Over the course of NBA history, the Game 1 winner in the NBA Finals goes on to win the series 70% of the time. If that winning team also was on their home floor, you are looking at 77%. It forces the losing side to win four of the next six. That’s tough.
Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals showed that LeBron James needs to be on all cylinders for the Cavaliers to win in May and June. Kevin Love had 28/10/3, Kyrie finished with 29/2/7, Tristan Thompson had 18/13, and JR Smith hit four 3’s. It didn’t matter. LeBron played 45 minutes and managed only 11 points on 4/13 shooting, and had six turnovers. Despite the quality contributions outside of LeBron, the Cavaliers lost 111-108 at home. In order to win at the Oracle on Tuesday, LeBron needs play exceptional.
Playing exceptional team basketball is largely dependent on the clarity of each individuals mindset. It becomes apparent when all five guys are locked in, sacrificing for each other and playing to their respective strengths. The margin of error widens. Yet mindsets often turn fragile. Basketball is a very human activity, subject to the myriad of extraneous factors that cloud ones ability to maximize their talents.
LeBron’s Game 3 last week, as well as his 2011 Finals debacle are prime examples of mental slippage. Westbrook’s 4-18 4th Quarter that essentially ended their playoff aspirations this year was a mindset malfunction. Steph Curry’s lazy behind the back pass that sailed out of bounds with four minutes left in Game 7 last year doesn’t happen if his mind was sharp. Steph’s passive Christmas Day performance was similar. Others never corral the correct mindset. Josh Smith and Dwight Howard come to mind. Maintaining it is even more challenging. Harden’s 2012 Western Conference Finals dethroning of the Spurs was mesmerizing; his Finals performance was pathetic. Harden’s lethargic game to end these playoffs was equally as troubling.
Clarity of mind could be the ingredient that pulls Cleveland through. LeBron has played 46 tremendous and only six poor quarters this postseason. Except LeBron to come out swinging.
The Warriors are runaway favorites for good reason. They won 67 games in the West, posted historical advanced metrics, and are undefeated in the playoffs thus far. Another way of looking at it: They won 73 games last year, replaced Barnes for Durant, Speights for West, Ezeli for JaVale McGee, Barbosa for McCaw, and Curry hasn’t slipped on a wet spot in 13 months. They prioritized coming back stronger. Mission accomplished.
Trying to find an exploitable hole in the Warriors is tedious. Temporary advantages are mitigated quickly. Their lineup versatility and offensive firepower make a 14-2 run in two minutes a constant threat. This is the “stress” LeBron is referring to.
Cleveland’s reason for optimism in Game 1 rests in their continuity, the Warriors shaky playoff starts, and employing LeBron James.
Out of the nine players that Cleveland will utilize, Kyle Korver is the lone newcomer (an easy player to implement schematically on both sides of the court). In stark contrast, West/Puchulia/McCaw/McGee have never played in the Finals. Kevin Durant hasn’t been on this stage in five years. Continuity matters in high pressure environments, and many Warriors aren’t accustomed to these conditions. Steve Kerr’s possible absence accentuates this concern.
Golden State Slow Starts
Golden State’s unblemished postseason hasn’t been without some trying moments in Game 1’s. Against Portland, Game 1 was knotted at 88 after three quarters. Utah, straight off of going the distance against the Clippers, managed to keep the game within single digits heading into the 4th against the rested Warriors. The Spurs were up 22 midway through the third until a controversial Pachulia closeout removed San Antonio’s MVP candidate from participation. Game 1’s haven’t been smooth sailing. Cleveland has been sharper earlier in series thus far.
It is hard to imagine that Golden State won’t be more prepared for the initial battle this round, but it is something to at least consider.
LeBron’s 2017 postseason has been maybe the greatest ever thus far. He has been especially overwhelming when rested. He has six days off before Game 1. This series presents a legacy opportunity that rivals any in the history of sports. Beating this Warriors squad changes everything. He’s going to give everything. The Cavaliers hope rests in that fact. He knows he’s four wins away from the “ghost”. The time is now.