The Christmas matchup between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers looked similar enough to last June's NBA Finals that the Eastern Conference champions could hold out some hope in a different outcome should the two teams meet again this spring. Monday's final regular season game between the teams figures to inspire significantly less optimism.
Coming off their fourth and worst loss of the season Saturday at the Detroit Pistons, the Warriors built a 13-point lead after the first quarter and added to it considerably from there, eventually winning 132-98 in a dominant blowout that registers as the Cavs' worst loss of the season. Golden State won each of the first three periods by at least 11 points to send many Cleveland fans at Quicken Loans Arena to early exits during extended fourth-quarter garbage time. It's hard to blame anyone who left early, because the home team got flat-out embarrassed in its second test vs. a top contender in four days.
[Follow Dunks Don't Lie on Tumblr: The best slams from all of basketball]
The onslaught started early courtesy of Stephen Curry. The midseason MVP favorite put up 16 points in the first quarter on 4-of-5 shooting from beyond the arc, exploiting gaps in the Cleveland defense and sometimes scoring anyway when none were available. This sequence from late in the period summed up the experience for the Cavs — Curry annoyed LeBron James enough to instigate a push for an offensive foul and then followed it up with a three in the face of Iman Shumpert:
Meanwhile, Golden State ensured that Cleveland would not get comfortable offensively. While the hosts shot 10-of-20 from the field in the first period, they managed only one three-point attempt (a miss) and were generally limited to mid-range jumpers and contested looks in the paint created out of the flow of the offense. In fact, the Cavs managed only three three-point attempts in the entire first half, well off the pace of their fourth-highest 28.8 per-game average. The Cavs' respectable 46.3 percent first-half shooting percentage from the field was therefore a little misleading, because they just didn't get the shots they're accustomed to.
The Warriors continued to have their way the Cavs defense despite only five points from Curry in the second quarter. Golden State went 65 percent from the field in the half and 10-of-17 from beyond the arc, creating open shots with extra passes and making every defender look overmatched. After the disappointment of Saturday's loss to the Pistons, interim head coach Luke Walton adjusted his substitution patterns by moving away from the use of a second unit and bringing in single substitutions with a shorter rotation. The results were fantastic — the Warriors saw no dropoff as starters sat and got a great showing from Finals MVP Andre Iguodala (20 points on 7-of-8 FG and five assists in 24 minutes). The Cavs' 70-44 halftime deficit now stands as the largest of LeBron's career.
The rout continued apace early in the third quarter. It took all of 79 seconds for Cleveland to lose its best offensive performer when J.R. Smith (14 points on 6-of-9 FG) was ejected for this flagrant-2 foul to the chest of Harrison Barnes:
It's not clear that Smith's actions deserved an automatic ejection, but a combination of his checkered history and the circumstances of the game sent him to an early shower. It's unlikely that he would have helped much, though, because the Cavs still couldn't defend the Warriors with any consistency. Just look at Kevin Love's pick-and-roll defense on this play:
That's a representative example of Cleveland's defensive confusion. Golden State's offense is good enough against quality defense and becomes near-superhuman against a team making mistake after mistake. Naturally, Curry (35 points on 12-of-18 FG and 8-of-12 3FG in 28 minutes) was the biggest beneficiary.
There were other stars — Draymond Green (16 points, 10 assists, seven rebounds) probably would have had another triple-double if not for the blowout — but there's no doubt that Curry was the dominant player in a statement win for the previously slumping Warriors.
The Cavaliers should not have much trouble finding the silver lining of this terrible loss. The circumstances of a mid-January game are much different from those of a seven-game series, and they can even consider this loss the outlier after a string of seven straight in which they set the terms of engagement for the matchup. (Remember, the Warriors' move to a small lineup to top the Cavs in June was a reactive move, not a proactive one.) For that matter, they had trouble taking the same control Monday in part because Tristan Thompson, one of the few players who has had some success limiting Draymond Green's defensive versatility, was limited to only 12 minutes with foul trouble. A career-worst plus-minus for LeBron James is an oddity by definition.
However, it's hard to suggest the Cavs should be confident given that they lost five of those previous seven games between the two teams. Plus, this brutal loss comes only four days after a loss to the San Antonio Spurs that, while close, saw Cleveland look out of sorts in crunch time. These struggles could represent nothing more than a particularly bad week, but they're still concerning.
If these two teams meet again in June, fans and analysts would do well to consider this result to be a worst-case scenario for Cleveland. Nevertheless, the Warriors deserve all possible credit for forcing the Cavs to that extreme. Results like this one may be rare, but they don't happen by accident.
- - - - - - -