CLEVELAND – It was the same two teams on the court that had produced one of the most epic rivalries in all of sports. Over the past four years, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors produced classic theater, making their NBA Finals clashes must-see spectacles.
But on Wednesday night at Quicken Loans Arena, it was obvious just how much had changed.
“Yeah,” Warriors All-Star Stephen Curry reluctantly admitted when asked if playing the Cavaliers is just a regular-game now.
“Yeah, it’s different,” Warriors star Kevin Durant said. “Obviously, it’s different. They don’t have a championship-caliber team, but they have a young team that’s up and coming. It’s just a different feel.”
There were plenty of empty seats scattered throughout the arena, and moments of silence permeated the atmosphere. In-arena host Ahmad Crump did his best all evening to raise the enthusiasm level in the building, but it was a lost cause.
“It just felt quiet from what we’re used to, and for obvious reasons,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “It’s not the same out there.”
LeBron James bolting to the Los Angeles Lakers five months ago has laid this rivalry to rest. And aside from the Warriors dismantling the Cavaliers 129-105, the contest essentially allowed for the back-to-back champs to visit the gravesite of what once was an electric venue.
“That rivalry is over,” Cavs forward Tristan Thompson told Yahoo Sports. “That chapter has closed. We’re starting something new now. We’re trying to build something here that’s special.”
It’s going to take a while before “special” comes to fruition. In the meantime, the Cavaliers faithful can only cling to the glory days.
A healthy portion of the fans in attendance sported the 2016 championship T-shirt, which commemorated the Cavaliers’ comeback from a 3-1 deficit to secure the city’s first championship in 52 years.
But in the present, it was Curry torturing the fanbase as he splashed in nine triples on his way to a game-high 42 points, the most he’s ever scored against Cleveland. He also added nine rebounds and seven assists for a Warriors team that was without injured All-Star Draymond Green.
Durant was an assist shy of a triple-double, posting 25 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks.
Before the game, there was concern in the Warriors’ locker room that complacency might creep in now that the Cavs are an inferior opponent.
“It was a little weird,” Curry said, “but we just tried to keep the energy up and focus on how we’re playing.”
The home team initially put up a fight and held a six-point advantage at halftime. However, the Warriors flipped the switch in the last two quarters and outscored them 71-41.
“It took a concerted effort the last 24 minutes to open up the game,” Kerr said. “Yeah, just an odd night all the way around.”
That same stern fight the Cavs displayed in the first two quarters remains in some of Cleveland’s most committed fans.
“They can’t take 2016 away from us,” one fan yelled while pumping her fist as she headed for the exit when it was clear Cleveland had no shot in the fourth quarter.
Thompson is the only active Cavalier left who participated in all four of those Finals matchups. Kevin Love is sidelined due to a surgical procedure on his left toe, and J.R. Smith is away from the team while he awaits a trade.
The casket has officially shut on this rivalry. The silence in the arena spoke to the funeral-esque ambiance. Curry said it was a historic run and that he’ll dearly miss it.
Wednesday’s event wasn’t about witnessing a game, it was about witnessing the final curtain. Rest in peace.
“It’s not an eight o’clock game on ESPN [anymore],” said Thompson, who put up 14 points and grabbed a game-high 19 rebounds. “[Toronto] Raptors and Philly [76ers] took that spot. That’s the difference.”
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