After the Cleveland Cavaliers came back from 14 points down in the fourth quarter to stun the Golden State Warriors with a Kyrie Irving game-winner on Christmas Day, Warriors superstar Stephen Curry shouldered his share of the blame for the loss, calling himself on the carpet for insufficient aggression.
“Honestly, I can’t have 11 shots,” the two-time-reigning NBA Most Valuable Player said. “I’ve got to get more looks at the rim. That’s nobody’s fault. I’ve just got to figure out a way to be more aggressive in that respect, and keep the defense honest and use all the talent we have on this team, including my scoring ability.”
Well, mission accomplished.
Curry came out of the gate firing during the two teams’ Monday night meeting, attacking Irving off the dribble for a layup on the opening play of the marquee matchup of the NBA’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day slate. Neither he nor the Warriors ever looked back, as Golden State incinerated the Cavs’ defense en route to 78 first-half points in a 126-91 rout that was over way, way before the final buzzer.
Curry didn’t hang half-a-hundred on LeBron James’ crew, but he put his fingerprints all over the game from the opening tip, finishing with 20 points, a season-high-tying 11 assists and four steals. Perhaps most importantly, after head coach Steve Kerr called on his point guard to “be a little smarter” and “make better decisions” following the sloppy lead-blowing loss in Cleveland on Christmas, Curry posted just three turnovers in his 31 minutes of work.
As he has for most of the past three years, Curry teamed with frontcourt running buddy Draymond Green to orchestrate an attack that absolutely overwhelmed the Cavs with both physicality and finesse. Green was everywhere on both ends of the floor on Monday, notching his third triple-double of the season with 11 points on just six shots, 13 rebounds, 11 assists, five blocks, a steal and zero turnovers. Golden State outscored Cleveland by 43 points in Green’s 35 minutes on Monday, and man, did it feel like it.
Klay Thompson led all scorers with 26 points on 8-for-17 shooting, including a 5-for-11 mark from 3-point range. Kevin Durant added 21 on 9-for-16 shooting, plus six rebounds, five assists, three blocks and two steals in just 29 minutes, as the former MVP continues to tick off every single box for the Warriors.
The Cavs entered a roaring Oracle Arena for the final game of a six-game, 12-day West Coast road swing, and they looked like it early, falling behind 7-0 just 97 seconds into the game and looking ill-equipped to match Golden State’s offensive activity, ball movement and defensive intensity.
Curry led the charge on the offensive end, balancing the imperative to look for his own offense — after managing just 11 field-goal attempts on Christmas Day, he took seven shots in Monday’s first quarter alone, scoring eight points — with the need to run the show, drawing defensive attention off the bounce and drive-and-kicking his way to five assists without a turnover in the first 12 minutes. The frontcourt of Green, Durant and Zaza Pachulia handled things on defense, invading passing lanes, protecting the rim, contesting shots and clearing the defensive glass as they helped limit Cleveland to just 22 first-quarter points on 7-for-23 shooting.
It took 6 1/2 minutes for Golden State to take a double-digit lead on a Durant 3, and they pushed the advantage to 20 on a Shaun Livingston and-one less than one minute into the second quarter. Despite their early struggles, though, the Cavs hung around, answering Golden State’s spurts with drives and free throws of their own to stay within hailing distance.
Cleveland got within 14 after a pair of LeBron freebies with just over four minutes remaining in the first half. After Tristan Thompson snuffed out a Draymond drive, the Cavs just needed a score to bring single digits back within arm’s reach, and bring the bad old vibes of Cleveland’s four consecutive wins over the Warriors back like 3-1 ghouls rising from the grave at LeBron’s Halloween party.
On this night, though, Steph and company aimed to put their ghosts to rest. On the next Cavs possession, Curry snuck in behind a napping James to knock the ball away — calling to mind a viral moment from last year’s Warriors-Cavs MLK Day showdown — before pushing the ball down the floor for what wound up being a Thompson 3.
Thompson paired his triple with stellar defense, smothering an Irving isolation before blocking his shot to once again send Golden State out on the break for a Durant dunk that pushed the lead back up to 19. With the Cavs reeling, the Warriors kept the pressure on, forcing contested looks, rebounding Cleveland’s misses and racing out the other way; a heartbeat later, another steal turned into another fast-break dunk for Durant, extending the lead to 26 and leaving many onlookers — including Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue — absolutely stunned:
The fireworks didn’t stop there, though. The Warriors put their foot down in the closing ticks of the second quarter, with Green and Durant each swatting James before Curry pulled up from somewhere in the vicinity of Napa Valley to beat the halftime buzzer with a 3-pointer that ended the first half with an appropriately loud bang:
Curry’s long bomb sent the Warriors into half up 78-49; it is a testament to the terrifying power of Golden State’s offense that 78 points represents just their third– halftime point total of the season.
Steph picking LeBron’s pocket wasn’t the only reminder of last year’s mid-January massacre at Oracle:
Per @bball_ref, this is biggest Cavaliers halftime deficit (29) since they were down 26 to the Warriors on MLK Day a year ago.
— Kevin Pelton (@kpelton) January 17, 2017
After posting a 28-point edge over Cleveland in fast-break points through 24 minutes, the Warriors continued to pour it on after intermission. Cavs wings Iman Shumpert and Kyle Korver — whom Golden State attacked mercilessly on the defensive end in building their first-half lead — each missed 3-pointers in the opening minute of the third. Thompson and Curry didn’t, inflating the Dubs’ advantage to 35 points and rendering the game all over but the shoutin’.
James led Cleveland with 20 points, eight rebounds and two assists in 35 minutes of work, but the four-time MVP shot just 6-for-18 from the field and committed six turnovers in an off night that goes down in the history books as one of the roughest of his illustrious career:
The two worst plus/minus showings of LeBron James's career…
-34 vs. Warriors on 1/18/2016
-32 vs. Warriors on 1/16/2017 pic.twitter.com/tR78rNQ2IZ
— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) January 17, 2017
The Cavaliers trail by 29. This is tied for the largest halftime deficit of LeBron's career (also 2015 against Trail Blazers)
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 17, 2017
The @warriors roll past the Cavs, 126-91.
Cleveland's 35-point defeat ties the largest regular-season defeat in LeBron James' career. pic.twitter.com/QZHCIsemdy
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) January 17, 2017
Irving added 17, albeit on 6-for-19 shooting, with six cough-ups of his own. Kevin Love scored only three points in 16 minutes before missing the second half due to lower back soreness for the Cavs, who fell to 29-11 on the season and now lead the Toronto Raptors by two games in the race for the East’s top seed.
How much Monday’s shellacking actually matters, of course, is debatable.
Yes, the Warriors learned Monday that when they put the ball in Curry’s hands, unleash the tandem of Green and Durant to wreak defensive havoc, and get dynamite performances from the likes of Livingston (13 points on 6-for-7 shooting) and Andre Iguodala (a season-high 14 points on 5-for-5 shooting, five assists), they can stomp a mudhole in even a LeBron-led opponent. But the Cavs learned on Christmas Day that they can still go toe-to-toe with the reloaded KD-edition Warriors, that they can still crank up their defensive pressure enough to force Golden State into mistakes, and that their formula of making life miserable on Curry, relentlessly attacking the glass and relying on the elite shot- and playmaking of James and Irving can still work.
Come June, if indeed we get the seemingly predestined rubber match in this three-year saga, the Cavs won’t be coming off a 12-game road trip and the Warriors won’t be coming off three days off. Perhaps J.R. Smith will be back in the mix to give Cleveland another shooter and perimeter defender. Maybe Kerr won’t be able to get away with four- or five-minute test drives of wild card center JaVale McGee against five-out lineups featuring Love and Channing Frye, as he did on Monday. With months of tape and time to game plan, it’s likely that what we saw on Christmas and on Monday will be less a predictor of what’s to come than a starting point for a new round of tactical engagement.
After four straight losses to Cleveland, though, it’s also likely that seeing what we saw on Monday — a smooth, confident, systematic beatdown — mattered quite a bit to a Golden State team that’s taken some hits this season. There are worse things than reminding yourselves you’re capable of reducing another member of the league’s elite to rubble:
Warriors' Klay Thompson: "It felt good to redeem ourselves…when we play like that, it's almost like we're unstoppable."
— Rachel Nichols (@Rachel__Nichols) January 17, 2017
After splitting their season series, we’ll now have to wait until the summer to find out what the next installment of the greatest rivalry in today’s NBA — sorry, LeBron — has to offer. If the Cavs and Warriors do cross paths again, expect to see the ball in Steph’s hands early and often; as he reminded us on Monday, he can make magic happen against even the best opponents the world has to offer.
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