OAKLAND, Calif. >> As gifted as LeBron James and Kyrie Irving are with the ball in their hands and one defender to beat, that is not what got the Cleveland Cavaliers to a second straight NBA Finals.
The Cavs are at their best when the ball is humming around the perimeter, forcing defenses to scramble and creating open looks from 3-point range when one just happens to be a step slow closing out.
The ball movement and 3-point shooting ground to a halt in Game 1 of the rematch against Golden State, with the Warriors swallowing the Cavaliers up with a switch-everything defense.
A day after the dispiriting 104-89 defeat, the Cavaliers spoke about the need for injecting that movement and energy back into their offense while also acknowledging that the defending champions make that task exceedingly difficult to execute.
The Warriors’ versatility allows them to switch pick-and-rolls and rotate on defense better than any team in the league. And even though James and Irving are potent off the dribble and attacking the basket, they would much rather see the Cavaliers isolate the two stars on one side of the floor rather than have them swing the ball from side to side to spread the defense and get open looks for all their 3-point shooters.
“There is a fine line,” James said today. “I’m okay with us having some isolation basketball if we’re going quick. But we’re holding the ball and we’re just staring down the defense and we’re staring down the ball, then it can become a problem for us.”
That’s exactly how the Warriors managed to claw their way back from a 3-1 deficit in the Western Conference finals against Oklahoma City. They found a way to force Thunder stars Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant into a take-your-turn approach on offense, and you could see the physical toll it took on them down the stretch.
As bad as things went for the Cavaliers in Game 1, there was a sense of calm at practice Friday. They had a lead late in the third quarter before things got out of hand, contained the Splash Brothers as well as any defense has this year, won the rebounding battle and shot twice as many free throws as the Warriors.
Cleveland also lost Game 1 in Oakland last year before rallying to win the next two and James’ teams have won nine straight Game 2s after losing the series opener dating back to 2008.
“You don’t just throw everything away over one game,” James said.
Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said he is trying to get his team to play faster in Game 2 on Sunday. That approach could have pitfalls because that’s what the Warriors love to do most.
But Lue wants James and Irving to push the ball to create more energy and open looks in transition and take advantage of mismatches that come in the ensuing scramble.
“When you’re switching 1 through 5, it makes you stagnant,” Lue said. “It makes you play one-on-one. So the best thing you can do is try to get the matchup you want and try to explore it.”
The Cavaliers were the second-best 3-point shooting team in the NBA this season, behind Golden State. They made just 7 of 21 in Game 1, with J.R. Smith a quiet 1 for 3 and Channing Frye only getting one field goal attempt.
Irving was 7-for-22 from the field and Lue said the Cavaliers missed nine open layups on their way to shooting 38 percent.
“We weren’t necessarily playing the basketball we want to play on the offensive end,” said Kevin Love, who had 17 points and 13 rebounds in his finals debut. “A lot of times we were force-feeding the post and we found ourselves standing around.
“Where we’ve been so effective and devastating is when our guards, and primarily LeBron and Kyrie, play down hill and find our shooters on the perimeter.”
The Cavaliers walked off the floor after Game 1 knowing that an opportunity was missed. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson almost assuredly won’t miss 19 of their 27 combined shots again.
But James was undaunted. He’s been here before. And he knows this can be a long series — if the Cavs respond accordingly.
“I’m not discouraged at all,” James said. “I understand we had our opportunities. We played some good basketball for 36 minutes, and the fourth quarter got away from us. We definitely missed some really easy looks. Some looks that we’re accustomed to making that we’ve made all year long.
“But not discouraged in the fact that we were able to get into the paint, get where we want to go, but we’ve got to be able to knock them home.”