Having had their only other meeting of the regular season on Christmas Day, last year’s NBA Finalists went head-to-head on Monday night as the Golden State Warriors faced off against the Cleveland Cavaliers once again. Yet while the two teams have progressed to that stage in each of the last three campaigns, this most recent encounter served to highlight that for now only one of them is ready for another tilt at the title.
It seemed so different when the game first got underway, LeBron James underlining his quality, leadership and skill in a fast-paced opening quarter. Playing in front of his own fans, the Ohio native was clearly ready to put on a show, netting 16 points in 12 minutes and his team-mates also stepped up to the mark.
Eight of the Cavs’ first 10 shots found the bottom of the net and all five starters had scored with less than five minutes on the clock. Three-pointers, transition baskets and some devastating dunks – including the one shown below from James – helped them open up a 37-35 lead, which grew to seven points by halftime.
The third quarter saw Golden State rally, but only enough to level up the score and Isaiah Thomas tied the game again at 93-93 early in the fourth only for his team to suddenly go ice cold. Cleveland missed eight shots in a row and would hit 1-of-14 to end the game, while the Warriors burst into life and kept scoring and scoring. And scoring.
That they did so with a largely reserve lineup of Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green, David West, Klay Thompson and Shaun Livingston was even more remarkable. ''That unit, they won us the game with their energy and their effort,'' Kevin Durant told reporters after the game. ''They pushed the basketball and they set us up well to kind of end the game in the last three or four minutes. That's what a well-rounded team does.’'
Indeed it is, and that is exactly what the Cavs need to become again if they are to make a fourth consecutive trip to the finals. “It seemed like the rim just got smaller and smaller,'' James said as he bemoaned his side’s latest shooting slump, but it was more about the depth and defence his team lack rather than the misses which should be most concerning.
Dwyane Wade was excellent off the bench in his new role as sixth man, but outside of him, Thomas and James, the other Cavs combined to shoot 12-of-33 whereas Golden State’s back up players slotted in seamlessly whenever they were called upon. Cleveland has lost four games in a row and eight of the ten they have played since losing to the Warriors on Christmas Day, but Durant expects they will get better.
''Everyone knows it's going to take a while to get into a comfortable groove here,'' he said. ''It's a new system, so I don't think this game was any indication of what's going to happen with this team down the line. They'll be much better than they are right now and we all know that.’'
Whether that improvement comes internally or via a trade is now the big question for Cavs management. The deadline is looming large on the horizon, with talk of dealing Tristan Thompson – perhaps for DeAndre Jordan – among the rumours currently circulating and it is clear they need help on the defensive end.
Last night, they simply could not stop Golden State, nor even slow them down. Even when their own shots were falling, the Warriors simply matched them basket for basket, then ramped up their own efforts and suddenly – just as they did in the finals last year – they pulled away to a comfortable win.
Is Jordan the answer or someone else? Will the Cavs need to include the coveted Brooklyn Nets lottery pick as an incentive? Can they close the gap to this historic Golden State team even if they do make a blockbuster trade? Right now they have to try, because last night at Quicken Loans Arena, the Warriors showed that the gulf between these two teams is perhaps wider than ever.