The guards carried the Golden State Warriors to victory, as usual.
Except this was highly unusual.
On a night the Splash Brothers went dry, backcourt backups Shaun Livingston and Leandro Barbosa carried Golden State to a 104-89 victory Thursday over the Cleveland Cavaliers in an NBA Finals opener.
They were swift, stunningly accurate, and reduced the Warriors’ All-Stars to spectators during a startling 29-8 run that began late in the third quarter.
In a bad sign for the Cavaliers, they crumpled despite Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson combining for 20 points on miserable eight-for-27 shooting.
It was Livingston who received a loud ovation when he briefly checked out midway through the fourth quarter. He scored 20 points on eight-for-10 accuracy while Barbosa had 11 points and made all five of his shots.
“This was a strange game for us,” Warriors Coach Steve Kerr acknowledged. “We’re not used to having Steph and Klay off like that with their shooting.”
All NBA teams should be so lucky, winning by 15 in the Finals with their top two players not contributing.
Another Warriors backup, veteran Andre Iguodala, couldn’t be forgotten after totaling 12 points, seven rebounds and six assists with no turnovers.
“He was Finals MVP for a reason last year,” Thompson said.
Game 1 wasn’t without theater, especially in the third quarter as the Cavaliers gradually came back from a 14-point deficit to claim a one-point edge.
Kerr was so upset he shattered his clipboard by punching it with a pen in his hand.
“Destruction tends to ease some of the anger. So I try to take it out on a clipboard instead of a player,” Kerr said dryly.
That was nothing compared to the rage, and, um, pain, felt by Iguodala after he was punched below the waist by Matthew Dellavedova while pushing the ball downcourt.
Everyone assumed Cleveland would be in a better place than a year ago, when Kevin Love was sidelined the entire Finals because of a dislocated shoulder and Kyrie Irving played only the opener because of a fractured kneecap. Cleveland still took it to six games before Golden State won its first title since 1975.
Irving misfired over and over, making only seven of 22 shots, though he did score 26 points, in part by making 11 of 12 free throws. LeBron James had 23 points on nine-for-21 shooting. Love had 17 points and 13 rebounds.
Cavaliers shooting guard J.R. Smith scored only three points, nine below his playoff average.
“Obviously, the game ball goes to Shaun Livingston,” James said. “They scored 45 points [among reserves]. We scored 10. That’s what happened.”
If the Warriors felt drained by rallying from a 3-1 deficit in the Western Conference finals, it wasn’t apparent Thursday.
They led at halftime, 52-43, with Thompson playing only 12 minutes because of foul trouble. Harrison Barnes was the surprise early provider on offense, scoring nine points as Curry struggled with his shot (two for eight in the first half).
Curry threw his mouth guard onto the court in disgust after finally making a three-pointer in the fourth quarter.
“Even the best players in the world have bad nights,” Kerr said.
Even champions need a good backup or two. On Thursday, there were three for the Warriors.