Cavs' stars shine, but Warriors show a different way to win

ByJ.A. Adande ESPN logo
Friday, June 3, 2016

OAKLAND, Calif. --In the wake of the Golden State Warriors' Game 7 comeback victory to clinch the Western Conference finals, I asked Warriors general manager Bob Myers what he'd learned about his team.

That they hate to lose, he said, adding that it's important to get as many of those types of players as possible on your roster.

Game 1 of the NBA Finals turned into a testament to that philosophy of team building and roster depth, at the expense of the suddenly dated big three construction of the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Warriors' top two scoring threats, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, couldn't crack the top four on the list Thursday night, yet the Warriors still won comfortably thanks to the likes of Shaun Livingston, Leandro Barbosa and Andre Iguodala.

"The fact they're all ready is a testament to their coaches and them," Myers said Thursday night. "Because we needed them. We needed them."

Or, as LeBron James succinctly summarized: "What happened? They scored 45 points [off the bench], we scored 10. That's what happened."

More simple math: The Warriors' bench had a plus/minus of plus-15; the Cavs' bench players were minus-15; the Warriors won the game by 15 points.

One reason the Warriors' bench was so good is coach Steve Kerr returned Iguodala there after using him to start Game 7 of the conference finals -- in addition to the second half of Game 6. It's rare a coach offers a vote of confidence to his starters, but that's what this amounted to given their previous two games, in addition to the three games Iguodala started against the Cavs in last year's NBA Finals.

The Warriors are the closest team to the championship right now because they have so many options. They have stars who can steal road playoff games and they have bench players who can carry the day at home, where the secondary guys tend to be more comfortable and productive. It didn't matter that the Cavaliers' defensive plans against the starting lineup came to fruition as they held the Splash Brothers to a combined 20 points and baited Draymond Green into trying more 3-pointers than Thompson.

The Cavs were helpless against the second unit, first Barbosa blazing by Matthew Dellavedova, then Livingston shooting over smaller defenders for a team-high 20 points.

On the surface, the 66 combined points from James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love were exactly the vision when this group formed in the summer of 2014. It was the new big three, replacing LeBron's big three in Miami, which took over the Eastern Conference from the big three in Boston. The problem was that they didn't bring anyone else along for the ride, and they didn't get any support from the bench.

Attempts to drive and kick wound up with passes that sailed out of bounds, or took so long the shot clock expired. Irving's extensive dribbling took the life out of the offense. Tyronn Lue's lineups emphasized rebounding and defense over floor spacing, with Channing Frye (he of the torrid playoff 3-point shooting) spending all but seven minutes of the game on the bench.

If the Warriors go on to finish the Cavs after taking down the Thunder, who regressed to over-reliance on the inopportunely errant Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook down the stretch of the last two games, it might strike a blow to the notion of the top-heavy team. Yes, the Warriors have the league's most valuable player. They also won four out of six playoff games without Curry. It's tempting to call it five out of seven after he missed 11 of 15 shots and scored 11 points in Game 1.

"You don't win championships without the entire squad coming in and making an impact on games," Curry said.

This is their formula, this is what's working.

The Cavaliers were built on the same premise as the Miami Heat and the Boston Celtics before them: Add two stars to the one on your roster and create a big three. Last year it failed because two of the three were injured. It's possible that it cost them their best chance to win a championship, against a Warriors team that was new to the NBA Finals and wobbled even after winning Game 1. The Spurs' depth beat LeBron in 2014 and the Warriors' depth beat him last season (not just Iguodala's Finals MVP -- remember David Lee's podium game?) when LeBron was the Cavs' last star standing.

LeBron actually seemed to take umbrage when a reporter asked whether last year the Warriors were more dependent on Curry and Thompson than this season.

"I mean, they got to the point where they were last year and won a championship because of their whole team and their bench," LeBron said. "And they're here once again in the Finals because of their whole team. So nothing has really changed.

"They're a team that's had another year under their belt, and they've exceeded what they did last year. So it's kind of hard to answer that question because it's not really true."

It's a better reflection of LeBron if a whole team beats him rather than one or two players. But he's also acknowledging what the Warriors are doing. He's keenly aware of the approaches other teams take. He might be looking across the court at the construct that could overwhelm him.

If you still want to regard James as the league's best player despite Curry's back-to-back MVPs -- with 23 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists, LeBron sure got the better of Curry statistically in Game 1 -- then it could be time to recognize that having the best player isn't enough in today's NBA.

Now, this Golden State team has championship pedigree mixed with a team-wide desire to get better. The Cavaliers are healthier now, but the Warriors are smarter, more experienced and more balanced. This series is far from over, and the Warriors will be challenged to duplicate this type of performance on the road in Cleveland for Games 3 and 4. But there's always the possibility Thompson could go off for 41 points again, or Curry could uncork a quick 30. Then what?

The Warriors' stars weren't special in Game 1. Their team still was. If the Cavaliers can't make the proper adjustments in this series, it might be time to change their formula.

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