After a shaky start that was predicted by none other than the winning coach, the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers settled down and finally served a basketball feast for their long-famished communities.
Actually, for the better part of the evening, it was more lavish than that, with something for everyone.
LeBron James and Stephen Curry engaged in their individual dual. Andrew Bogut and Timofey Mosgov occasionally rekindled memories of how 7-footers can affect a game. The rookie coaches made their adjustments and tinkered with their lineups and, afterward, second-guessed themselves only a little. The fans inside Oracle Arena – deprived of this experience for four decades – screamed and booed and cheered, and in the end, celebrated as streaming yellow confetti dropped from the rafters.
But the folks in Cleveland? The James fans who cried when he left for Miami five years ago and cried again when he came home? The rocking, rolling good times took another hit before the Warriors won the opening game of the best-of-seven NBA Finals 108-100 in overtime.
The overriding issue before the series – can the combined brilliance of LeBron James and a sore-kneed Kyrie Irving overcome the deep, talented Warriors, the Most Valuable Player and more interchangeable parts than a chorus line? – has taken on ominous overtones.
With 1:20 left in overtime, Irving, the All-Star point guard who missed two games in the Eastern Conference finals, hobbled off the court after what appeared to be incidental contact with Klay Thompson. Cavaliers coach David Blatt said later the knee simply buckled.
Irving immediately went to the locker room, angrily throwing his jersey on the ground. He sat at his stall, face in his hands, visibly distressed. He left the building on crutches and is expected to have an MRI on Friday.
What if the Cavaliers have to contend with Curry, Thompson, Shaun Livingston, Harrison Barnes and Andre Iguodala without their All-Star playmaker, shot maker and backcourt defender? The series that seemed deserving of all the hype figures to have a very short shelf life.
But it wouldn’t be anything new for the Warriors. The three teams they eliminated en route to the NBA Finals – New Orleans, Memphis and Houston – were without their starting point guards for part or all of the series.
But, as Warriors coach Steve Kerr said late Thursday night, elite teams want to beat opponents at their best. Irving’s absence would be a bummer for all concerned.
“I want everybody healthy,” Kerr said. “You want everybody playing. This is the dream of every player, to come to the NBA Finals and perform and compete. So I hope he’s OK.”
Here’s what probably kept the Cavaliers awake for at least part of Thursday night: They had an opportunity to win the game on the final possession of regulation, then ride back to their team hotel with a 1-0 series lead and a relatively healthy Irving.
After several lead changes, momentum swings, spectacular plays interspersed with botched passes and bungled assignments, Irving’s finger-tip block of Curry’s layup attempt with the score tied 98-98 gave the Cavaliers a great opportunity to steal at win at Oracle.
Everyone knew where the ball was going, who would take the shot, and they were on their feet, nervously wondering if James was capable of adding another chapter to his book of late-game heroics.
Iguodala, who forced James to take difficult shots most of the game, anticipated James would get the ball and move to his left, step back and launch a deep jumper from the left corner.
“I was right there on him,” Iguodala said, “and he was still able to get off the shot. So at that point, you just want percentages to kick in and help you out.”
Maybe it was the Bay Area basketball gods, or California karma, or a rare instance when Superman imitates a mortal.
“My mindset was we’re either going to go out of here with a win or going into overtime,” James said. “I’m going to get that last shot. We had our chances.”
But in overtime, the Cavaliers had zero chance, scoring just two points and losing their point guard, perhaps for the series. The sight of Irving leaving the building on crutches was a mood killer and deprives this series of some buzz. But this can happen and often does. Championship teams usually win with superior talent, exceptional coaching and a healthy roster.
That doesn’t sound like the Cavaliers, does it?