Grant Cohn: Warriors in for long fight against Cavaliers for NBA title

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Don’t dismiss the Cavaliers.

Forget J.R. Smith’s mistake at the end of regulation, and forget the fight in overtime. Look past the distractions. What did we really learn from Game 1?

We learned the Cavaliers are better than last year. We learned they’re a real threat to the Warriors. We saw the beginning of a series that probably will go the full seven games. Not to say the Cavs will beat the Warriors. But this is a serious series.

Here’s why.

1. The Cavaliers showed they can play well in Oakland.

They should feel good about where they stand, even though they gave away Game 1. They had the Warriors beaten at Oracle Arena, where the Warriors have lost just one playoff game since Kevin Durant joined the team.

Friday afternoon, the NBA announced Draymond Green committed a lane violation the officials didn’t call when George Hill missed the final free throw during regulation, the one he missed when the game was tied. Hill should have shot another free throw. The officials owe the Cavs a major makeup call down the line. Not that I’m advocating makeup calls.

The Cavaliers are in great shape. Game 1 was meaningless for them — they didn’t have to win their first game on the road. A team isn’t in trouble until it loses at home in a seven-game series. Game 1 was a must-win for the Warriors, just as Game 2 will be for them.

The Cavaliers have to win just one of the four games in Oakland to win the championship. They came close Thursday night.

2. The Cavaliers are better without Kyrie Irving.

Everyone assumed the Cavaliers were dead when Irving demanded a trade and they sent him to the Celtics. Then, everyone assumed the Celtics were dead when Irving injured his knee and missed the playoffs.

Those teams did just fine without him.

Irving is not a winning player. He’s a small shooting guard who can’t guard anybody. He’s one of the worst defenders in the NBA.

Last season when Irving was on the court during the Finals, the Cavaliers’ defensive rating was 109, which would have ranked 25th out of 30 teams in the regular season. They could not defend well enough to beat the Warriors.

This season, the Cavaliers point guard is George Hill, a much better defender than Irving. With Hill on the court during the playoffs, the Cavaliers’ defensive rating is 104.9, which would rank 12th during the regular season. To compare, the Warriors’ defensive rating was 104.2 — only slightly better.

Now, the Cavaliers can defend. And they still can score. They don’t miss Irving’s offense. They don’t need him taking 20 shots a game away from LeBron James. James might be the greatest player of all time — the ball should be in his hands as much as possible.

3. The Cavaliers have a big advantage on the offensive glass.

Teams can’t outshoot or outrun the Warriors in a seven-game series. The Warriors have the best shooters and the best fast-break offense in the NBA.

The only way to beat the Warriors is to slow down the game by dominating the offensive glass, so the opponent has more possessions and opportunities to score than the Warriors.

The Cavaliers can follow that blueprint. They’re bigger than the Warriors. Cleveland had 19 offensive rebounds in Game 1, and the Warriors had just four. If they had lost, they would have lost because of that rebounding discrepancy.

Kevin Love, Larry Nance Jr., Thompson and James all are excellent offensive rebounders. The Warriors have to box out like their lives depend on it.

4. Andre Iguodala is injured.

When Iguodala is healthy, the Warriors probably have the best defense in the NBA. But he’s not healthy. Iguodala has a bone bruise in his left knee — he may not play in the Finals. The Warriors have been mysterious about his status.

Iguodala’s main purpose on the Warriors is to guard James in the Finals. That’s what they pay him to do. The rest of the season, the All-Stars carry the team.

Without Iguodala, the Warriors don’t have anyone who can stop James. He could have the greatest Finals of any player ever.

5. LeBron James is still getting better.

This version of James is the best version the Warriors have faced in the Finals. During these playoffs, he’s averaging 34.9 points, 9.2 rebounds and a career-high 8.7 assists. He’s his own point guard.

And he can shoot well, too. Much better than the past. In Game 1, he shot 59.4 percent from the field and 42.9 percent on 3s.

James is good enough to beat the Warriors, but not by himself, and maybe not with his current teammates. He needs just enough help from the other Cavs. Needs them to defend, rebound, make free throws and, when push comes to shove, know the score.

Grant Cohn covers the 49ers for The Press Democrat and in Santa Rosa. You can reach him at

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