SINCE THE GOLDEN State Warriors signed Kevin Durant in the summer of 2016, they are 7-2 against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The latest win came Monday night, when the Warriors beat the Cavaliers 118-108, outscoring the Cavs 61-44 in the second half.
Cavs-Warriors had been the NBA’s best and most compelling rivalry in years. Three straight Finals, including an all-time seven-game dual in 2016, made it the NBA’s marquee matchup, highlighted by both teams’ considerable star power.
But now it’s fair to wonder whether this rivalry has run its course, and it traces back to Kevin Durant’s arrival. Since he joined the Warriors, the Cavs’ only wins came when they squeaked out a 109-108 Christmas Day win on the back of a Kyrie Irving winner in 2016 and in Game 4 of last year’s Finals, which came with the fate of the series all but sealed, as they trailed 3-0 anyway.
This year’s Cavs team is different
The 2017-18 Cavs don’t seem to pose any real threat. Statistically, it should not be a question of who is the better team. Offensively, it may be close; the Warriors own the league’s best offence, while the Cavs are fifth in offensive rating. The difference is on defence, where the Warriors are fourth in points allowed per 100 possessions but the Cavs are 29th.
While the Cavs could ramp up the effort on defense, this is the second season in a row in which they rank well below average on defense, leaving little evidence that they can transform into a team capable of stopping the Warriors.
That leaves the Cavs’ offense as their lone weapon, and even that doesn’t seem to scare the Warriors. ESPN’s Zach Lowe recently said on his podcast that the Warriors weren’t fearful of a shootout with the Cavs.
“If you remember the Finals last year, that’s sort of how they ended the Finals Game 5, and that was a 129-120 game where both teams were just scoring literally almost at will,” Lowe said. “You talk to people around the Warriors, if the Cavs want to play that way, the Warriors are like, ‘Fine. As good as our defense is, we’re not going to stop LeBron with four shooters around him, but they’re not going to stop us, and we’re just better. We have better offensive players.’”
Yes, James may still scare the Warriors, but he’s not enough anymore. The Cavs have fewer 3-point shooters than last year now that Dwyane Wade and Jeff Green are in the rotation, and normal 3-point threats like J.R. Smith and Jae Crowder are struggling this season.
The Cavs also seemed to have downgraded in trading Kyrie Irving for Isaiah Thomas, who is recovering from a hip injury and would be hard-pressed to recreate some of Irving’s dynamic scoring performances from the past two Finals.
Thomas now appears to be the Warriors’ new favorite target on defence, as they showed on Monday.
And the whole dance only becomes more fun when the Warriors involve both Kevin Love and Thomas.
At the same time, the Warriors seem to have solved the Cavs’ method of picking on Stephen Curry. When the Cavs screen Curry to try to force a mismatch, he shows on the ball-handler and scrambles to recover onto his man instead of switching.
It’s been reported in the past that the Warriors used to fear the Cavs most when they surrounded James with shooters and defenders. James could dictate the offense, and the Cavs could grind out defensive possessions.
That may not be the case anymore. Theoretically, the Cavs could still roll out some lineups like this; perhaps by flanking James with Smith, Crowder, Iman Shumpert, and Tristan Thompson. Would that be enough to beat these Warriors? They could certainly defend better than most Cavs lineups, but the Warriors’ firepower is such that it’s hard to imagine Cleveland outscoring Golden State over a long period of time.
Help may not be on the way
Even the Cavs seem to have internal doubts about their future. According to ESPN’s Dave McMenamin, there is “growing discontent” on the Cavs as they slog through January, posting a 2-5 record so far and 3-9 record since December 19. While January drama has become the norm for the Cavs, this year’s problems seem bigger. They’re the oldest team in the league, don’t have a good defence, and reportedly don’t feel they have the pieces to turn this season around as they have in the past.
The Cavs could look for help as the trade deadline approaches, using the Brooklyn Nets’ first-round pick that they own to acquire another star. But who is available? Last year’s trade deadline had Paul George and Jimmy Butler on the market. This year seems to lack the same star power.
Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan has been a frequently mentioned name, and though he could help the Cavs, recall that Jordan also wasn’t a big difference-maker in Clippers-Warriors matchups when he was flanked by Blake Griffin and Chris Paul. He would help a few of the Cavs’ problems; he wouldn’t solve all of them.
It’s not outside the realm of possibility that we get a fourth straight Warriors-Cavs Finals. The Eastern Conference remains somewhat weak, and though the Boston Celtics and the Toronto Raptors could pose real threats to the Cavs, they will still have to prove it in the postseason. Last year’s Cavs ran through both teams with ease.
But a fourth straight Finals matchup doesn’t mean the height of this rivalry has been extended. The Warriors and the Cavs appear to be going in different directions. Over the past year-and-a-half, the evidence suggests that the Warriors are on another level than the Cavs, and this year’s Cavs team doesn’t seem capable of proving otherwise.