OAKLAND, Calif. -- Taking the podium after a 113-91 loss in Game 1 of the 2017 NBA Finals on Thursday night, LeBron James lamented about his team's 20 turnovers, the 56 points they allowed the Warriors to score in the paint, and the mistakes he made on both ends of the floor. Asked to point out what stood out about Game 1, LeBron had a more definitive response:
After a nine-day layoff in-between series, the Golden State Warriors returned to the court on Thursday at Oracle Arena to open their third consecutive NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers looking as sharp as ever. It had been a year since the Warriors blew a 3-1 lead in the Finals, a disappointing end to a season in which the franchise won 73 games during the regular season and was on the verge of repeating as champions.
Kevin Durant was not a member of the Warriors a year ago, but he too had to deal with the disappointment of falling short in the Western Conference Finals with the Oklahoma City Thunder, and then the pressure of leaving the only franchise he's been with in his NBA career to join the Warriors, forming a super team that won 67 games during the regular season and have gone 12-0 in the playoffs heading into the Finals.
There are plenty of subplots in this series. But in Game 1, only one storyline mattered: These 2017 Finals might turn out to be Durant's career-defining series, on his way to the first championship in his career. Five years removed from his first Finals appearance, Durant matched up against LeBron on both ends of the floor to start the game, and dominated on the offensive end, scoring 23 points in the first half, setting a career-high for field goals in a playoff game before halftime with 10, and getting to the basket at will with six dunks in the first half.
The Warriors led by eight at the half, the lead eventually ballooned to 24 and Durant finished with 38 points on 14-for-26 shooting in 37 minutes, with zero turnovers while adding eight rebounds and eight assists. He was the best player on the floor in Game 1 by a wide margin, outdueling LeBron, who finished with 28 points, 15 rebounds and eight assists but had eight turnovers in 40 minutes and was a -22 on the floor.
"You cannot simulate what they bring to the table no matter how many days you have to prepare," LeBron said after the loss.
Before the game, Steve Kerr and acting head coach Mike Brown talked about getting the ball in Durant's hands right away to start the series, and putting him in a position where he could attack downhill. Lost in all the drama about Durant's decision to leave the Thunder was how joining a Warriors team that emphasizes ball movement on offense would unleash the most efficient version of Durant possible. This was evident during the regular season, and especially in Game 1 on Thursday.
"This is what every player wants to be, is the highest level of basketball," Durant said. "That's what you dream about as a kid, is to play at the highest level. I wouldn't done my teammates any good if I wasn't just enjoying the moment, no matter what. So I just tried to stay locked in on that, at the same time have some fun."
Like, say, giving Rihanna a look after draining a three, seemingly in response to the LeBron-loving pop star taunting him with "BRICK!" earlier during one of his free throws.
Kevin Durant hits the 3-pointer then stares Rihanna down. ��- NBA SKITS (@NBA_Skits) June 2, 2017
RiRi's support not-withstanding, the Cavs have a fighting chance because of LeBron's individual brilliance on both ends of the floor, but if he's losing his matchup against Durant, this series will be over in a hurry.
"He's going to do what he does. He's LeBron James. You guys know what he can do," Durant said. "So I just tried to play as hard as I can and not make it about a matchup, it's about us, it's about the Golden State Warriors versus the Cleveland Cavaliers and we're only going to do it together. That's just our whole mindset."
Brown also marveled at Durant's versatility after Game 1: "We put him basically at all four positions and we probably could play him at the five. But doggone [general manager] Bob Myers signed like 18 centers, so we got to find minutes for them. But other than that, he can play any of the other four positions."
The Warriors arguably could have repeated as champions last year if it weren't for Green's suspension in Game 5, or shooting slumps from Curry and Klay Thompson in the series. A 73-win team had very few holes to fill, and yet they went out and got the best pure scorer in the league. The Warriors looked invincible in Game 1; Durant dominated and the Warriors are still undefeated so far this postseason.
"They've the best [team] I've ever seen," Tyronn Lue said after Game 1.
The Cavs have been here before, facing an uphill climb against the Warriors in the Finals. Thursday's opening win did not wrap up the series, but it was a stark reminder of the challenge that awaits LeBron and his squad this time around. If they can't adjust, this will be a short series -- and KD will finally have his day.