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.
Former Detroit Pistons star Richard Hamilton picked the Cleveland Cavaliers to win the NBA title before the start of the season and he’s not changing his prediction now, even as LeBron James and Co look vulnerable in the midst of a tough stretch.
Cleveland couldn’t be playing much worse as they enter a marquee match-up with the Golden State Warriors tonight (UAE: 05:00 +1), having dropped eight of their last 11 games in a concerning run that has once again raised questions over their status as contenders.
Yet Hamilton, who won a championship with the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons and was a three-time All-Star during his 14-year career, remains confident in the Cavaliers.
“I still think the Warriors are the team to beat, but I think Cleveland is going to win. That’s my own personal prediction,” Hamilton told Sport360° ahead of the second meeting between Golden State and Cleveland this season.
“I mean you have the best player on the planet with LeBron James. The one thing about LeBron is he challenges his team in different ways. But if you look at how that team is made up, that team is made up to win a championship. That team is not made up to lead the regular season with wins in the Eastern Conference. You have guys on that team like Dwyane Wade, the veterans they brought in like Isaiah Thomas, those guys play their best basketball when the playoffs start.”
Much of Cleveland’s woes this season have centred on the defensive end, where they’re allowing the second-most points per 100 possessions in the league at 109.3.
Hamilton knows a thing or two about what it takes to succeed defensively, with his successful Pistons teams of the previous decade known for their ability to limit opponents.
While the Cavaliers’ effort has fluctuated wildly, the 39-year-old Hamilton believes their defensive struggles have been more about the players on the roster and how coach Tyronn Lue mixes and matches lineups.
It’s a problem Cleveland can choose to fix in the playoffs, as long as defence eventually becomes the focus, according to Hamilton.
“I think with the Cavaliers, it’s more about their personnel. It all depends on what kind of team they’re going to try to be, especially in the playoffs,” he said.
“Are they going to be a 3-point shooting team or are they going to be a defensive-minded team? That’s more of a concern to me.
“Who is Tyronn Lue going to put in for different situations? If they’re going to try to out-shoot someone like Golden State, I think they just can’t. Your best shooters are not your best defenders and your best defenders are not your best shooters.
“So if they feel they’re going to concentrate more on defence and say ‘alright, you know what, a guy like Jae Crowder is going to play more minutes than Kyle Korver because defensively his impact on the floor is better’. It’s something Tyronn Lue has to figure out.”
Loss after loss and defensive breakdown after defensive breakdown, it’s getting harder to trust that the Cleveland Cavaliers will look like a different team when it truly matters.
The story feels as old as time. The Cavaliers look vulnerable as their weaknesses are exposed in the regular season. We collectively wonder if this is finally the year that a LeBron James team gets knocked off its perch in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Cleveland dispel doubts by steamrolling the competition on their way to another NBA Finals appearance.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
If past behaviour is the best predictor of future behaviour, then there’s no point reading into the Cavaliers’ current woes, right?
Well, at the risk of sounding like ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’, this season feels different.
What does consecutive 25-point losses mean for the Cavaliers? No team has gone on to win an NBA title after losing consecutive games by 25 points that season, and only one team has even reached the Finals ('73-74 Bucks). More from @EliasSports at https://t.co/zy7fgAN15c pic.twitter.com/jZ3IRXvlQh— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 12, 2018
For one, this isn’t the same roster that flipped the switch in the playoffs the last few years. LeBron James remains the ultimate constant, but many of the key supporting pieces around him have changed – Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Dwyane Wade, Jeff Green and Jose Calderon are all in their first season with Cleveland.
And while it’s easy to attribute their current struggles to lack of effort, especially on defence, the truth is their personnel consists of fundamental flaws and inabilities on that end of the floor that can’t be fixed by just upping the stakes.
Cleveland’s defensive rating of 109.5 points allowed per 100 possessions isn’t just concerning, it’s likely fatal. That figure ranks the Cavaliers as the second-worst team in the league, ahead of only Sacramento.
For comparison, Cleveland were bad last year, but ranked 22nd in defensive rating at 108.0. There’s a difference between being below average and being nearly worst in the league.
Couple the Cavaliers’ deficiencies with the improvement of their two biggest Eastern rivals – Toronto and Boston – and there’s every reason to believe the gap has been significantly closed.
It may not end up mattering as it’s possible Cleveland are challenged more than ever through the first three rounds, only to get through the East again.
But really, this entire conversation doesn’t matter, if we’re being existential, because there’s no way this version of the Cavaliers can beat Golden State.