OAKLAND — The stars almost aligned for the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
A massive underdog on Thursday night and in every game for the rest of this series, Cleveland was blessed with one of the all-time great individual performances in the history of professional basketball by one LeBron James, Andre Iguodala’s absence, and a brief first quarter boost after Klay Thompson’s momentarily-serious leg injury demanded an x-ray.
They outscored the Golden State Warriors by three points in the five minutes LeBron was on the bench, saw Kevin Durant go 1-for-6 from the three-point line (“If I get a three-pointer up it’s because I want to,” Durant said when I asked about his unusually inefficient shooting after the game), and the entire Warriors team finished 2-for-10 on the type of long twos they normally use as surgical weaponry. Cleveland had luck (and a well-executed gameplan from Ty Lue) on its side. But sudden randomness, the ultimate variable, ultimately disrupted their algorithm.
The game’s (entire season’s?) most contentious and memorable play—the block/charge fiasco is a close runner-up, but that’s a different conversation for a different day—was a moment that should’ve symbolized one of Cleveland’s only strengths in this matchup. It also doubled as basketball tragedy. With 4.7 seconds left, George Hill stepped to the free-throw line with the Cavs down one. He made the first which tied the game and then missed the second. Smith swooped in to grab the rebound over Durant, but instead of going back up with it from point blank range or even passing out to LeBron, who was open, he legendarily dribbled out the clock and sent the game into overtime.
Those 4.7 seconds will live in infamy. High-school coaches will use it as a tool whenever their team’s focus starts to quiver. Remember J.R.? But Smith’s colossal brain fart overshadows perhaps the most replicable recipe for Cleveland having any kind of success going forward: the offensive glass.
The Cavaliers finished the regular season with the fourth-lowest offensive rebound rate in the league (20.1), but this was once a core tenet of their identity. During LeBron’s first two seasons back in Cleveland, the team ranked second (2015) and fourth (2016) in offensive rebound rate, per Cleaning the Glass. Tristan Thompson, Kevin Love, and LeBron were all on those teams and Cleveland plays big enough (with Larry Nance Jr. and Jeff Green) to bumrush the paint with a risk/reward calculus that can tip in their favor.
In Game 1, they grabbed 19 of their own missed shots and their offensive rebound rate was a monstrous 35.8. (For reference, the Oklahoma City Thunder led the league at 27.7 percent during the regular season.) Cleveland also finished in the 93rd percentile for putback points per miss.
Coincidentally, in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals, the Houston Rockets snatched 35.4 percent of their own misses. Against a team that loves to play small, switch their bigs onto the perimeter and get out in the open floor, the Warriors have been vulnerable on the glass in ways that Cleveland absolutely has to exploit if they want to avoid a sweep. It slows the game down, limits Golden State’s offensive opportunities, and, most devastatingly, offers a team that has LeBron on it another chance to put the ball in the basket. (The Warriors ranked 25th in defensive rebound rate this season. They were 29th in 2017.)
“I think one of the things that we felt like we could take advantage of was that it wasn't only [P.J.] Tucker...but also Capela and a lot of guys that felt like they could crash from the weakside,” Kevin Love said when asked about offensive rebounding after Game 1. “It's just being able to know when to crash and when to get back because they're so devastating in transition and finding guys for either open cuts to the basket in transition or we dunk it under a screen and they slip, you saw that late in the game with Livingston, or whether it's Klay or Steph or K.D. coming off the shot in transition. It's just tough to stop. So you have to pick your poison in that type of situation, but we felt like we could take advantage of the offensive glass.”
The Rockets weren’t juggernauts on the offensive boards in the Western Conference Finals—they finished the series at almost exactly the league’s average rate—but they were, at times, enough of a persistent nuisance to neutralize Golden State’s attack heading the other way. At key junctures, they forced the Warriors to stay back and protect their rim over leaking out in transition. Cleveland had that same effect, whether it was a guard like Smith or Jordan Clarkson crashing in from the weakside or someone like Thompson drawing a foul in the trenches after the Warriors switchy defense stretched itself thin on the perimeter.
Whenever the Cavaliers looked like they were about to crumble under the weight of Golden State’s offensive avalanche, their effort on the boards allowed them to solidify some sort of foothold.
Down four with just over two minutes to go, LeBron drove right against Steph Curry’s switch, drew Durant to the elbow and then kicked out to Smith for three. As the ball hung in the air, Hill snuck in from the strong-side corner and positioned himself beneath the rim to eventually keep it alive and out of Golden State’s hands. Meanwhile, crashing in from the opposite corner, Green swam around Draymond Green’s box out to slap the ball out to Love for a three that cut the Warriors's lead to one.
Here's LeBron squeezing through two Warriors to bat out Love's missed three, starting a chain reaction that results in an easy putback.
Plays like that were massive, and they happened all night, even in spots that weren't recognized for their true value in real time. Here's Smith racing in past three Warriors to grab Clarkson's missed layup.
Even though Cleveland didn't score from this chance, it limited Golden State's ability to pull off a two-for-one going the other way. (Durant ultimately missed a tough look with a couple seconds left in the quarter.)
It was constant pressure that helped keep the game’s pace to 90.5, a tempo that serves as Cleveland’s lifeblood. They stayed "big" even when Love was at the five—thanks to Jeff Green—and tried out point-guard free lineups (for about five minutes) that pit Smith as their smallest player. The Warriors, of course, had their success too, averaging an electrifying 1.26 points per possession after they grabbed a defensive rebound, per Inpredictable. But that’s a gamble the Cavaliers will have to take for the rest of this series if they want to stay competitive.
Where they lack in talent, discipline, shooting, play-making, cohesion, intelligence, and all-around awesome, Cleveland absolutely has to muck up the game's gray areas that exist between set plays and the open floor. When their own shot careens off the rim, everybody's PER, net rating, and VORP is temporarily rendered irrelevant. It’s these simple, crucial moments that gave them a fighting chance in Game 1. Somehow, someway, they’ll need to be even better in Game 2.