There’s a decent chance the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers just met for the last time this season.
Considering it’s January and not June, that would very much come as a surprise after the past three seasons have concluded with the teams battling for the title.
But Cleveland are looking less and less capable of flipping the proverbial switch – as they have the past two years – and more like a side that will finally endure a serious challenge from an Eastern Conference foe in the playoffs.
Whether or not the Cavaliers reach the Finals again, the 118-108 win by Golden State on Monday was the last chance to see how the two contenders fare on the same court together before a potential Finals rematch.
Circumstances may be different in June if either team makes a substantial move at the trade deadline or injury hits, but with all the key characters healthy and playing on Monday, it was an opportunity to glean some information.
Here are three takeaways from the match-up:
Isaiah Thomas (right) got his first taste of the rivalry, but the diminutive guard’s impact left a lot to be desired.
In his 32 minutes, he connected on just 8-of-21 shots for 19 points, while dishing four assists. He flashed some of his magic at times, but seemed off on his jumpers and finishes around the rim.
It may have been a case of Thomas still working his way back into rhythm, but the Warriors’ length and ability to smother him on defence also appeared to bother him on his drives, as it has in the past.
Before Monday, Thomas had averaged 19.1 points on 35.5 per cent shooting overall and 27.4 per cent on 3-pointers against Golden State since the start of the 2014-15 season. The Warriors know how to use his lack of size against him to slow down his scoring, which should be a major concern for Cleveland considering the other end of the floor is even more problematic.
Against most teams, Thomas can hide out in the corner or on the perimeter guarding a non-offensive threat, but there’s no refuge when it comes to Golden State.
On Monday, the Warriors didn’t even attack Thomas as much as they could and likely would in a Finals match-up, but it still felt like the Cavaliers were playing four-on-five defensively as Golden State’s sharpshooters effortlessly fired over him or drove by.
The swap of Kyrie Irving for Thomas may have felt somewhat even, but against the Warriors the differences between the two – and the deficiencies of the latter – come to the surface.
It’s time to stop the narrative that the main reason for Cleveland’s defensive woes is lack of effort.
Could they try harder and have a less apathetic approach? No doubt. But the loss to Golden State showed pretty clearly that even when the Cavaliers try, their defence simply isn’t good enough.
Isaiah Thomas aside, the rest of the roster isn’t exactly flush with defensive-minded players and the ones who are supposed to be two-way assets, like J.R. Smith and Jae Crowder, have underwhelmed.
Too often on Monday the Warriors found easy baskets in transition and on simple cuts to the basket. Golden State are unique from that standpoint in that they have skilled players who can put the ball on the floor and attack after grabbing a rebound, while also making brilliant passes, but some of the communication breakdowns by Cleveland were simply inexcusable.
Golden State didn’t even need to shoot well from long range either – 37.5 per cent – to put up 118 points.
These are all issues that can’t be fixed by simply raising the stakes and upping efort. Unless the Cavaliers trade for a rim protector at the deadline – and even then that might not be enough to beat the Warriors – they’ll have no choice but to try and outscore everyone.
The Cavaliers have the best player in the world, but in Kevin Durant, Golden State have maybe the only weapon in the league that can cancel him out in a head-to-head match-up.
Whereas Cleveland need LeBron to be the clear best player on the floor against the Warriors to have a glimmer of hope, Golden State just need Durant to be close enough to mostly cancel him out.
But Durant’s been better than close enough, he’s actually been the best player in a few of the meetings since joining the Warriors.
No one in the NBA scores more easily than Durant and other than LeBron – who would much rather play as a roaming free safety on defence – the Cavaliers have no one to throw at him.
He’s doing it all, which is why since his arrival, the rivalry hasn’t really been much of a rivalry at all.
It was one-sided in the Finals last year, it’s been one-sided so far this season and if – a major ‘if’ – we see this play out again in June, it looks like it will be one-sided then as well.
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