LeBron James was indisputably overwhelming and unrelenting and unstoppable last night. The Cavs lost, yes, but it wasn't because of LeBron, his shot at the end of regulation be damned. Cleveland lost Game 1 because they were tired and, perhaps as a result, went cold from the field.
Sans overtime, LeBron was the best player on the floor, the one dictating the game for the most part. He took 38 shots, 16 more than any other Cavalier. He went to the line 10 times, the most of any Cavalier, and he had six assists and eight rebounds to go with 44 points. When compared to the Warriors, LeBron took more shots than Steph Curry and two more shots than Curry and Klay Thompson combined.
If this is a cause, the effect is that the way these two teams played was completely different.
Some of this is frankly out of LeBron's hands. Irving might be done for the series after reinjuring his left knee last night and Kevin Love is of course done for the playoffs. Assuming the worst for Irving - and, by extension, the Cavs - LeBron will send the rest of the Finals with five, maybe six, other quality NBA players. Of that group, James is the only real consistent scorer of the bunch, as J.R. Smith is too gunnery to be counted on as a legit No. 2 option - he was also really bad in Game 1, shooting just 3-13 from the field - and neither Iman Shumpert or Matthew Dellavedova can really be counted onto create their own looks. All three are truly better getting clean looks created by someone else driving and kicking.
The natural progression for the Cavs in a hypothetical post-Kyrie world is to further simply things. The offense already lost a portion of its complexity when Kevin Love went down, but maintained some of it's flexibility because Irving was around to create and LeBron/Irving on the floor on the floor at the same time allows for some creativity. Without Irving, the Cavs have LeBron. That's it. As last night showed, the Cavs with at least Irving are a tough assignment even for a defense that rates as the league's best and theoretically has the personnel to make scoring a laborious exercise for the Cavs.
From here on out, the Cavs have no choice to lean on LeBron even more than they have. That means slowing down the pace even more than they already have and sticking to a few different play calls. If the Cavs want to get funky, the best they might be able to do is running a LeBron/Smith pick and roll with Smith setting the pick.
All the while, LeBron will be attacking a defense that has already settled on a strategy of letting LeBron work on his own and not fully committing to doubling down. In their Game 1 win, the Warriors largely let LeBron attack his defender - whether it was Harrison Barnes, Andrew Iguodala or Draymond Green - and fully help only at the last minute. Andrew Bogut, for instance, only halfway came over in help.
Still, the Warriors defense didn't fully stop the Cavs. Prior to scoring just two points in overtime, the Cavs offense was very good. In the first half, the Cavs posted an offense efficiency of 105.4 and in the second half - when LeBron really went nova - that rose to 112. In overtime, it dipped to 18.2.
It's hard to say that the Warriors' defensive strategy full worked when the Cavs scored 100 points and LeBron scored as much he did. It also seems likely that the Cavs score more if Smith shoots better than 3-13 from the field, LeBron gets more than four touches in the restricted area or the Cavs don't gas.
But maybe that's Warriors plan here. If you can't stop the LeBron and the Cavs, why wear yourself out by trying? Instead, you do what the Warriors did and let LeBron attack, do your best to clamp down on everyone else and use your depth to your advantage. Having three players - Barnes, Iguodala and Green - to defend LeBron, allowing your defense to him work for the slightest positioning advantage, helps too.
This strategy is by no means a guarantee to succeed - there were certainty points last night where it felt as if the Cavs were going to win - but it's an idea that turned out well for the Warriors last night.
It becomes easier to see how it succeeds moving forward with Irving not there to give LeBron short rests as the Cavs prepare to make a final push late in games. And there is a limit to what LeBron can do - we saw this last year. The Warriors' strategy also takes LeBron slightly away from what makes him special. He isn't a scorer or a passer - he is both. But when you give him space and he's LeBron James, there isn't as much reason for him to look for others. If others get open, LeBron will find them as he found Shumpert, Timofey Mozgov and others last night in Oakland. There may just be fewer of those opportunities and that certainly will have some affect.
But LeBron is still LeBron. He is at times overwhelming and unrelenting and unstoppable. That still might not be enough, but it now has to be.