'Believeland' Cavs tested after Game 1 letdown

OAKLAND, Calif. — LeBron James formed the knot on his tie -– a rich, deep yellow-colored tie that, in all honestly, could be best described as golden -– as he got dressed in front of his locker Thursday and tried to sum up the Cleveland Cavaliers‘ 104-89 loss to the Golden State Warriors in Game 1 of the Finals.

The defense, he rationalized, did its job. The offense, he admitted, was “s—.” The box score, he lamented, told two irrefutable truths.

“When you’re outscored 45-10 in bench points and give up 25 points off turnovers, you’re not winning that game,” James said in a matter-of-fact tone.

For months the Cavs pined for this opportunity, this chance at redemption that comes around all too rarely in life, and then fell as flat as Matthew Dellavedova‘s jump shot when the moment arrived.

Through three dominant opening rounds of the playoffs, Cleveland convinced itself it was a team on the ascent, saving its best ball for when it mattered most and sharpening its skill set through each fallen opponent. The Cavs matched the Detroit Pistons‘ physicality pound-for-pound; they opened up the floor and dropped bombs from deep against the Atlanta Hawks; they spent more time in the paint than an art restoration technician against the Toronto Raptors.

At long last, the Cavs found the Warriors matched up against them with a chance to show off that supposed mastery -– and maybe even rub their noses in it, too, with a specific tie and socks choice combo saved for the postgame news conference by their captain (oh yes, James’ socks were golden, too) -– and instead turned in their most disjointed effort in months.

There will be 48 hours for Cleveland to digest this one before Sunday’s Game 2 (8 p.m. ET, ABC) and the team will walk the fine line between explaining away what went wrong as a manner of self-preservation, without allowing that slip toward delusion.

The Cavs need to be better. That much is abundantly clear. But how much of Thursday’s result was because of Golden State controlling Cleveland and how much of it was just because of some bad breaks?

“We missed 28 shots in the paint,” Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said after the game, accounting for Cleveland’s paltry 38.1 percent from the field. “We didn’t finish around the basket, so we’ve just got to keep playing the game we were playing. I thought we were fine. I feel good about how we played. The outcome wasn’t great for us, the score, but to get to the basket missing 28 shots in the paint, that’s not us. So we’ll be better next game.”

The question is, will Golden State be better, too? On one hand, it’s hard to imagine Shaun Livingston (20 points on 8-for-10 shooting) and Leandro Barbosa (11 points on 5-for-5 shooting) having another near-perfect night this series. On the other, it’s hard to imagine Stephen Curry (11 points on 4-for-15 shooting) and Klay Thompson (nine points on 4-for-12 shooting) being so pedestrian again.

That’s the danger of dismissing an occurrence as random or unlikely. Once you start counting on it to correct itself through the law of averages, you run the risk of not giving proper attention to the things you can control without the aid of luck or regressing to the mean.

No matter what the numbers say about Cleveland missing point-blank looks, its offense looked discombobulated all night and James admitted as much.

“We’ve got to be much better moving the ball, moving bodies,” James said. “They’re a great team when you just hold the ball and pound the ball. So we’ve got to do a better job with that, which Coach Lue and the coaching staff will make sure we do in Game 2.

“So, we look forward to the challenge again. Just two days in between doesn’t help. It doesn’t feel good. But it gives our body a chance to get some rest.”

While the Cavs will try to fend off doubt until Sunday, the Warriors find themselves in the opposite situation: avoiding overconfidence after beating Cleveland for a sixth straight time dating to Game 4 of last year’s Finals.

“You can’t feel control [of the Cavs] at all,” Draymond Green said. “This is the same team we had down 1-0 last year and they hit us twice. So, it’s no control. …

“Tonight the game was right there, and then we went on that run and that kind of got us tonight. So this is something that we’ve got to continue to battle. Because obviously this is a team that, you know, they’re used to winning. They’re going to battle, they’re going to compete, and they’re super talented. So you can’t come out saying, ‘Oh, we beat them six in a row. We’re good.’ Absolutely not. As soon as you do that and let your guard down, it’s a wrap.”

Much like the internal struggle the Cavs will deal with the next couple of days, wallowing in the loss and letting it go, listening to Green’s words could go one of two ways.

Maybe he’s right. Maybe they are super-talented and full of competitive fire. Or maybe, their opponent is so much better that it can win, even on an off night, in dominant fashion.

Hey, it’s nicknamed “Believeland” for a reason, right?

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