Golden State Warriors (27-5) 108
Cleveland Cavaliers (23-6) 109
After the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors treated America to one of its most thrilling professional sports title bouts last June with a seven-game thriller that ended a mythical half-century drought for the City of Cleveland, the Christmas Day rematch (for all intents and purposes, Game 8 of the Finals) generated serious hype. Highly anticipated regular season games rarely deliver on their promise, as they lack the series-long dramatic arc of a series, and one team is usually able to obtain a strong advantage as the other contemplates the opportunity cost of expending great effort in one of an 82-game slate. For example, while close throughout, the Christmas Day matchup between the Cavs and Warriors last year was low on histrionics, and the subsequent January game was utter annihilation of the Cavs by their foes.
But, in a welcome surprise, the Cavs and Warriors gave viewers and fans a spectacular Christmas gift with a game that doubled as a continuation of their epic NBA Finals from last summer. The term “instant classic” is overused to point of cliché … so I won’t use it. But it was a f’ing awesome basketball game. And now I can hardly wait for the Finals re-rematch; can any fan, basketball patron, or person with taste, a lust for life, and a pulse? CAVS-WARRIORS III, COMING THIS JUNE, AND DAMN IT I CAN’T WAIT OR CONTROL THE VOLUME OF MY VOICE.
Anyway, let’s go behind the box score of this gem of a basketball game.
25, 6, 10, 7 – The last time the Warriors saw our hero Kyrie Irving, he was ripping Stephen Curry’s still-beating heart out of his chest and icily holding it up for the world to see like the cold-blooded conqueror he is. Irving wasn’t always sharp on Sunday, shooting only 11-of-27 (40.7 percent) from the field. But what Irving lacked in accuracy he compensated for tenfold with an absolutely dynamic performance complete with another ruthless, last-minute, game-winning fatality that robbed Klay Thompson and every Warriors fan of their spirits.
Certainly the acrobatic and illegal-in-34-states-including-California turnaround that gave the Cavs a 109-108 lead with seconds remaining will hog a large amount of the praise for Irving. But lost will be the rest of Irving’s game, the clinching shot only the exclamation point on a superb sentence or even paragraph of a game. Irving finished with 25 points (14 in the fourth), 10 assists, six rebounds, and seven (!) steals. Irving has spent an entire career seemingly guided by a quest to amass points at the sake of the rest of his game. Not on Sunday, as Irving had his bloody fingerprints all over this game. His seven steals were a career high, as he did a worthy job shadowing Klay Thompson until he had an opportunity to jump a passing lane or thieve a ball in the melee.
Irving had 10 assists again on Sunday, completing his first three-game streak with double-digit assists. After last Sunday’s win against the Los Angeles Lakers, I wrote, “even though Irving’s assist totals are only mildly higher than last season (from 4.7 to 5.0), qualitatively it seems like Irving is seeing his teammates on the floor better than ever.” The basketball gods are finally rewarding Irving with improved assist totals, giving him four 10-plus assist games in eight days after only having 21 such games in his first five seasons.
Two passes from the game that Irving absolutely does not make last season: the no-look over-the-head backwards pass to a diving Tristan Thompson from a double team in the second half, and the find from a baseline-drive to a cutting James for a vicious slam where he jungle-gymmed all over the rim (above). Both were huge moments in the game. And then on top of everything else, to add six rebounds with only two turnovers? The kid continues to grow, no matter what lazily written columns comparing him to the likes of James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and Stephen Curry say to the contrary.
31/13/4 – Irving’s dynamite fourth quarter will overshadow LeBron James’ fantastic game, something that doesn’t happen very often. James started slow, letting teammates take many of the looks in the first half of the first quarter and missing some layups. But as he is wont to do, James found innumerable ways to impact the game. It was with his rebounding early, making sure the Warriors didn’t get second opportunities and the Cavs did (finishing with 13 rebounds, five offensive), and then with a vigorous third quarter in which he scored 16 points and hit four three-pointers (4-of-8 on the game). He added two blocks, including this swat of Zaza Pachulia.
The Cavs were barely holding on for life in the third quarter (the lead reached double digits before going up to 14 at the start of the fourth), James kept the Cavs afloat with his threes, his rebounding, and his determination, evinced by his willingness to dive after loose balls. James fired some errant passes for five turnovers and missed more free throws than desirable (3-of-7), but otherwise it was another standard 31 points, 13 rebounds, and four assists on 12-of-22 (54.5 percent) shooting in 40 minutes for the game’s best.
2 – Overall, Sunday was not Richard Jefferson’s best game. He finished with only eight points on 2-of-11 shooting, but the two made field goals were game-changers that will live in infamy for their victims. Jefferson missed a string of wide-open shots (0-of-5 from three), but adjusted by attacking the hoop. The fiery 36-year-old who — recently seen getting ejected after a tussle with Milwaukee Bucks rookie Thon Maker — dunked emphatically on Kevin Durant, then later on Klay Thompson. It was totally unexpected and galvanized the entire Cavalier team. Jefferson received a technical for taunting after the first dunk for what most people misinterpreted as punishment for winking at Durant, while the rest of us know that it was for the dunk itself: an affront on Durant’s dignity and stature in the league and, thus, a taunt on its own.
A few things. First, a hat-tip to Jefferson for showing off the old-man hops and being an inspiration for aging men everywhere. Second, how awesome is it that the Cavs have a guy who’s one step from retirement and is still this expressive and willing to risk his body to embarrass dudes in a December game? Third, can we cryogenically freeze a better-shooting but otherwise identical version of Jefferson until the playoffs? Because the Cavs are going to need him for the next item on our list.
36 – Kevin Durant is on a better team than the Oklahoma City Thunder of years past this season. Whereas the Warriors were almost unbeatable last season when the Cavs could scheme to allow Harrison Barnes or Andre Iguodala to take shots, Durant is an upgrade in every respect. Although Durant missed some shots late (2-of-9 in the fourth quarter), there’s not anyone in the league or on the Cavs to guard him, and he cruised to 36 points amidst the rest of the Warriors’ weapons.
James didn’t play his best defense on Durant this Sunday, and if the plan is to have Richard Jefferson slow Durant? Well, that may be a losing proposition. But unless Kawhi Leonard or a 10-years-younger Richard Jefferson falls from the sky, that’s what the Cavs are resigned to. But if Jefferson can get up like he did on those dunks and bring that intensity for seven games in June, and James stays in front of Durant when it really matters,1 maybe the Cavs can match up defensively with the Warriors yet. And that seemed unthinkable with the Warriors’ firepower before this game.
4-of-11 – With Durant gliding to 36 points, the Cavs needed to limit one of their other great players. Fortunately the Cavs were able to hold Stephen Curry to only 16 points on 4-of-11 shooting, letting them hang in the game until the fourth quarter.
Although it was a team effort, lion’s share of the credit goes to DeAndre Liggins, who chased Curry all night, gave him little room to breathe, and pressed him full-court as much as possible. Unlike Durant and James (physical freaks) and even Irving (who thrives off exceedingly difficult shots), Curry can be slowed if you stay right by his side because he needs space to rise up and isn’t physically overwhelming or quite the ball-handler Irving is. If the Cavaliers face the Warriors in the Finals, DeAndre Liggins is going to need to be a big part of their master plan. And that is a sentence I couldn’t have comprehended writing only one month ago.
38.1 – The Cavs were able to beat the Warriors despite shooting only 38.1 percent from the field. Read that again. That’s hard to comprehend; and the Cavs are not going to shoot 38.1 percent often. Iman Shumpert (1-of-9) and Jefferson (2-of-11) missed plenty of wide open shot opportunities, and they’ve both been shooting great all season. But the Cavs were able to overcome their poor shooting thanks 18 offensive rebounds to the Warriors’ five, 11 of which came from LeBron James (5) and Tristan Thompson (6). There is a recipe for beating the Warriors, and one of the ingredients is dominating them and demoralizing them on the offensive glass. Tristan Thompson does that better than anyone in the league. (Another ingredient: Having one (1) LeBron James and one (1) Kyrie Irving.)
+12 – The other reason the Cavs were able to prevail despite poor shooting was epitomized by Kevin Love, who despite wild shooting of his own (5-of-13) had the best plus/minus of any player in the game with a +12. Love’s effort was emblematic of the Cavs’ team effort: finding a way to win by impacting the game in ways beyond shooting. Love finished with a workmanlike 20 points, six rebounds, three assists, eight free throws, and extremely solid defense, even if it wasn’t spectacular.
40 & 43 – James and Irving played 40 and 43 minutes, respectively, on Sunday. Do the Cavs’ championship aspirations depend on Monday night’s game against Detroit? Hell no! Shut it down!!! Sit ’em both. In fact, give them both the rest of the week off. Even though I wouldn’t have thought any less of the Cavs had they lost Sunday’s game to the Warriors, I feel infinitely better that they won. Preserve James, Irving, and Love for the playoffs at any cost. We know what heights the Cavs can reach when pushed to it … and as Sunday showed, they’re quite high. Kyrie, show us out with a mean scowl.
- Given when James is asked to do on the offensive end against the Warriors, I don’t know how fair it is to ask him to be spectacular on defense too. Granted, he did it in the Finals last year when it mattered, but asking James to do the same thing against Durant he did for spurts against Iguodala and Curry is an altogether different task. [↩]