Rome, the saying goes, was not built in a day. But it probably had a pretty good start, at least.
The Golden State Warriors did not.
Perhaps it should not have been so surprising, but it was nonetheless remarkable to watch.
The Cleveland Cavaliers took to NBA opening night and looked in mid-season form. LeBron James had 19 points, 11 rebounds and 14 assists, and the Cavs beat the New York Knicks by 29. Ho hum. The Warriors? They were out of sorts and without answers as they lost to the San Antonio Spurs by – seriously – 29.
The Cavaliers won by 29, the Warriors lost by 29. A serendipitous little tip-off gift for anyone who took particular delight in making "Warriors blew a 3-1 lead in the Finals" jokes over the summer.
“I think our guys were embarrassed tonight,” said Golden State coach Steve Kerr.
“It’s a nice little slap in the face,” said Stephen Curry.
“We got punched in the mouth,” said Draymond Green.
You get the idea.
As far as first impressions go, you cannot do much worse than adding one of the best players in the league to a Finals team, getting hyped not just as overwhelming title favourites, but a historic basketball force, and then coming out and looking bad. Not mediocre, not merely lacklustre or disappointing. Really, really bad.
Offensively, the Warriors lacked precision and creativity. This is supposed to be, at least in due time, an imagination-expanding attack. An offence of unparalleled beauty and originality.
Instead, Golden State’s Fab Four of Curry, Green, Klay Thompson and shiny new toy Kevin Durant were mostly out of synch. Their bench looked like it didn’t belong on an NBA floor.
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There were moments – Durant in particular was humming early – but they were only scattered. Their ball movement was mostly stunted. Their off-ball movement was largely listless.
They committed 16 turnovers, a lot on sloppy and superfluously clever passes. They didn’t have their three-point shot, collectively going 7-for-33 (21.2 per cent) as Curry and Thompson in particular combined for a not-good 4-of-16 (25 per cent) from deep.
And yet, for all that, their offence was the good part for the Warriors.
Their defence could hardly be called such. They looked incoherent against the crisp passing and sharp motion scheme of the Spurs. Slow in their rotations, unsure in their assignments.
None of the Golden State big men offered deterrence inside, where Kawhi Leonard (35 points, 10-of-21 shooting) and LaMarcus Aldridge (26, 10-of-20) feasted. They didn’t so much as trouble San Antonio outside, where the Spurs shot 50 per cent (12-of-24) from three.
Jonathon Simmons lit the Warriors up for 20 points on 8-of-14 shooting. Jonathon who, you ask?
Jonathon Simmons, the guy who scored six points per game off the bench for San Antonio last season, seen here balling all over the Warriors:
This is all forgiveable, of course. It is but one game, of 82, and it was not unforeseeable that there would be a natural adjustment period for this group.
Green said, “I don’t know if it was quite a bad thing for us,” and there might be something to that. You learn more from loss than victory, and the Warriors clearly need to learn a bit about how this new shape they have taken will exactly work. On Tuesday night they had a bit of the look and feel of a team trying to run before they walk – aware of the limitless possibilities their talents unlock, but not grasping yet quite how to realise that potential.
Still, it was a jarring contrast with how the champions looked earlier in the night. LeBron, the most talented passer of his generation, directing the floor like only he can, throwing down dunks that were somehow simultaneously thunderous and elegant. Cleveland pinging the ball around, running the floor, Kyrie Irving overwhelming Knicks defenders.
The Cavaliers looked exactly as good as they were supposed to. There are no kinks to be ironed out here, no gelling that needs to be done. Like a nice flight, you can drift off now and wake up just as LeBron is ready to land the Cleveland plane in the Finals.
For the Warriors, well, turbulence is the obvious extension of this analogy, right? There will be some of that. But they’ll find calmer skies soon enough.
If opening night, in a weird way, mirrored how last season’s Finals ended, the Cavs triumphant and the Warriors dumbstruck, consider that Game 1 of a presumed Finals Trilogy is a long, long, long way away.
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