The Christmas afternoon NBA Finals rematch between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors went mostly the same as the series this past June. The Dubs won, and the Cavs had Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving missing in action.
It’s got to be a little concerning for marketing executives throwing millions upon millions of dollars to the NBA and the Disney corporation for commercial rights during Finals broadcasts that the competitive gap between the two teams has only seemed to widen these past six months, and that from the outside looking in, the Cavs even taking the Warriors to a sixth game next time around might qualify as a monumental upset. They’re just not in the same league as Golden State.
Perhaps nobody is.
At least last year, even without Love and Irving, plus Iman Shumpert playing with one arm, the Cavs had a tactical advantage in that it took the Warriors the better part of four games to figure out how to play them. Once they decided to go with their “death-ball” lineup, inserting Andre Iguodala in Andrew Bogut’s place and playing 6’6 Draymond Green at center, the Cavs were sunk.
This time around the Cavs were at full strength with all hands on deck, albeit with Irving still trying to find his sea legs after missing the first 24 games recovering from the broken kneecap he suffered in Game 1 of the Finals. He wasn’t good, finishing with 13 points on 4-of-15 shooting in 26 minutes, but neither was anyone else for Cleveland save for Tristan Thompson off the bench. LeBron James certainly wasn’t great by his standards, needing 26 shots to accumulate 25 points and with just two assists to his name compared to four turnovers.
What’s got to be particularly disconcerting for the Cavs is that the Warriors beat them, kept them at arm’s length the whole second half, without even getting out of third gear physically, emotionally or strategically. Harrison Barnes was out due to his badly sprained ankle, just as he has been for the 11 previous games. They missed him more against Cleveland than they typically have, as Brandon Rush gave them nothing offensively in 18 minutes.
Far more importantly, the Cavs were unable to exploit Stephen Curry being far from his best, limited by a sore calf that had to be examined both on the bench and in the locker room during the second quarter and briefly threatened to shelve him for the duration. Instead, the training staff used whatever voodoo magic, ancient incantations and wild animal balms at their disposal to get Curry back on the floor, where he was mostly ordinary instead of transcendent until the final two minutes.
That the Warriors were able to brush aside the Cavs without Barnes, without having to start Iguodala — Rush did a perfectly acceptable job of guarding James while he was out there — and while making only as many three-pointers collectively as Curry typically does just on his own (they shot 5-of-18 from downtown) speaks volumes of the chasm between these two clubs. The Dubs won with Green being by far the best player on the floor and a terrific performance off the bench from Shaun Livingston, but really not much else going for them, and that should trouble fans of the Cavs or literally anyone else besides the Warriors to no end.
Yes, an optimistic point of view (which we don’t specialize in around here) would be to highlight the facts that Cleveland stifled Curry, Thompson and the rest of the Warriors shooters as well, but the Dubs have the track record and the pedigree to give them the benefit of the doubt.
As Green put it afterward, “If we’re 28-1 and we’re not even playing well, imagine when we are.”
Indeed. The Cavs will improve once Irving finds his rhythm. The Los Angeles Clippers will get better, as will the Oklahoma City Thunder and others. Nobody worth remembering peaks in December. But the Warriors will get better too, and their “A” game remains a level above everyone else’s.
For the time being, they deserve credit for having a “C” game above everybody else’s too. The San Antonio Spurs are the club most mentioned in the same breath as the Warriors, and they lost at Houston despite allowing just 88 points. For all their dominance at home, San Antonio just hasn’t been good at all in close-and-late situations on the road, especially against playoff teams. They’ve dropped tight games at Oklahoma City, Washington, Chicago, Toronto and on Christmas, to the Houston Rockets. It’s a point of distinction between them and Golden State. The Warriors have found a way to win the close ones in addition to the blowouts. It seems to beat them you really have to wallop them.
And if you can’t wallop them with Curry and Thompson shooting 12-of-31 combined, with Iguodala making 1-of-7 and with Barnes watching in street clothes, and with LeBron James on your side, then what chance does anyone have, really?