Cleveland Cavaliers (29-11) 91
Golden State Warriors (35-6) 126
After an epic NBA Finals and a spectacular Christmas Day rematch between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors, America had one last glimpse at a potential championship three-match between the heavy favorites in each conference. It did not disappoint … Warriors fans. While the NBA continues to endeavor to make a basketball event out of Martin Luther King Day, the Cavaliers played a game more honorific of Larry King.
However bad the Cavaliers played on Monday night, nothing can change the fact that the Cavaliers are the reigning NBA champions, they have won four of their last five games against Warriors, and that the Warriors blew a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals. It’s also fair to argue that it’s preferable for the Cavaliers that the Warriors have an inflated sense of grandeur and that Tyronn Lue has plenty of coaching ammunition heading into any hypothetical rematch. Ohio relishes the underdog role, see, e.g., the popular “Cleveland Against the World” t-shirts, so why start being aristocrats now?
So for the sake of my sanity, I’m going to recast Monday night’s loss as a brilliant motivational ploy by Ty Lue & Co., a spectacularly calculated game of possum. After all, we all know that the mighty possum is the most cunning and devious creature in the animal kingdom. Right??? Anyway, brilliant psychological ploys aside, I think we can all agree that a 35-point loss was a little gratuitous, no? I think a 20-point loss would have done the trick just fine, Cavs. Anyway, let’s dig up this rotten box score and have a look at this bloated gore.
35.2 to 50.5 – Sometimes basketball is as straight-forward as making shots — putting that majestic leather spheroid through that coquettish yet unyielding net. The Cavaliers shot a dismal 35.2 percent from the field while the Warriors shot 50.2 percent. Granted, not all field goal attempts are created equal (more on that later), but the Warriors converted plenty of difficult shots and the Cavaliers didn’t make enough open ones.
The Cavaliers have only shot below 36.0 percent in seven games since the 2014-15 season began … they’re 0-7. The Cavaliers have not shot below 36.0 percent since, well, last Wednesday’s bummer against the Portland Trail Blazers. But before that, they hadn’t shot that poorly since the 83-89 2015 Christmas Day rock fight against the Warriors. The Cavaliers are now shooting 42.4 percent in January and 43.6 percent on the road for the season. Both figures are grim.
13-of-43 – The Cavs’ Big Three of LeBron James, Kevin Love, and Kyrie Irving shot a combined 13-of-43 (30.2 percent) against the Warriors. James hadn’t shot that poorly (6-of-18, 33.3 percent) in a game this season, the dunk below notwithstanding. The three of James, Love, and Irving had combined for 58.1 percent of the team’s points this season, so it’s unrealistic that they’ll win a game in which they score 40 cumulative.
James struggled all night with a rebellious jumper and clogged passing lanes. Love left the game in the second quarter with “lower back tightness” and did not return, which is preferably an isolated incident. And after playing the best basketball of his career at the end of December, averaging 10.0 assists from December 17 to December 29 with five double-digit assist games, Irving is averaging 3.8 assists with no double-digit assist games since returning from his hamstring injury on January 6. I wanted to believe that we had discovered a new and improved Kyrie Irving, but maybe it was just a fluky two weeks or an elaborate body-switch episode with Steve Nash during which both assists and (I presume) hilarity ensued.
78 – The Cavaliers allowed 78 points in the first half, the second most they’ve ever allowed in the first half and only the 21st time they’ve allowed more than 70 points in a half. The Cavs were only two conceded points away from tying the 80 points allowed to the Denver Nuggets in the first half by the Samardo Samuel-era Cavaliers, probably the worst team in franchise history and a team on which Manny Harris and Alonzo Gee were starters.
A lot went wrong (everything really), but the key was in transition, where the Cavaliers allowed the Golden State Warriors to score 34 fast break points in the first half alone, and probably several more in semi-transition. The way to slow the Warriors in transition is by limiting turnovers and making shots, and the Cavaliers did neither (8 turnovers and only 15 made field goals).
15 – The Cavaliers had 15 turnovers to 11 assists on Monday. Meanwhile, the Warriors had 37 assists to 16 turnovers (but only four in the first half). The Cavs are mediocre when they have 15 or more turnovers, and excellent when they have fewer. Obviously 14.5 assists is not a fine line between invincibility and utter carnage, but there is a line there, and Cavs fans would prefer their team be on one side of it.
15+ turnovers: 8-9 (.471 win pct)
<15 turnovers: 21-2 (.913 win pct)
— Kyle (@kcwelch330) January 17, 2017
James and Irving combined for 12 turnovers (six each) on their own, the accumulation of errant passes, lost balls, congested passing lanes, and the inability to hit their own shots (leading to more defensive freedom for the Warriors). The Warriors denied Jams and Irving at every opportunity.
A solid way to counter the Warriors’ game plan would have been to depend on the midrange jumper more often, keeping the Warriors off-balance from the ordinary all-or-nothing three-pointer or full-blown drive approach both James and Irving have been deploying this season. Their teammates could have helped them out a bit more as well by moving effectively off the ball instead of, you know, just hangin’ around.
58 to 35 – If the Cavaliers are going to defeat the Warriors, they need to win the battle of the boards, and they did not on Monday — losing the rebounding war 58 to 35. Some of this was due to the Warriors’ inability to miss on Monday, so defensive rebounding opportunities were limited. But the Warriors still whupped the Cavs on the glass (87.0 to 71.8 in defensive rebounding percentage).
Tristan Thompson only had two offensive rebounds, as Draymond Green worked him when the Cavs had the ball. As loathsome as Green is, he had a triple-double (11/13/11), and continually epitomizes the Warriors’ versatility. The Cavaliers are a team of specialists (other than James). If Thompson is -8 in rebounds compared to Green, the Cavs are going to lose. Thompson has no appreciable offensive abilities, so the least he can do is out-rebound a guy that does everything for the Warriors, up to and including hitting jump shots.
20 & 11 – After a mostly anonymous Christmas Day game in which he had 15 points and three assists, Stephen Curry was devastating on Monday with 20 points and 11 assists. Although he scored only five more points than in the last contest, Curry was the catalyst for everything the Warriors did in the half-court. The Cavaliers repeatedly broke down at the point of attack, ensnaring themselves in every screen and crumbling one-on-one. Irving and Iman Shumpert didn’t interfere with anything Curry wanted to do.
The Cavs’ biggest problem this season has been and remains defensive communication. In the .gif below, Shumpert (guarding Curry) and Irving (guarding Klay Thompson) fail to switch when Curry screens Irving. They both haplessly pursue Thompson, leaving the best shooter in the world unguarded and uncontested.
Maybe they’re “saving” it for the playoffs, but against Kyle Lowry of the Toronto Raptors and Stephen Curry, the Cavs should be trapping every screen hard — a full-blown double team. In the first .gif below, Channing Frye doesn’t trap Curry, leaving Irving a step behind Curry off the screen. Being one step behind Curry on the arc is the same as being 100 behind. Curry drains it. In the second .gif, the Warriors do exactly what the Cavs should be doing, and hard-double Irving off a pick — they force a turnover, and Curry has an open three in transition (he made it).
The Cavs have had a multitude of continuity issues — Irving’s hamstring injury, Kevin Love’s illness, J.R. Smith’s absence, and the trade for Kyle Korver — that a few practices and games at home may help remediate after a 3-3 road trip that could have gone worse (but not much). But the defensive communication has been poor all season, and desperately needs fixed if the Cavs want to remain atop the Eastern Conference.