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CLEVELAND — Unless the trade deadline passes and the Cleveland Cavaliers haven’t made a significant roster move and until Isaiah Thomas works out the final kinks while recovering from his hip injury, it would be best to resist the impulse to overreact and proclaim this rivalry over with the Golden State Warriors. But based on what happened in June — when Kevin Durant happened — and what this season has already revealed, the rivalry between the teams that have met in the past three NBA Finals feels over-ish.
This isn’t to say that the league should go ahead and cancel Part IV of the longest-running Finals sequel, because it still remains the most likely outcome. But the fun has been zapped until further notice.
After the Warriors beat the Cavaliers on Monday night for the sixth time in seven games, 118-108, the separation between these two teams has never felt so vast — a gap encapsulated by the first-quarter image of LeBron James pausing to look skyward as Kevin Durant soared over him for a thunderous dunk. Golden State is building toward something dynastic; Cleveland is still in search of the right mix to avoid wasting another year of James’ brilliance.
The Cavaliers had to feel discouraged that they played one of their best halves of basketball in weeks — a first half that would’ve left lesser teams shook — and the Warriors were right there with them, not the least bit concerned. Golden State has another switch, a cheat code in the form of a 7-foot professional scorer with arms so long and a stroke so accurate, it’s like he dunks 3-pointers. The Warriors turned to Durant in the third quarter and when he wasn’t dishing off to Stephen Curry for a rare dunk, he was dropping the ball through the net with the precision of an open-heart surgeon.
Durant returned to Quicken Loans Arena, where he became a made man, with a pull-up 3-pointer over James in Game 3 of the NBA Finals that put him on the brink of immortality. But that shot was a distant memory that Durant wouldn’t allow to creep back into his head as he stepped on that floor again. “It’s over, bro. It’s over. It means nothing to me no more,” Durant told Yahoo Sports about the shot. “It’s a good memory for me to have, but I’m not thinking about that when I come in here. How long ago was that? It’s time to move on. You appreciate the memories you have in this building, but you don’t think about it anymore.”
Durant might have buried the memory, but the Cavaliers can’t. They know what his decision to join an established juggernaut has done to erase most of the suspense around the league. They know that, barring some unforeseen misfortune, the other 29 teams are simply bracing themselves for a respectable and/or acceptable finish to their seasons.
And that’s what makes more challenging the decision that new Cavs general manager Koby Altman faces in regard to making changes — and possibly moving that coveted Brooklyn pick — by the Feb. 8 trade deadline, when the difference-maker who can elevate the Cavaliers above the Warriors might not even be out there. Dealing the pick for an established veteran star would also be doubling down on a Kyrie Irving trade that was supposed to leave a little on deck for the future should James leave in free agency.
The Cavaliers are older and a step slower — with the exception of James — than in past seasons. But their greatest concern might be complacency from a group that has had success and expects to be playing in June, the only sure thing with LeBron James the past seven seasons. This feels different because it is different. James has been nothing short of spectacular, running a full lap on Father Time and defying what players are supposed to still be able to accomplish. He’s ducking to avoid hitting the rim on reverse alley-oop dunks. He’s rising near the top of the square to block Durant. But he’s not any closer to that fourth ring if a healthy Warriors team is waiting for him in June. And James isn’t playing this game just to break a sweat and collect some checks. He needs more than what his current roster is giving him.
J.R. Smith is an unrepentant gun who is suddenly afraid to shoot. Tristan Thompson is an energy guy who suddenly has no motor. Jae Crowder was brought in to add some rugged perimeter defense but has provided little on either end. Kyle Korver simply can’t get his shot off with the Warriors switching and never losing sight of him. Thomas is trying to find his rhythm after sitting out nearly seven months. That has made what James has accomplished this season more remarkable, even with the occasional Dwyane Wade flashback moment. But James is surrounded by too many diminishing specialists and not enough special.
Irving is in Boston, thriving as one of the leaders of the team with the best record in the Eastern Conference, after forcing his way into a situation that he has long desired. James and the Cavaliers haven’t dwelled on how much Irving’s absence has affected the team, refusing to lean on that excuse when they still have the talent to make a fourth straight Finals trip. But the Warriors privately acknowledged the difference, and not as a means to disparage the Cavaliers, but only to recognize that a significant piece of what made these battles exciting and intense is gone. One Warriors player compared the importance of taking Irving off the Cavaliers to removing Klay Thompson or Curry from Golden State. Irving is a star — a dynamic weapon who reached 40 points in three Finals games over the past two years, and whose shot delivered that 2016 title to a city that knew misery far too well.
Kevin Love has earned another All-Star trip, but the Cavaliers desperately need Thomas to be closer to what he was in Boston. And even still, that wouldn’t have been enough to scare a Warriors team that is chugging along in harmony, while their next closest challenger in the Western Conference, the Houston Rockets, are dealing with injuries and engaging in silly locker-room squabbles with the Los Angeles Clippers, and the next team in line, the San Antonio Spurs, are still trying to get Kawhi Leonard back up to speed.
With their annual January swoon resulting in four losses in a row and nine of 12, and a shoddy, near-basement-dwelling defense, the Cavaliers are raising more doubt. But Durant cautions against dismissing them, especially based on two games spread out over three weeks. The Warriors expect Cleveland to be the team that inevitably comes out of the East.
“They’ve got the most talent in the East. LeBron. D-Wade. They’re champions. The rest of them are champions. They got veteran guys with bright basketball minds,” Durant told Yahoo Sports. “They’ll figure it out.”
While it’s fair to ask if this was the last time these two teams will see each other — given James’ possible departure — the follow-up question involves finding the team capable of preventing another rematch. Which star player from a much more competitive East can look James in the eye and tell him that his time is up? Can DeMar DeRozan do it after already losing twice to him? Can John Wall do it when his Wizards are having a hard time defeating depleted teams at home? Can Giannis Antetokounmpo, when he’s yet to win a playoff series? The best bet would be Irving, who would love nothing more than to end the Cavaliers’ reign. And with his non-stop defense of flat-Earth theories, Irving might be delusional enough to think he can take out James. But James would be more charged up than ever to prevent that from happening.
Only two years ago, a Warriors team that would end up with a record 73 regular-season wins came to Cleveland in January and mud-stomped the Cavs by 39 points. But five months later, James was weeping in Love’s arms after the Cavaliers pulled off the most incredible comeback in Finals history. The Cavaliers needed some luck to win that season, and it came their way in the form of a postseason knee injury for Curry and a critical suspension for Draymond Green. The Cavs would need Golden State to malfunction in more dramatic fashion — or they would need to make some roster upgrade in the next few weeks — to make another Finals matchup seem compelling enough to watch. Otherwise fans could wind up like the young woman caught napping behind Warriors coach Steve Kerr during the fourth quarter of a game that felt like, but probably wasn’t, the end.
“This is my second year in [this rivalry],” Durant told Yahoo Sports. “They’ve been in it four years and we know games like this, this is not the Finals. It’s not the same intensity. It’s different. You’re still figuring yourself out as a team. Still trying to work through the season. And it’s January. It’s the roughest time of the season. We know we want to win these games and get better, but both teams know this is not the end-all, be-all.”
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