What worked for the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 1?

When the Cavaliers play the Warriors, the talent gap is remarkably noticeable. The Warriors look like they’re playing poker and always get premium starting hands. Pockets aces with Steph Curry and Kevin Durant, pocket kings with Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, or you can mix and match those four to make ace-king.

The Cavs on the other hand, never got a strong starting hand. At best, they have an ace in LeBron James, and then a queen in Kevin Love. The rest of their starting five is a jack or worse.

Unfortunately, the Cavs can’t fold and wait for a better hand. If they did that, the Warriors would beat them by an average of 20-points en route to a sweep.

James and his island of misfit toys look like they refuse to let that happen. They’re going to play the cards they were dealt, see if they can make a hand or two and try and steal some pots here and there by making the Warriors fold when they have the best of it.

On many occasions in Game 1, the Cavs did this. They used their strongest card most often in James, consistently letting their opponents know they did have an ace and that it was hitting. This lead to James scoring 51-points, for only the sixth 50-point game in NBA Finals history.

Their queen, Love, didn’t connect that much on the night. Going 1-for-8 from deep on the night, but he made the occasional pair and his sheer presence won a few hands as he still finished with 21-points and 13-rebounds.

They even bluffed with him for three-minutes in the second quarter when they rested James. Love took the floor with George Hill, Kyle Korver, Jeff Green, and Larry Nance Jr. up against the Warriors four stars plus Jordan Bell. The Cavs were plus-two during this stretch, extending the lead from 44-40 to 51-45. J. Green assisted on a Hill three and Nance dunk before Love hit a 15-footer. This Cavs group moved the ball well, had defensive versatility with Hill, J. Green, and Nance, and was a force to be reckoned with on the glass thanks to Love and Nance. Extending the lead without James is like winning a big pot with a small hand – difficult, but not impossible.

Although the hand without James did well, they knew it was only a matter of time until the Warriors caught their bluff. They made sure to play their strongest hand the most, their starting lineup. Hill, JR Smith, James, Love, and Tristan Thompson posted a net rating of -4.3 and played as well as it could be expected to against what was often the Warriors’ best hand. Its offensive rating of 126.3 and defensive rating of 131.3 were both neither the best nor worst of the three common lineups, just smack in the middle.

Their was one hand, though, that the Cavs played exceptionally well. On the surface, it isn’t the strongest. James and four bench players – Clarkson, Korver, J. Green, and Nance – means you’re praying the Warriors fold and don’t take you to showdown. The Cavs got them to do that.

This hand played better than the other two by far. It posted a net rating of 50.3, an offensive rating of 144.9 and a defensive rating of 94.6 — the Cavs’ best in all three categories.

The first time this hand was used was at the beginning of the second quarter. They played roughly five-and-a-half minutes and were plus-three during this stretch, extending the lead from 30-29 to 44-40.

Nance was the main reason for this. Playing like a ten of spades that kept making top pair, and always had James as his ace kicker. During the second-quarter stretch he posted a line of six points, six rebounds (three offensive) and a steal while shooting 3-for-4 from the field.

When the quarter first started, Kerr had West out there to play center who was over-matched by Nance’s athleticism and effort on the glass.

Here we see an example of the problems Nance caused the Warriors. The Cavs ran a pick-and-roll to get to Nance’s man, West, switched onto him. While that helped create a mismatch for James (which he didn’t capitalize on), it created a mismatch on the boards. As soon as James shot goes up, Nance gets rebounding position on Livingston and gets an easy put back.

James found a way to use Nance as a mismatch on a baseline out of bounds on this play. He notices Lance has Livingston on him again, so he throws the ball high for him to catch and finish at the rim with no one there to deter him.

After watching the former Laker put up four points and three rebounds against his team in under four minutes, Kerr called it quits. Bell checked in for West.

On the defensive end, this group was able to use a switch-everything scheme, similar to what the Rockets used against the Warriors in the Conference Finals.

The Warriors did their best to target Korver, but the Cavs had enough quickness to help and rotate. This forced the Warriors into Kevin Durant isos, which may not seem ideal but compared to what the Warriors offense is capable of when they avoid this, it’s their version of checking back on the river and just hoping they have the better hand. During Game 1, the Cavs often had the better hand.

Durant checked in during the middle of the run for Steph Curry and missed a pull-up 3 on his first possession. James scored a layup afterwards, and then the Warriors called timeout with the Cavs lead up to seven. Durant picked up where he left off after the timeout, by missing a pull-up mid-range jumper. Then James finished a 10-footer on the other end with a Korver assist.

Durant wised up after that and channeled his aggression towards setting up his teammates instead of himself. He found Klay Thompson for a 3-pointer and then Curry leaking out on back-to-back possessions. Lue was forced to call timeout, he had to fold. But he made enough hands and stole enough pots during that stretch that he trusted that group and went back to them in the fourth quarter.

The lineup returned when James checked back in about a minute into the fourth quarter. J. Green was the player who thrived offensively during this stretch, finishing with five points and two assists. He started out as a weak kicker to James, the ace, but he consistently worked with him and gave the Cavs two pairs by the time they got to the river. Not a strong hand, but not a weak one either.

Both of J. Green’s baskets came off of assists from James, with the first one coming shortly after the Cavs Ace checked back in. He was able to catch an outlet pass and noticed Green filling the opposite lane like a gazelle. James found him with a bounce pass and J. Green finished at the rim with a slam. I talked about James seeking J. Green in transition in my last piece. The opportunities were scarce in Game 1, but they found one here.

J. Green returned the favor for the Cavs’ very next bucket. James ran a pick-and-roll with Nance, who he found in the middle of the lane. Nance picked up on help from Livingston and kicked to J. Green in the corner. K. Thompson came over to make sure J. Green couldn’t get a shot off, but with two defenders drawn to him, he picked his head up and found James cutting through the middle with no one near him. James caught J. Green’s pass and finished at the rim with power.

J. Green and James linked up for the third Cavs bucket in a row as James went to run another pick-and-roll, noticed Looney was sagging off J. Green way to much to help in the middle and thus zipped a pass to the wide open Green who knocked down the 3.

This was a huge bucket in the game. Korver had fouled K. Thompson on a 3-pointer at the other end and he sunk all three free throws to push the Warriors lead to seven. A stop and a score for the Warriors could’ve made the Cavs lose hope, but Green dug in and his three felt like it brought the Cavs a full house, and let them steal a big pot.

At the end of regulation, one of the Cavs reliable cards let them down when Hill missed the free throw to give them the lead. Their weakest card let them down right after, as Smith rebounded Hill’s miss but inexplicably dribbled the clock out when he could’ve shot or at the very least, called timeout.

There’s nothing the Cavs can do other than accept the loss and move on. On certain nights, you play your cards better than your opponent, but your opponent just has better cards. They have to trust their ability to play their cards right again in Game 2. If they do it again, they might be able to come out on top and head back to Cleveland having stolen home court. Something no one thought would happen.

Similarly, no one ever thinks their pocket aces are going to get busted, until they do.

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