Just look at the boxscore.
In Game 1 of the NBA Finals, Irving was better than anyone could have imagined. Bothered by a nagging sore left knee since Cleveland’s first-round series win over Boston, Irving clearly benefited from the eight-day layoff following the conference finals and rediscovered his All-Star form.
Irving collected 23 points, seven rebounds and six assists in nearly 44 minutes, matching his postseason high. He used a nice mix of perimeter shooting and basket attacks that often had defenders – usually the normally solid Klay Thompson – on skates.
“Kyrie was great,” Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “He had a stretch there where he was really tough to stop.”
Even on defense – where the injury was projected to be more of a liability when tested by the constant motion and screening of the Warriors – Irving made an impact. He used his reclaimed quickness to make four steals and added two blocks, including one from behind that thwarted a potential go-ahead driving layup by Stephen Curry late in regulation and was the play of the game to that point.
But midway through overtime, Irving lost his footing on a dribble drive and came up favoring the knee. He hobbled back on defense and then off the floor, and you got the sense that he took Cleveland’s chances of winning this series with him.
The Cavaliers nearly stole the opener on the road with an abnormally heavy dose of LeBron James, who scored 44 points on 38 shots with a usage rate that rivaled hand soap in a hospital. Irving properly cast himself as Robin alongside Batman, and center Timofey Mozgov contributed 16 points, mostly through effectively playing off James and Irving.
After that? Pfft.
For all of his rebounding prowess, Tristan Thompson scored his team’s first basket and did not score again. Fellow starter Iman Shumpert had six points on a pair of spot-up 3-pointers. And the bench was awful.
James Jones did a nice impersonation of a mailbox, missing his only shot with four fouls in 17 minutes. Matthew Dellavedova looked overmatched as he often had trouble merely getting the Cavaliers into their offense and did not even attempt a shot in 13 minutes.
And J.R. Smith provided his customary fool’s gold by drilling his first two 3-pointers and spending the rest of the game under the impression that he was on fire. Often in hoist mode, he missed 10 of his last 11 shots and did not score after halftime.
In all, Cleveland’s three reserves provided nine points – all from Smith – in 60 combined minutes. All three had negative numbers in the plus-minus column, undoing the solid work done by James, Irving and the other starters.
“We’ve got to do more around (James),” Cavs coach David Blatt said.
Contrast that with Golden State’s bench. Kerr spread 78 minutes among five players, all of whom had positive plus-minus totals. Backup guards Shaun Livingston and Leandro Barbosa and center Festus Ezeli did nothing to hurt the cause, combining for 11 points and 13 rebounds. Andre Iguodala gave great defensive effort against James and also scored 15 points.
Even forward Marreese Speights – who had not played since Game 3 of the conference semifinals vs. Memphis due to a calf injury – made an imprint with eight points (on eight shots) in a scant nine minutes. In all, it added up to a 34-9 bench scoring edge in a game that was even after 48 minutes.
“That was a pretty significant factor, obviously, in terms of numbers and in terms of the lift that they got,” Blatt said.
“I do believe in our depth,” Kerr said. “You know, we played 10 people. Mo Speights was fantastic tonight. We play a lot of people and we feel like over the course of a game and maybe in overtime we can keep fighting and good things will happen.”
Which was exactly what happened. Curry led the Warriors with 43 minutes, but that was less than James (46), Irving (44) and Thompson (47). Both teams stumbled offensively at the outset of overtime, but the Warriors seemed to have something in reserve – whether it was physical, mental or both – to work their way through a potentially damaging stretch, while the Cavs caved.
Blatt admitted that fatigue may have been a factor, which will be an issue going forward regardless of the outcome of Irving’s MRI. Given the fact that he left Oracle Arena on crutches, you would have to think that even if Irving can play, he won’t see 44 minutes again.
“Seeing him walk out of the locker room on crutches just now, that’s a tough blow for our team,” James said.
And that puts the Cavaliers in a bind, because Blatt doesn’t have many options. Their bench looks like they put former Finals participants on a guest list, with injured Anderson Varejao in street clothes and Kendrick Perkins, Brendan Haywood, Mike Miller and Shawn Marion dressed but looking like they are waiting for bottle service in the VIP section.
So where does Blatt go? The ineffective Dellavedova appears ticketed for more minutes, not less. Based on their experience and savvy, Miller and Marion certainly remain options, especially with both teams looking to play small as much as possible.
But in this postseason, Miller has six points in 36 minutes and Marion has two in 25. Or as many points as Speights had in Game 1.
“It’s the next man up,” James said, putting up a brave front. “If Kyrie can’t go, Delly’s number is going to be called and everyone else has to pick each other up.”
Right now, Blatt may have no choice but to ask for more heavy lifting from James, whose efficiency is clearly suffering due to his workload, and elevate the erratic Smith to second option, which is a frightening thought.
“I’d like to see us frame up for some more shots, you know, to get him good looks,” Blatt said. “He’s a shot maker and a tough shot maker. But the more open looks that we can get for him, the better for us. That’s what he does for us. That’s what he’s supposed to do. We just need to get him better shots.”
If your game plan is getting J.R. Smith better shots, your team has no shot.
Chris Bernucca is the managing editor and a featured columnist for SheridanHoops.com. Follow him on Twitter.