CLEVELAND — The teams that have battled each other in three straight NBA Finals will square off Monday in their second meeting in less than a month. This time, though, the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers find themselves farther apart than at any time since this rivalry was born 3 1/2 seasons ago.
The Warriors are flying high, with the league’s best record and wins in 20 of their last 23 games. The Cavaliers, meanwhile, are struggling, with losses in three straight and seven of nine.
“You could win a hundred straight games and face the Warriors and there are still challenges,” LeBron James told reporters Friday night.
That may be true. But if the Cavaliers don’t improve their play Monday night, it may take them 100 attempts to beat the Warriors.
How bad has Cleveland been in the days leading up to this grudge match with Golden State? A demolition at the hands of the Minnesota Timberwolves last Monday was followed by a 34-point shellacking in Toronto on Thursday before the Cavaliers blew a 22-point lead and lost to the Indiana Pacers on Friday night.
Along the way, Cavaliers Coach Tyronn Lue made a cryptic comment about his players having “agendas” after the Toronto loss that he had to clean up the next night; J.R. Smith and Jae Crowder have continued their season-long slumps; and the comeback of Isaiah Thomas has hit some sizable speed bumps. None of that even accounts for the biggest red flag of all: Cleveland’s completely inept defense, which ranks 29th out of the 30 NBA teams.
The Cavaliers squad that had won 18 of 19 heading into the first meeting between these two teams, the Christmas Day game in Oakland, California, that Golden State won, has been replaced by the same disinterested group that began the season 5-7 and was blown out multiple times by awful teams.
Cleveland will wake up Monday closer in the Eastern Conference to the ninth-place Philadelphia 76ers (51/2 games ahead) than the East-leading Boston Celtics (seven games behind).
“I don’t know where it kind of went wrong, or what happened,” James said after losing to the Raptors. “We’ve got to try to pick it back up and find it.”
While Cleveland is still trying to find itself, Golden State has no such problem. They are on a 12-game road winning streak after completing a road back-to-back with victories over the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday and the Toronto Raptors on Saturday.
After the Warriors used a fourth-quarter surge to pull away from Milwaukee in Friday’s win, they welcomed back Stephen Curry, who sat out two games with a sprained right ankle, by scoring 81 points in the first half against Toronto in 24 minutes of basketball that saw them commit almost zero mistakes.
And while Golden State fell asleep in the second half, allowing Toronto to storm all the way back from a 27-point halftime deficit and nearly take the lead, the Warriors managed to make just enough plays — including a crucial Kevin Durant pull-up jumper at the top of the key to put Golden State up three with 21.8 seconds left — to ensure that road winning streak stayed intact heading to Quicken Loans Arena.
“Obviously our history with Cleveland, you want to get a win, you want to try to send a message,” Curry said. “It’s just a regular season game, but it’s an opportunity in front of us.
“That’s an interesting building, and I’ve had some ups and downs in there, so I’m looking forward to the battle.”
A year ago, the Warriors hosted the Cavaliers on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and had lost four straight games to Cleveland dating back to the final three games of the 2016 NBA Finals. The Warriors won that game and have now taken six of their last seven against the Cavaliers.
That’s just one of many things working against Cleveland in this matchup. Ironically, it was this Cleveland team’s greatest triumph — a full recovery after trailing 3-1 in those 2016 NBA Finals — that set up Golden State to make the move that has turned the Warriors into a dominant juggernaut: the signing of Durant.
Though Golden State set a regular season record with 73 wins in 2016, doing so as a team with one MVP-level player in Curry, the Warriors played essentially one style. The Durant pursuit was conducted with that in mind, to provide cover if there was ever another instance like Curry’s medial collateral ligament sprain during the 2016 playoffs, and to give them another style of play if their preferred version gets bogged down.
That happened in the fourth quarter against the Raptors. With the Warriors struggling throughout the second half, Golden State went to its fail-safe down the stretch: Give Durant the ball in the midrange and let him rise up over the defense.
That delivered Golden State its final two baskets of Saturday’s win — just enough to hold off Toronto in a two-point win.
As one scout succinctly put it while watching the action, “This is why the Warriors are frustrating. Durant is a cheat code.”
That cheat code has not only put the Warriors further out of reach for normal NBA teams, but it has created a far wider gulf between them and their biggest rival.
Published at Mon, 15 Jan 2018 00:01:25 +0000