CLEVELAND – The visitors’ locker room at Quicken Loans Arena was much drier, much quieter on Monday night than the last time the Golden State Warriors were here. No plastic was needed to cover the stalls or the carpeted floor. The only bottles being opened were waters and sports drinks to help them down plates of chicken wings and catered food from Morton's steakhouse. There certainly wasn't much of a celebration, only an acceptance of a regular-season annihilation of a team that supposedly had more invested emotionally, that supposedly needed a win over an elite team to solidify its status as a contender.
The Warriors embarrassed the Cleveland Cavaliers in a callous, deflating way they never had in their
previous five victories over the Cavs, dating back to last year's NBA Finals. With the kind of performance that harkened back to their 24-0 steamroll start to this season – with Stephen Curry burying shots from near center court, Klay Thompson silencing the crowd with each stroke of the net and Draymond Green doing some of everything else – the Warriors once again looked invincible, once again appeared capable of making a cruel mockery of the rest of the league on the way toward becoming repeat champions.
“When we play the way we play and those guys are hitting shots, we know it’s a wrap,” Harrison Barnes told Yahoo Sports after the game. “This is a team we could very well see down the road. We want to leave that lasting impression.”
The Warriors refused to gloat over the 132-98 victory because wins in January don't matter much come June. But they couldn't help but reminisce about that moment six months ago, when they were validated as champions. This place housed too many unforgettable memories, of popping bottles while wearing goggles, of Curry hugging the Larry O’Brien Trophy and refusing to let go. Barnes sat in the same stall Monday as he did last June, when a drenched and deliriously happy coach Steve Kerr emerged from his office, holding a shot of tequila for one of the team's two non-drinkers.
“I was like, ‘This tastes terrible,’ ” Barnes, who consumed alcohol for the first time during that championship celebration, told Yahoo. “Drinking is not for me.”
Curry stirred up a trumped-up controversy before Part II of this Finals rematch by stating that he hoped the locker room “still smells a little bit like Champagne.” The Cavaliers reportedly felt "disrespected" and LeBron James even had a prepared response for the morning shootaround, if asked. The question never came, and the Cavaliers' response was the lamest performance of a season in which they are now 0-3 against the only two teams in the league that currently have better records – Golden State and San Antonio.
Cleveland will get another shot at the Spurs, at home, on Jan. 30. But no matter what happens on that night, James believes the Cavaliers have a long way to go before they can consider themselves in that class. James appeared glum after a defeat that represented the worst home loss in his nine total seasons in Cleveland.
"They came in and gave us an old-fashioned a-kicking," James said.
The Cavaliers can probably thank the Detroit Pistons for helping the Warriors play with a renewed focus following a loss on Saturday at the Palace of Auburn Hills, their second in three games. “We got our [butts] kicked two nights ago, so whether it was Cleveland or Indiana, we were going to come out and play well,” Andrew Bogut told Yahoo. “It seemed like we couldn’t do anything wrong, they couldn’t do anything right. So it worked out well.”
Golden State has what Cleveland lacks – a team that won’t allow it to coast or get comfortable. No legitimate competition has emerged in the Eastern Conference, with teams stumbling over each other just to stay above .500. Bogut described the East as a “crap shoot.”
Despite their record-breaking start, the Warriors only have a two-game lead over the Spurs – the champions once removed – in the Western Conference. The two teams will meet for the first time in the regular season Jan. 25 at Oracle Arena.
“It pushes us,” Thompson told Yahoo. "It definitely makes us better, knowing that they’re behind us. They’re playing great. It’s going to be fun when we see them next week. There are some good teams behind the Cavs in the East, but not a monster like San Antonio. But that’s going to make us better, to be honest with you.”
Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving both declared that they believed the outcome of the Finals would've been different had both been healthy enough to play throughout the series. Irving was playing just his third game since returning from a fractured kneecap suffered in Game 1 of the Finals when the Cavaliers lost to Golden State on Christmas. With Irving returning to form, the Cavaliers had won nine of 10 after that defeat, with the only loss coming against San Antonio, and Irving said they needed to "make a statement" when the Warriors returned to their building. The statement that came out of Monday is that the outcome could've been much worse last year with a healthy Irving and Love.
Curry made Irving ineffective by consistently attacking him on the offensive end, and the Warriors exploited Love's shortcomings in pick-and-roll defense – as the Spurs did last week – including a head-scratching play that ended with Green cutting to the basket to toss an alley-oop to Bogut while a lost Love, who injured his shoulder in last year’s playoffs, stood near Curry. The Cavaliers are an impressive 43-6 since Jan. 13, 2015, with a healthy James, Love and Irving in the lineup. But, from James' indecisiveness about wearing a headband in Monday's loss to Love's continued misuse on offense, they still don't look like a team that is comfortable with its identity. On the other hand, Golden State remains the fun bunch, with impeccable ball movement and rotating heroes, depending on the hottest hand.
"We hope so," Bogut told Yahoo, when asked if the team had a mental edge over the Cavaliers. "It’s a funny game. They could be finding their rhythm and things start clicking. You never know what can happen that far down the track, but roster versus roster, we feel very confident to play against them."
By outclassing the Cavaliers in every way – "They definitely played like champions," Irving said – the Warriors forced their opponent to crack mentally and eventually break.
Thompson said he noticed the Cavaliers' spirit was crushed early in the third quarter, not long after J.R. Smith was ejected collecting a Flagrant Foul Two for plowing through Barnes. Barnes – who missed the Christmas game with a left ankle sprain – tried to set a screen for Curry but knew he was in trouble when Smith came sprinting his way from the opposite elbow.
"Luckily, he caught my shoulder, because if he caught my rib, it would’ve been over for me," Barnes said. "Everyone in the league has pride. No one wants to be embarrassed. I was a little surprised [Smith was ejected], but they're tyring to protect the players."
James lost his cool a little later, picking up a technical foul for elbowing Festus Ezeli after drawing a foul. But the play that signaled that it would be a difficult night for the Cavaliers came earlier in the first half, when James got tangled with Curry and appeared to shove him to the ground like a dirty laundry bag, picking up an offensive foul. James downplayed the incident, comparing it to a kid getting in trouble for laughing at a joke in class ("The second guy always get caught," he said). But Curry answered the physical exchange by coming down on the other end and hitting a ridiculous fall-away 3-pointer.
"I'm tough, man," Curry said afterward.
The Warriors have already shown incredible strength in how they've responded to this season, considering they have the league's best record despite Kerr being unable to assume his head coaching duties as he recovers from complications with offseason back surgery. Kerr has joined the team on this current three-game road trip and foreshadowed the night his team had in store by hitting an underhand shot from halfcourt during the morning shootaround.
After the win, Kerr jokingly thanked interim coach Luke Walton for another victory, adding to Kerr’s career mark of 105-19. Kerr, however did not have another shot of liquor to give Barnes, who hasn't touched alcohol since winning the title. Barnes admitted that he paid the price the next morning for downing shots of Don Julio and Patron (which Barnes described as "strong") and swigs of Champagne (which he described as "like Sprite, it goes down, real easy") along with his jubilant teammates last June.
“I definitely had a headache for sure,” Barnes said. But if the Warriors were to repeat, in Cleveland or anywhere else, Barnes is certain that he will take a few more sips of whatever Kerr has for him. “No question. Because, to put in all that work and get to that point? We always talked about what it would be like to win a championship. When you finally get there, it was way better than what anybody anticipated.”