OAKLAND, Calif. — As the Cleveland Cavaliers engineered their remarkable comeback from a 3-1 series deficit against the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals a year ago, they created a clear blueprint for their success. Cleveland took every opportunity to slow the games down and make them as physical as possible, aiming to keep each game close and then let LeBron James and Kyrie Irving — two of the NBA’s best isolation scorers — take over late.
The formula worked. The Cavaliers won the final three games, including two at Oracle Arena, to stun Golden State and claim the city’s first championship in more than a half-century.
But as the Cavaliers woke up Friday morning and tried to process what happened in the 113-91 beating they suffered Thursday night in Game 1 of this year’s Finals, they found themselves in a difficult position: The strategy that worked for Cleveland against Golden State in the past might not be possible in the present.
“We made a lot of mistakes,” James said after Thursday’s loss. “There’s nothing really needs to be said.
“We know we’re capable of playing a lot better. We didn’t play as well as we know we’re capable of, so we look forward to the next one.”
There’s little doubt Cleveland can play better than it did in Game 1. The Cavaliers committed 20 turnovers — James himself had eight — and missed their fair share of open looks throughout the game.
But this Cavaliers roster doesn’t look capable of grinding out wins like they did last season. Their personnel is more equipped for a shootout than a slugfest.
And as Game 1 showed, the Cavaliers don’t appear to have the weapons to keep up with Golden State in a shootout.
“They’re tough at home,” Cavaliers Coach Tyronn Lue. “We know that. They probably lost eight games over the course of three seasons. So we know coming into this building they’re going to play — it’s going to be a tough game for us.
“But just getting a chance to see how they play, the style of play, how fast they play, you can’t really simulate that in practices. You got to really get out here and get a chance to do it firsthand.
“When we experience that, we’re able to adjust, we’re a lot better.”
That Cavaliers are certainly hoping they will be better. Cleveland looked out of sorts defensively, a recurring issue for a team that was the second-worst defensive team after the all-star break. The Cavaliers committed a series of gaffes that would have stood out in a junior varsity game.
Twice the Cavaliers allowed Kevin Durant to dribble down the middle of the court uncontested for dunks because they were paying too much attention to shooters at the three-point line. Then, when Cleveland reacted to a Durant drive later in the game, he kicked out to Stephen Curry for a wide-open three-pointer — one that Curry calmly buried.
The lapses underscore the task facing the Cavaliers. They have to find a way to slow down the Warriors, but their personnel will make it difficult. Irving and Kevin Love can be exploited on defense. It was no coincidence that a concussion suffered by Love in last year’s Finals, which relegated him to a lesser role when he returned, allowed Cleveland to become stronger on defense as the series progressed.
Meanwhile, Cleveland’s bench is filled with Deron Williams, Kyle Korver and Channing Frye. All are talented players capable of knocking down three-pointers but also are, to varying degrees, liabilities at the defensive end. That will make it difficult for the Cavaliers to turn these games into the kind of physical battles they may need to make this series competitive — or to find a way even to guard the Warriors, who seemed to overwhelm the Cavaliers no matter what combination of players was on the court in Game 1.
If the opener showed one thing, it’s that the Cavaliers need to rethink their strategy. They got run off the court even though the Warriors got nothing again from Klay Thompson (3 for 16 overall and 0 for 5 from three-point range) and shot poorly as a team (42.5 percent overall and 36.4 percent from three). The lack of force Cleveland displayed was evident not only in the number of wide-open looks allowed but also in that the Cavaliers had no steals and the Warriors committed only four turnovers, tying an NBA Finals record.
“First of all, we got to stop the ball in transition,” James said. “There was a few times where we fanned out to the three-point line and let guys just go right down the middle for a dunk.
“So when you turn the ball over, you got to know that that’s their best. That’s when they become very dangerous because those guys, they sprint down the lane, they sprint to the three-point line, they put a lot of pressure on your defense.”
Golden State put a lot of pressure on everything Cleveland did Thursday night, and it didn’t take long for the cracks to show. Now the Cavaliers have two days to try to figure out a way to change the narrative — or they could be heading back to Cleveland next week in a 2-0 hole.
Whatever Lue, James and Co. figure out, one things seems certain: Last year’s blueprint doesn’t seem possible for this year’s team. And that could be a serious problem.