Except their plan for stopping LeBron isn't about stopping LeBron. It's about having him go it alone. James dominated the action, led all scorers with 44 points, made incredible plays and came incredibly close to victory. The Warriors will take it, though, and not just because they won. While the Warriors almost lost, that happened mostly due to offensive issues. Their top-ranked defense, and most especially Andre Iguodala's top-flight defense, won this.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr joked about his team's effectiveness on James, noting that he scored 44 points. Kerr eventually settled on "pick your poison" when describing the conundrum of stopping such a talent. What's clear is the Warriors have chosen their poison. Today, they live. They want a game in which James shoots 38 times, with only four of those tries coming in the restricted area. They want a game in which Cleveland scores 100 points on 94 shots. If LeBron beats Golden State with floaters and step-back jumpers, those are the breaks.
A key principle in Golden State's defensive approach is this: The Warriors don't want to be like the Atlanta Hawks were against the Cavs in the Eastern Conference finals. Atlanta let James sprint into his drives. It also kept collapsing whenever James drove, ceding an average of 9.3 assists per game to The King. In contrast, on Thursday night, James managed a mere six assists in 46 minutes of play. The Warriors have more rim protection than the Hawks did, and they intend to leverage it. When LeBron drives, it's up to his man and shot blockers -- not perimeter defenders -- to halt the assault.
"He made a lot of tough jumpers that were contested and we'll live with him shooting a lot of shots and scoring 40 because we feel like a lot of guys who are key to them winning a series don't get touches and don't get going," Warriors center Andrew Bogut said of James.
James gave the Cavs everything he could, but had little left when Cleveland missed its opportunity at the end of regulation. This was an eight-point win, decided by an inch. Iman Shumpert was that close to bringing home-court advantage to Cleveland, after LeBron's game-winner try shanked into Shump's hands. Shumpert's follow-up lipped over the iron, sparing the Warriors a do-or-die Game 2 on Sunday.
"I didn't even think we were going to overtime because I thought Iman's follow was going in," Kerr said.
The rest of the game was classic Golden State. After resisting for all of regulation, Kerr finally went small with Draymond Green at center. That blew apart a larger Cavs squad that had been logging heavy minutes. The Cavs scored only two points in the extra period -- an uncontested LeBron layup after the result was in hand.
"We feel like our depth will win this series in the long run, whether it's seven games, six, whatever it is. Hopefully we're right," said Bogut, who sat during that small-ball burst.
It's all part of the LeBron erosion project. Let him take his shots, let him log his minutes, and wait for him to wear down. There's always risk in such an approach because James is great. An entire arena of people who gulped as he launched that game-winner attempt would attest to that.
On most nights, the Warriors will need more offense from more players. Stephen Curry was himself, but other starters struggled, especially in the beginning. Poor shooting dug the Warriors a 14-point deficit in the first quarter. It took Iguodala and Marreese Speights providing an unexpected jolt of offense to right the ship. Once Golden State closed the gap, the action was closely contested until the fourth-quarter buzzer sounded.
The Warriors are lucky to escape Game 1, but they're also quite good, both in terms of talent and strategy. They backed LeBron James off, refusing to allow him acceleration toward the hole. Then, they invited LeBron to beat them all by himself. He's skilled enough that he came so close to achieving just that.
But in the end, the defense and its game plan prevailed. A king cannot rule well if his subjects starve.