Heading into the marquee matchup on the NBA’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day slate, we wondered whether this meeting between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers — NBA finalists in each of the last three years, the sport’s two glamour franchises of the moment — would be different. While Golden State still sits atop the West, the Cavs have scuffled of late, losing seven of their last 10 and sitting closer to sixth place in the East than to the No. 1 spot … which, by the way, is currently occupied by a Boston Celtics squad led by former teammate Kyrie Irving, who left town this past summer in an in-conference megadeal that broke up the partnership that had led the Cavs to their first championship in franchise history.
This time, though — unlike in last year’s Finals, which the Warriors dominated in a five-game gentleman’s sweep, and unlike on Christmas Day, when Golden State came away with a seven-point win — Cleveland would have Isaiah Thomas, the All-Star point guard who came back in exchange for Irving, but who had been sidelined for the last seven-plus months rehabilitating the hip injury that ended his career in Boston. He’s not 100 percent yet, clearly still finding his legs and his rhythm, but he’s back now; this time, Cleveland would have another top-end scorer to side with LeBron James and Kevin Love as they tried to trade buckets with the NBA’s best offense. Would it matter?
For a while, it looked like it would. And then …
The Warriors withstood a furious start by James and Love, dynamic playmaking from Thomas and Dwyane Wade, several highlight-reel finishes and 57 percent first-half shooting from the Cavs, thanks in part to a hot start by Klay Thompson. Then, having taken the Cavs’ best shot, they dominated after intermission, and especially in the fourth quarter.
After Cleveland scored 37 points in the first 12 minutes, Golden State held Ty Lue’s team to just 44 points after halftime on 35.4 percent shooting. The Warriors turned off the water on the Cavs’ role players, made Thomas work for his baskets by forcing him to create room against and finish over length, and capitalized on James’ miscues.
That defensive clampdown, combined with the dominant scoring of Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry and a do-everything effort from Draymond Green, had the Warriors hitting their closing kick just as Cleveland was running out of gas. Golden State ran away in the fourth quarter, cruising to a 118-108 win.
Durant led the way with 32 points (9-for-16 shooting, 4-for-6 from 3-point land, 10-for-10 at the foul line) to go with eight assists, five rebounds, three steals and one block in 35 minutes. Curry added 23 (8-for-15 from the field, 4-for-8 from deep) with eight dimes of his own, four assists and two steals for the Warriors, who outscored Cleveland by 17 points in the second half. Draymond Green finished one assist shy of a triple-double (11 points, 16 rebounds, nine assists, two blocks) for the victors, who improved to 36-9, four games clear of the Houston Rockets in the race for the top spot out West.
LeBron was, as ever, a force of nature, leading Cleveland with 32 points on 12-for-18 shooting while also stuffing the stat sheet with eight rebounds, six assists, four blocks and three steals in 36 minutes; at some points, he seemed to be everywhere. At others, though, he seemed wrongfooted by the Golden State defense, which influenced him into eight turnovers, one off his season high. Thomas continued his comeback tour by scoring 19 points in 32 minutes, but needed 21 shots to get them; similarly, Wade needed 14 field-goal attempts to kick in his 10 points off the pine.
Golden State scored 21 points off 15 Cleveland turnovers on Monday, and outscored the Cavs 20-12 on the fast break. When the Cavs were able to force Golden State to play against a set defense, they were able to stay in the fight, but when the Warriors got out in transition by pushing off defensive rebounds or live-ball cough-ups, they were able to get high-percentage looks time and again. And then, even when they didn’t, Durant and Curry were there to stick the knife in the Cavs with contested 3-pointers and tough pull-ups in traffic. The Cavs were able to pose some interesting questions, especially with the IT-LeBron pick-and-roll in the first half and with Wade playing a facilitating role off the bench. Ultimately, though, the Warriors once again had an inarguable answer: we’re going to make shots you can’t.
The Warriors have now won 13 straight games on the road, and snapped the Cavs’ 13-game home winning streak in the process. More importantly, though, they’ve now won seven of their last eight games against LeBron and company.
Hope persists in Cleveland that, come summer, things could look different with a fully healthy Thomas and Tristan Thompson, rejuvenation on the wing if J.R. Smith, Jae Crowder, Jeff Green and Iman Shumpert can combine to give the Cavs something, or perhaps an infusion of new talent imported at next month’s trade deadline. Unless one or more of those boosts bears out, though, or until the Warriors no longer have their full constellation of stars in the lineup, it’s looking like what has been the NBA’s best rivalry in recent years — a clash that has produced some of the highest-level basketball the league has seen in ages, countless memorable moments and one of the greatest NBA Finals ever — has become an awfully one-sided affair.
More NBA coverage:
– – – – – – –