The story of the NBA Finals now focuses on Kyrie Irving's left knee and the severity of the injury that knocked him out of Game 1. If he is severely compromised or finished, then so are the Cleveland Cavaliers. Before he was hurt, Irving paired with James to give the Cavaliers a 1-2 combo that was superior to Golden State's Splash Brothers, as they outscored Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson 67-47 and gave the Warriors all they could handle through the first four quarters.
But once Irving landed awkwardly and limped to the sideline in overtime, the Cavaliers weren't the same. James went from dominating the ball to force-feeding Timofey Mozgov. The Cavs missed their first eight shots of OT and missed a grand opportunity to swipe home-court advantage in Game 1, falling to Golden State 108-100. It would be easier to say they'd get 'em next time if they knew what's next for Irving.
He had shown few ill effects from the injuries that limited him to playing half the minutes in half the four games of the conference finals sweep of Atlanta. He navigated his way to 23 points Thursday night, and played stellar defense that included four steals and two blocks, the second to deny Curry what would have been a go-ahead layup on Golden State's last possession of the fourth quarter. Then he landed awkwardly while on offense in overtime, limped to the sideline, and went back to the locker room and didn't return.
"It's very tough to see," James said afterward. "Just to see how hard he worked these last eight days just to get himself to play at this level tonight."
He shook his head.
"Seeing him walk out of the locker room on crutches just now, that's a tough blow for our team."
He shook his head again.
It was such a devastating turn of events after the Cavaliers seemed on the verge of earning their first-ever NBA Finals win.
All you ask for is a shot at it, and the Cavaliers had one, with the score tied, the ball in James' hands, the final seconds of the fourth-quarter ticking down and everyone in the arena having flashbacks to the two game-winning jumpers LeBron made in Oracle Arena during his career.
But this time LeBron settled for a fallaway jumper against Andre Iguodala that skipped off the rim and toward the far side of the court, where Iman Shumpert did a single motion grab-and-shoot of the rebound that actually came closer to going in than LeBron's shot did. As it turned out, it was as close as the Cavaliers would come to winning Game 1.
They won't get circumstances better than this one. It was the first NBA Finals game for everyone on the Warriors' roster, and a team that thrives on tempo had to reacclimate to postseason basketball pace after idling for seven days following the conclusion of the Western Conference finals. The first quarter was predictably choppy, with the Warriors shooting 27 percent. Once they settled in, once Curry retreated to the spot in the left corner where he has missed only once in the playoffs and knocked down his first 3-pointer to get the Oracle crowd fully engaged, once Klay Thompson went from Trash Other to Splash Brother again, once Andre Iguodala reminded people of his All-Star season in Philadelphia, once Marreese Speights returned from a calf injury to score eight points in his first nine minutes of action since May 9, the Warriors were back in business.
The thing is, it took all of that to counter LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. All of that to play those two (with a little Mozgov mixed in) to a draw over 48 minutes. That's how effective LeBron was when supplemented by Irving. LeBron scored 44 points on the night. He personally outscored the Warriors' starting five in the first quarter, 12-11, when he made it easy to identify the only player on the court who'd been to the NBA Finals before.
The Warriors' plan was to let LeBron be a scorer and not be a playmaker. If he went for 40 so be it, as long as he didn't get any of the secondary players going.
"Over the course of the game I felt that we stuck to the game plan," Curry said. "LeBron's going to dominate the ball and make plays, we have to make it hard for him."
LeBron's field goal percentage fluctuated -- while his 3-point percentage stayed low almost the entire game -- but his impact was felt throughout. The Cavaliers held the lead for most of regulation, and led as late as 4 minutes left in the fourth quarter.
It was working.
"We didn't need anyone else to score," J.R. Smith said. "He was doing enough for us offensively."
The NBA's analytics age has brought an overemphasis on efficiency. Efficiency can be overrated. ESPN had a stat that LeBron had one of the four worst 3-point percentages ever heading into the Finals. Big deal. Two of the other three players on the list, Michael Jordan and Toni Kukoc, won championships in those seasons. The other, Jason Kidd, dragged a Nets team that really had no business playing in the Finals into June.
James missed four of his first five 3-pointers in Game 1 and the Cavaliers were fine. One reason LeBron's misses didn't have grave consequences is Tristan Thompson or Mozgov were often there to grab the rebound and either get another bucket or draw a foul. Missed shots aren't the worst thing that can happen on offense. Turnovers are.
James missed 20 of his 38 field goal attempts. Of course, Michael Jordan missed 20 shots in Game 6 in Utah before he hit that extended-pose jumper that won the 1998 NBA Finals and capped his career with the Chicago Bulls. James, however, didn't make the shot that mattered most. "I got to where I wanted to get," he said. "Stepped back. I've made 'em before."
LeBron wanted to come back to Cleveland to apply the experience he gained in his two championship runs with the Heat to help his hometown experience its first pro championship since the 1960s. He wanted to play with Irving, one of the league's rising stars.
He didn't get to play with Irving in the final two minutes of overtime. As much as LeBron empowered Matthew Dellavedova during the playoffs, Dellavedova looked out of his element here in Game 1 of the Finals.
And LeBron still hasn't won a Finals game while wearing a Cleveland uniform. The Cavaliers went with an isolation-heavy offense most of the night. By the end, LeBron seemed very much alone.