This was a classic matchup of two teams that have vastly different game plans. Whereas the Golden State Warriors mostly rely on speed, quickness and teamwork, the Cleveland Cavaliers employ power and the individualistic talents of their players. Golden State prevailed over Cleveland on Christmas Day by a final score of 89-83, even though the visiting Cavs had both Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving available, two key performers who didn’t play in last season’s championship series because of injuries.
But there’s one lingering question that’s still pertinent: Would Cleveland had been the defending champs if Love and Irving had been able to play back then?
The respective performances of Love and Irving in the Christmas game suggested a definitive answer.
During most of his 39 minutes of playing time, Love was matched up against Draymond Green, Golden State’s do-it-all-play-any-position-loud-mouth dude. And the outcome was a lopsided victory for the home team’s small-ball strategy.
Green began most of the Warriors’ half-court sets by playing above the arc in the middle of the court. Love was reluctant to pressure Green out there lest the smaller, quicker man would simply drive past him. However, because Love had to play defense so far removed from his normal comfort zone, one of his responsibilities was to provide defensive help when Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson or Shaun Livingston ran free off of high screens. In so doing, Love wasn’t quick enough to get back in touch with Green.
That’s why Green bagged two unopposed treys, drove for an easy layup and picked apart Cleveland’s scrambling defense with seven assists. Moreover, Green beat Love downcourt in one sequence for a layup.
The Warriors’ perpetual screens caused even more problems for Love — as when he was forced to switch on to Livingston and was helpless to prevent Golden State’s backup point guard from making a mid-range jumper. Also, Love failed to properly defend several other high screens, thereby enabling Thompson to likewise bag an open J.
On a rare opportunity when Love was called to defend somebody his size, Festus Ezeli took him into the pivot and scored on an unchallenged jump hook.
Love also committed a pair of silly fouls on defense: Grabbing Thompson’s shoulder on a jump ball that he certainly would’ve controlled. And committing another foul 30 feet from the basket while the Cavs had a 3-on-1 fast-break advantage.
On the other hand, Love did have some good moments on defense: Blocking two layup attempts by Green and pressuring Thompson into missing a point-blank shot. And, of course, Love also grabbed 18 rebounds (with only five freebies among them).
At the other end of the game, Love was just as ineffective. One of the unique aspects of his game is the combination of his powerhouse rebounding with his long-distance shooting (as evidenced by his nearly 36 percent accuracy from downtown). On Christmas day, however, Love missed all five of his bonus shots.
The Cavs tried to take advantage of small-ball by plugging Love into the low post several times — with a mixed bag of results. A dunk, a muscular layup, a jump hook (in early offense), a driving layup and a tip-in. These constituted all of Love’s scores as he was 5-16 overall and never was awarded a free throw.
He did miss four shots in the pivot, as well as two driving layups, including one that was blocked. Still, when Love did get the ball in the paint or on the left block he had mostly positive results. Why then, especially since the Cavs had so much trouble scoring, didn’t Love receive more than eight post-up opportunities?
Also credit Love with four assists as he continued to demonstrate his accurate and unselfish passwork. Indeed, his outlet passes set the standard for the NBA’s other bigs, even though his only turnover came when he overthrew a long touchdown pass by about 20 feet.
GAME GRADE = D+
In his third game back from his devastating injury, Irving played 26 minutes — his longest stretch so far. So it’s totally understandable that he wasn’t close to his normal high level of play.
Most of his difficulties on defense occurred when the Warriors subjected him to screens. He either failed to fight his way through them or just stood and watched the Warriors create optimal scoring opportunities. Irving was also posted for profit by Thompson and, on a switch, gave Andre Iguodala sufficient space to make an uncontested three-ball. Moreover, Thompson scored a put-back when Irving neglected to box him out.
Nevertheless, Irving did have a couple of good moments here — stealing Thompson’s dribble from behind and successfully contesting a trey that Thompson missed.
But Irving’s rustiness was even more evident on offense. Although he did have a brief return to glory late in the fourth quarter — a driving layup; a trademark crossover and pull left to sink an 18-foot J; a stop-and-pop baseline jumper; and drawing a foul on a fast break. In a space of a few minutes, Irving showed flashes of his All-Star prowess.
However, except for a spinning layup he converted in the opening quarter, Irving miss three layups, had one blocked, missed a short jumper and was 0-6 from beyond the arc. Overall, he was 4-15 from the field, with his two assists canceled out by his two turnovers.
GAME GRADE = D but with an overtone of INCOMPLETE.
Unless Love can hit his treys and be granted more post-up opportunities, he’s mostly a liability in any of Golden State’s small-ball matchups. Simply put, he lacks the speed and quickness to defend Green (or whomever) 20-plus feet from the basket.
On the other hand, once Irving regains his form he can be a potent factor against the Warriors. He’ll need timely help in combating high screens, and he has to curtail his often out-of-context proclivity to go one-on-one.
In the Finals, the Cavs missed Irving much more than they did Love. Will the presence of these two make a significant difference should there be a rematch of these two teams next June?
It says here that the answer is a definite, unqualified NO.