OAKLAND — What a difference another superstar makes. The addition of free agent Kevin Durant to the Warriors’ All-Star cast paid immediate dividends in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday night at Oracle Arena. Durant dominated in every phase of the game and outplayed Cavaliers counterpart LeBron James as the Warriors took a 113-91 victory.
Durant had 38 points, eight rebounds and eight assists and was especially dominant on the interior, where the Warriors finished with a crushing 56-30 advantage in points in the paint. That opened the outside for Stephen Curry, who had 28 points and shot 11-for-22, including 6-for-11 from three-point range.
James topped the Cavs with 28 points and added 15 rebounds and eight assists. Kyrie Irving totaled 24 points and Kevin Love had 15 points and 21 rebounds. They got little help from a supporting cast that managed only 23 points, and the Cavs shot 35.5 percent and committed 20 turnovers to the Warriors’ four.
This Finals matchup has been celebrated as the first trilogy in league history after Golden State won in 2015 and Cleveland overcame a 3-1 deficit to win the 2016 title. But the Warriors came in as significant favorites because of Durant’s presence.
James certainly took notice. Asked what stood out, James said, “K.D. I mean, you take one of the best teams ever assembled last year [with a record 73 regular-season wins] and then in the offseason, you add a high-powered offensive talent like that and a great basketball IQ like that. That’s what stands out. It’s no ifs, ands or buts. We got to figure out how to combat that, which is going to be a tough challenge for us.”
Durant’s presence created a vastly different dynamic because he and James figure to be matched against each other at small forward most of the time. In the past, Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue tried to avoid tough defensive matchups for James to save his energy. But before Game 1, Lue smiled and said, “Those days are over. He’s up for the challenge. We know Kevin Durant is a tough matchup, but Steph, Klay [Thompson], Draymond [Green], whoever you put him on is tough. So those days are over.”
Durant repeatedly drove past James to the basket for layups and dish-offs as the Warriors opened a 35-30 first-quarter lead. Lue admitted his team focused on defending the three-point line and couldn’t stop penetration by the Warriors, who scored 20 of their first 24 points in the paint.
“Our game plan was kind of backwards,” Lue said. “When Kevin Durant has the ball, you don’t want to leave him and get to the shooters. But they got him going early in the game, he got out in transition, got four or five dunks early, and it just kind of opened everything up for him.”
By halftime, the Warriors had a 60-52 lead built on an incredible 42-16 advantage in points in the paint. The Warriors’ defense was a major factor, getting stops and forcing turnovers, including six in the first half by James.
Asked if he sensed the Cavs were more worried about protecting the three-point line than getting the ball out of his hands, Durant said, “If I see a lane, I just try to attack. In transition, they were running out to the three-point line [because] we’ve got the best three-point shooters in the world . . . I just tried to be aggressive to the rim and loosen them up a bit. And Steph was able to hit a couple in transition.”
It got worse in the second half for the Cavs, who failed to score until the 7:52 mark, when James’ three-pointer snapped a 13-0 Warriors run. Curry had 14 third-quarter points and the Warriors shot 60 percent from three-point range (6-for-10) as they extended their lead to as much as 24.
It was an impressive display, but thinking back to some of the layups and short jump shots they missed in the early going, Durant warned the Cavs: “We could be a lot better than we were tonight.”