OAKLAND — It’s took no amount of imagination to think that without designated LeBron James stopper Andre Iguodala, the Golden State Warriors would have a hard time defending the four-time MVP.
But to think that the Warriors — if even briefly — found a man who could give James fits, on a night where he went off for a career-playoff-best 51 points? That’s more than encouraging.
JaVale McGee played just three minutes against the pick-and-roll heavy Houston Rockets in the Western Conference Finals, and all of those came in Game 3. When he was called on to start the second half against James and the Cavaliers in Thursday’s Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, he gave Golden State exactly what they needed.
“That’s my job, stay ready and be a little booster out there,” McGee said.
In the first half, James went 9-of-11 from the floor for a frighteningly easy 24 points, with barely a challenge from Kevin Durant, who started on him, or from Kevon Looney, David West or Jordan Bell. He expended hardly any energy, and easily rocked into his jumper, drove to the basket untouched and worked the ball around to his teammates, with four assists.
“Bron does a good job on the screen and roll, kind of balancing and unbalancing the floor and in match-ups, and getting a lot of screens to get guys on him,” Durant said. “Then, after that, it’s hard to stop him.”
Enter: McGee, someone who had not guarded James on a single possession this season.
“We just needed a burst,” head coach Steve Kerr said. “We needed some energy. His minutes were important. He helped us get off to that good start in the third quarter.”
With 11:14 to go, and McGee in front of him, James went left and dribbled for three seconds on the left wing, only to find McGee was right there with him. As he dribbled right to the left elbow, McGee was there. He went across the lane, and McGee was there, forcing a bad pass underneath, which turned into a Draymond Green bucket off the break.
“When he puts his head down, he’s hard to stop,” McGee said. “I feel like we did a good job, especially on the other players, also. I feel like that’s really a key — trying to limit LeBron from getting his points, but also making sure that the other players don’t get off.”
McGee slammed home a dunk and made a two-foot lay-up, then got to work again on James, tripping him up before forcing a pass out to Kevin Love for what would be a missed three.
A McGee rebound off a JR Smith spin move turned into a Klay Thompson lay-up off a lob pass from Stephen Curry.
In his five minutes on the floor to start the third quarter, McGee limited James to just two points. In the four minutes after McGee exited, James scored 11, but having expended a lot of energy dealing with McGee, he missed his final five shots of the quarter.
“I thought JaVale did a good job of using his length,” Durant said. “I know as a wing player, when you see a big, you feel like you’ve got so many moves in your bag that you don’t know which one to bring out. I think after a while, LeBron just got a little confused, and it was good that JaVale was better to stay in front of him.”
That reprieve gave the Warriors much-needed breathing room, and arguably slowed James down enough so that he didn’t score 60, which would have changed the tide of a game that was tied at the end of regulation.
“We’ve got to be better next game,” Durant said. “We know he’s going to come out and be super, super aggressive. He made shots tonight and he rebounded well, so we’ve got to try to control that.”
McGee’s night wasn’t all roses, though. Amid the 10-3 run to start the second half, when McGee scored four points in three minutes, he came wide open under the basket, and took an easy pass from Stephen Curry. He went up and was blocked by the front of the rim.
“I was under it. I looked up and . . . oh,” he said. “It happens to the best of us.”