The showdown between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers is more than just an ordinary game on the NBA’s Christmas schedule. It’s the hardwood equivalent of a pay-per-view prizefight. It’s the two best teams in basketball, respectively led by transcendent future Hall of Famers, battling it out in a rematch of one of the most entertaining NBA Finals in recent memory. It’s a litmus test that will help answer some long-standing questions on both sides as well as open up a few new ones going forward.
However, to the players taking the court Friday night, it’s another day at the office, per ESPN’s Dave McMenamin.
“The memories will come back as soon as we walk into the building,” said Cavs star LeBron James. “But also understand that it’s one of 82, and I’m not going to put everything into this game. It’s a great opportunity for our fans to have five games on Christmas and for our game to continue to get so much exposure, but for us as a team, Friday will not be the end of our season, like it was in June. We play Saturday and then we play Monday and Tuesday. We want to play well, going against a great caliber team, the best team in our league right now, but it’s not like the season ends if we lose or if we win, or whatever the case may be.”
Warriors forward Draymond Green co-signed James’ thoughts.
“We haven’t talked about it at all. We’ll either finish that game 28-1 or 27-2. That’s about it. … Just another game.”
Both men are correct to an extent. A loss by Golden State, especially to a club as good as Cleveland, doesn’t change the fact that the Warriors are the team to beat in the West and still have the 72-10 Chicago Bulls in their sights. For the Cavs, it’s tough to focus so much attention on one game when they will go on the road to play three more times in the span of four days.
However, while there may not be anything of significance at stake, this is still a marquee matchup with plenty of long-term ramifications.
Who’s Number 1?
LeBron has towered over the NBA like a colossus for the most of his 13-year-career. In the last decade, he’s been to the Finals six times (including in each of the previous five seasons) with two different teams, won two championships and took home four MVPs. He’s one of four players to average at least 27 points, seven rebounds, six assists and 1.5 steals in a single season. He’s accomplished that feat six times. The other three gentlemen (Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Russell Westbrook) have done it five times. Combined.
However, in the last 13 months, Stephen Curry raised his game to a level so high that it would seem James’ reign on the top might be in jeopardy. The two battled it out last summer in a thrilling six-game championship series. While James stole the show with a stat line for the ages (35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists), it was Curry who inevitably punctuated his first MVP season by hoisting up the Larry O’Brien trophy.
While James is putting up MVP-caliber numbers despite playing 36.4 minutes per game (second-lowest of his career), Curry’s dominance in the first few weeks of the 2015-16 campaign has made James’ numbers a footnote. In addition to leading the league in scoring, Curry has already knocked down nearly half as many threes in 28 games (133) as he did all of last season (286). He’s also the only player in NBA history to attempt 10 treys per game and still post a stat line of at least 50 percent from the field, 44 percent from three and 90 percent from the free-throw line.
With his confidence understandably high, Curry didn’t hesitate when Time Magazine asked if he thought he was the best player in the game.
“In my mind, yes. That’s how I have confidence out there that I can play at a high level every night. I don’t get into debates, arguing with people about why I am versus somebody else. I feel like anybody who’s at the level I’m trying to be at, if you don’t think that when you’re on the floor, then you’re doing yourself a disservice.”
While Curry vs. James won’t have the head-to-head flair of Magic-Bird, Shaq-Hakeem or even LBJ’s previous battles with the likes of Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony, Christmas day will give us the gift of once again having the debate over who is basketball’s top dog.
Seeing the Big Picture
While the Warriors and Cavaliers sit atop their respective conferences, both will enter their first meeting with a chance to shore up some concerns.
After dispatching a short-handed Cavs team in the Finals, this will be the first time Golden State will face Cleveland at close to full strength since late-February (which the Cavs won 110-99). Kyrie Irving, who made his season debut on Dec. 20, will finally get another taste of the Warriors after suffering a knee injury in Game 1 that put him on the shelf for six months. Cleveland will also have All-Star Kevin Love, who missed almost all of last season’s playoffs with a torn labrum.
As impressive as the Warriors’ 27-1 start has been, the team hasn’t faced a team with the depth and star power that the Cavs possess. A win on Christmas would not only silence critics who believe Golden State benefited from the Cavs’ injury woes, but it also opens up this question: If a Cavs team at close to 100 percent can’t defeat the defending champs, who can?
Conversely, the Cavaliers’ question marks are mostly internal. With Irving back in the fold, the team must figure out how to make the LeBron-Kyrie-Love triumvirate work. While Love bounced back from his 2-for-4 performance in Irving’s debut with a 23-point outing against the New York Knicks three nights later, the Cavs will still need more consistency from a floor-spacing big man who was one of the hottest players in November. His ability to keep defenders out of the paint and open up lanes to attack will be a key to pulling off the upset. The team will also need to get Irving going to stand a chance against the most efficient offense in basketball. His electric scoring puts pressure on Curry on the defensive end while taking some of the offensive load off James’ shoulders.
Additionally, being the second team to hand the Warriors an “L” would be a huge momentum boost for a Cavs squad who has won six straight and is finally overcoming a slew of early-season injuries. It will also allow Cleveland to step out from Golden State’s shadow and establish themselves as a legitimate threat to dethrone the champs.