OAKLAND –- What seemed so invisible to so many for so long now must be impossible for even the most passionate deniers to ignore.
The Warriors play a wicked brand of defense.
The pretty passing and 3-point shooting and even the fancy dribbling by MVP Stephen Curry, it’s all part of the show. It’s how the Warriors created an image, and that image seems embedded in the minds of so many.
But defense is how they became a serious championship contender, and that element was never more evident than in the five-minute overtime of Game 1 of the NBA Finals Thursday night at Oracle Arena.
[Instant Replay: Warriors battle, take Game 1 from Cavs in OT]
Behind the energy provided by their small, ferocious lineup, the Warriors outscored Cleveland 10-2 and held the Cavaliers to 1-of-9 shooting, 11.1 percent. The only basket came with nine seconds to play, a LeBron James layup, after which the Warriors ran out the clock.
“We went small and they went small, and we managed to get stops,” said Andrew Bogut, the 7-foot center who never left the bench in OT.
James scored a career playoff-high 44 points: 17-of-34 in regulation, 1-of-4 in OT.
“We couldn’t get a good look,” James said of the extra period.
“We really only had zero points. I got the layup at the end, but that didn’t mean much because they did a good job of closing it in overtime.”
The Warriors – for the uninitiated – typically have at least one quarter per game in which their defense stifles the opponent. It did not come on this night until the “fifth quarter,” the only one they needed to take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.
Rangy Andre Iguodala, ignoring a 50-pound weight disadvantage, wrapped himself around James. Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes and Stephen Curry, with an early dash of Festus Ezeli, did the rest to take the Warriors home.
The Cavs shot 44.7 percent through four quarters, then dropped off the map. Their two-point OT tied for the lowest ever in the shot-clock era (1954-55).
“Andre, Draymond, Klay, Harrison, Festus – when he was in there – all competed,” Curry said. “We were kind of small and we had to defend the glass and rebound the ball. Everybody sacrificed their body and made it work.”
“We just forced them into tough shots the whole overtime. And we were able to get stops with that lineup we had. We were able to push in transition, get to the free-throw line, which got some momentum on our side. It was just a classic five minutes that we needed to get that win.”
It was enough to overcome the brilliance of James, who defied all defenses for most of the night. He was particularly fabulous on the block, using his tightly wound 265-pound body to punish smaller defenders.
The Warriors, meanwhile, weren’t doing themselves a lot of favors on offense. Thompson (5-of-14) struggled with his shot. So did Green (4-of-13). Among those playing heavy minutes, only Curry (10-of-20, team-high 26 points) and Iguodala (6-of-8, 15 points) found the range.
“For the most part, it wasn’t our best game,” coach Steve Kerr said. “But we did a lot of things well. We only turned it over 12 times. After that slow start, we started to move the ball better.
“And we fought. That was the biggest thing. We just competed and stayed with it.”
Fighting and competing and persevering are requirements of defense. When the Warriors saw a route to victory and realized they had to defend to get there, they did precisely that.
So now, after this, a game watched by billions around the globe, maybe this team’s image will fade into its reality. Perhaps those who neglect the statistics – the Warriors led the NBA in defense – will find some truth in those final five minutes.
Iguodala played a terrific game. In addition to shooting well, he was an annoyance on defense and gave up his body to slowly drain James of energy.
Barnes had a relatively quiet night on offense – until he dropped in a clutch 3-pointer with 2:02 left in OT to give the Warriors their biggest lead of the night.
Kerr became the first rookie coach to win Game 1 of The Finals since Mike Dunleavy did it with the Lakers in 1991.
Marreese Speights came off the bench in the first quarter to wake up the offense, scoring six points in four minutes.
The Warriors were outstanding from the free-throw line: 20-of-22.
The Warriors started horribly, shooting 27.3 percent in the opening quarter and trailing by as many as 14 points.
Yes, the Warriors shoot a lot of jump shots; they shot 27 3-pointers in Game 1. They were outscored in the paint (44-40), which happens less often than you might expect. But they were careful enough with the ball to stay in a game after they fell behind. And when the game entered OT, and defense was absolutely essential to victory, the Warriors locked down. They’ve done a lot of that, if you care to notice.