, and our guys did that.”
Stephen Curry, who scored 28 points in the win, demoralized the Cavaliers early in the third quarter with back-to-back 3-pointers to push the Warriors’ lead to 20. They led by 21 entering the fourth. Golden State took great care of the ball throughout, finishing with 31 assists and four turnovers.
“I wouldn’t imagine it,” Brown said of that disparity, “especially going into Game One against that team.”
LeBron James, whose play for the Cavaliers through the first three rounds was virtually flawless, had an uneven game. He finished with 28 points, 15 rebounds and eight assists but committed eight turnovers. He was also assigned to defend Durant for much of the game, and that did not go well for him.
Undefeated in the playoffs, the Warriors have not lost a game since April 10, their second-to-last game of the regular season.
For the Cavaliers, it was a return to the site of their greatest triumph. In Game 7 of last year’s finals, on this same court, the Cavaliers completed an improbable and unprecedented comeback to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy before a dazed crowd. It was a bitter end to a historic season for the Warriors.
Since then, both teams had made changes – some major, some subtle. The Warriors added Durant to their already high-octane roster. (Put that in the “major” category.) They also signed experienced role players like Zaza Pachulia and David West. The Cavaliers engineered their own midseason face-lift, acquiring point guard Deron Williams and 3-point specialist Kyle Korver.
By virtue of their shared playoff dominance, both teams arrived for Thursday’s game as fresh as organic produce. It had been 10 days since the Warriors completed their four-game sweep of the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference finals. The Cavaliers, meanwhile, went a week without playing after eliminating the Boston Celtics in five games in the Eastern Conference finals.
But while the Warriors have made their journey through the playoffs look almost effortless, they continue to cope with an unconventional situation. Midway through the first round, coach Steve Kerr stepped away from his day-to-day duties to deal with continuing medical problems. On Thursday, Brown again manned the Warriors’ bench.
Kerr, who has remained actively involved behind the scenes, watched Thursday’s game on television from the home locker room.
The game’s early moments were full of plodding and grabbing, bricks and whistles. On the Cavaliers’ first possession, the Warriors forced Love into hoisting an air ball as the shot clock expired. Not long after, Durant nearly broke the backboard on a long jumper. Pachulia engaged in some form of wrestling with the Cavaliers’ Tristan Thompson under the basket. James missed a free throw.
Even the greatest players in the world were susceptible to nerves on the sport’s grandest stage. Soon enough, both teams settled into more of a rhythm. Durant, in particular, looked comfortable back in the finals – his first appearance since 2012, when he was playing for the Oklahoma City Thunder. On Thursday, he scored 23 points in the first half.
The Cavaliers’ primary challenge was obvious: somehow slowing a team with the greatest assemblage of offensive talent in league history. In previous rounds, James had conserved energy by defending lesser players. For however long this series lasts, no such vacations will be forthcoming.
“We know coming into this building, it’s going to be a tough game for us,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said. “But just getting a chance to see how they play, their style of play, how fast they play – you can’t simulate that at practice.”
On Thursday, James defended Durant – or tried as best he could. Like his teammates, Durant kept driving, seeking seams to the basket. He found them and had six dunks in the first half alone.
The Warriors are renowned for their 3-point shooting, but they spent the bulk of Thursday’s game dismantling the Cavaliers in the interior. The Warriors scored 42 points in the lane as they ran out to a 60-52 lead at halftime. The Cavaliers were not doing themselves any favors, committing 12 turnovers in the half – seven by James. The Warriors committed one.
On Wednesday, James acknowledged feeling distracted after someone had spray-painted a racial slur on the front gate of a Los Angeles home that he owns. The Los Angeles Police Department said it was investigating the incident as a hate crime. James said he would focus on the game as best he could.
On Thursday, the Cavaliers had no margin for error – not against the Warriors, who turned another playoff game into a clinic.