We got a Finals rematch, the best game of the year, and a whole lot of talking points.
Christmas Day basketball sometimes fails to live up to the hype. The NBA does an excellent job marketing the games, putting good teams in the games, and broadcasting the games, but it can’t do much when one team shows up to play and the other looks like it enjoyed Christmas Eve dinner a bit too much. One way to ensure a competitive game? Match up the two teams who have met in the Finals the past two years, and who are odds-on favorites to make it a late spring trilogy.
It worked. The Cavaliers and the Warriors played a championship-level game. In doing so, the two teams revealed how a potential June rematch might play out. Here are four key takeaways from this year’s Christmas matinee.
Kyrie Irving – Not LeBron – Is The Cavs’ Closer
No, we didn’t already know this. Irving did make The Shot last June, but that was more about game-planning than closing. Tyrone Lue’s squad screened and re-screened with Steph Curry’s man until the Warriors broke and Curry switched onto the ballhandler. Lue ran that set for Irving on the right side with a minute left, but he also ran it for James on the left just two minutes earlier:
On Christmas, however, Irving was the man down the stretch. He either ran a pick-and-roll or scored in isolation on four of Cleveland’s last six possessions. James wasn’t a bystander, but he was primarily playing off the ball. It’s difficult to overstate the significance of LeBron Freaking James – the best player in the world – walking along the perimeter by design. This is the same player who the press obliterated nine years ago for making a correct basketball play with the game on the line. Now, James seems not to care. Probably because Irving is simply devastating in crunch time.
The Duke alum can be wildly inefficient at times. But like many elite players who can shoot his team to a loss, he can also shoot his team to a win. Irving is a nightmare in isolation, ranking in the league’s 94th percentile in efficiency, per NBA Stats. He’s able to use his creativity, quick first-step, and otherworldly handle to generate decent looks out of nothing. Like on Christmas, when he countered Klay Thompson’s excellent defense with a turnaround fadeaway jumper. Thompson is a good, if not great defender, and Irving took it right at him. In the final two minutes, for better or worse (probably better), the Cavaliers will run through Irving.
Cuts Will Kill
By necessity, Cleveland has figured out how to reduce Golden State’s effectiveness from behind the arc. Sticking to shooters, however, makes it even more difficult to defend the paint, especially with a slow-footed forward like Kevin Love and a merely so-so rim-protector like Tristan Thompson. The Warriors feasted on cuts in the first quarter, and Steve Kerr even called this play late in the fourth:
Richard Jefferson is stuck to Durant, Iman Shumpert to Curry, and James to Klay Thompson. The middle of the floor is simply bare. Curry’s off-ball actions have their own gravitational pull, so by the time Love realizes Curry’s movement is only a decoy, he’s already fried. This play is awesome, and it represents the type of action – and execution – the Warriors must employ to keep their playoff opponents honest.
Kevin Durant Could Make LeBron’s Job Even More Difficult
The cost of a superteam is always depth. The Cavs had to let Timofey Mozgov and Matthew Dellavedova walk this offseason in order to avoid even bigger luxury tax penalties. Now, Cleveland could probably use one more interior big man and a veteran backup guard. Yet the Cavs lack one other key role player: A wing stopper.
In the past, LeBron has mostly guarded Draymond Green in order to stifle the Green-Curry pick-and-roll. In James’ stead, Cleveland could comfortably slot Love, Thompson, or a backup like Jefferson onto Harrison Barnes. Yet “Harrison Barnes” is now Kevin Durant, who is a gazillion times better at basketball than Barnes is.
Jefferson checked Durant for much of the fourth quarter, but in the playoffs – with multiple weeks to prepare – Steve Kerr will surely exploit Jefferson’s 36-year-old legs. And when Jefferson isn’t in the game, James is the only option, which showed when he matched up with Durant for much of the first quarter. Durant has six inches on both Shumpert and J.R. Smith, and he’s far too quick for any of Cleveland’s big men.
Maybe Jefferson can replicate his heroics from Christmas (He was truly spectacular on defense down the stretch.) Probably not over a seven game series. LeBron is going to have to do the heavy lifting, especially since Durant his playing some of the best basketball of his career. Just look at his shot chart:
Shot chart from NBA Savant
That stuff is insane. But if anyone is capable of being a wing stopper on defense and an all-time great playmaker/scorer/everything on offense, it’s King James.
The Warriors Are Beatable, But Mostly When They Beat Themselves
Simply put, the assumption that the Warriors would run away with the title seems overblown. They’ll probably make it to the Finals, but that result was likely with or without Durant. If they meet the Cavs once again – oh boy – it’ll be a lot of fun.
But just because the Cavs can beat the Dubs in a full series doesn’t mean doing so will be easy. The Warriors grabbed two fewer boards, shot three fewer free throws, had seven more turnovers, and put up eighteen fewer field goal attempts. And still, they lost by just one point. If Curry, Thompson, and Durant all shoot well, there is almost no way to beat this Golden State team. If they, along with Green, Andre Iguodala, and Shaun Livingston, turn the ball over needlessly, as they did on Christmas Day, they may beat themselves.
Edited by Julian Boireau.
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