The Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers met for the final time this regular season, and everything is still the same.
The highlight of Martin Luther King Jr. Day was the Cavaliers and Warriors meeting up for a primetime showdown in Cleveland. It would be the final time these two saw each other until June, barring something catastrophic. Their previous meeting was on Christmas Day, where Golden State escaped with a 99-92 victory. Monday was another victory — with far less controversy — for the Warriors, with the final score being 118-108.
Ever since Kevin Durant went to the Bay in the summer of 2016, the Cavaliers have had the same issues. No matter how you slice it, there’s an immense talent deficit. That is, without a doubt, the single factor that limits Cleveland the most. LeBron James has to play perfectly for his team to hang around. And that’s still not enough. On Monday, he had 32 points, eight rebounds, six assists, four blocks and three steals. He was also 12-of-18 from the floor.
Outside of James, there were some positives on the offensive end. Isaiah Thomas provided sufficient help for the Cavaliers despite not looking 100 percent yet. He dropped in 19 points on 8-of-21 shooting, but most of his struggles are related to his touch from the perimeter. Thomas missed seven of his eight threes against Golden State, and his mid-range game isn’t much prettier. Fortunately, the explosiveness is coming back, and Thomas is getting more comfortable wriggling his way through the defense to get into the paint.
A fascinating development on Monday was the one-three pick-and-roll with Thomas and James. That isn’t new, of course. It’s something they would utilize with Kyrie Irving to try and get Stephen Curry to switch onto LeBron. Cleveland didn’t run it often on Monday, but there’s no denying the chemistry that Thomas and James have cultivated over their short time on the court together.
After Thomas, Kevin Love was the only other significant contributor on offense. He scored 17 points on 5-of-9 shooting, a far cry from his monstrous 31-point, 18-rebound outburst on Christmas. Why did he only take nine shots, you ask? Ah, an excellent question — who knows. The Cavaliers didn’t alienate him entirely, but it seemed like some other guys were getting looks to help them find some rhythm. Love also only played 27 minutes, the second-lowest among the starters.
If the stakes were higher, Cleveland would’ve looked at him more. After all, it’s just a regular season game in January. Maybe Tryonn Lue wanted the others more involved than usual with the hopes of them raising their trade value because it’s clear that the Cavaliers are still one player away from being able to compete with the Warriors in a seven-game series.
As brilliant as LeBron James was, the Warriors can throw Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant out to neutralize him. They combined for 55 points on Monday.
Golden State’s supreme talent advantage means that they’re capable of just outlasting the Cavaliers. Monday’s contest was competitive in the first half, but things began to get out of hand as the clock ticked; in the third, the Warriors outscored Cleveland 36-27, followed by 25-17 in the fourth. The ability to turn everything around is yet another advantage Golden State has over their Eastern Conference rival. And it’s arguably the most annoying.
The Warriors play sloppy at times. On Monday, they committed 16 turnovers. Additionally, there were several defensive breakdowns throughout the game. As elite as that team can be, they aren’t perfect. They also don’t need to be. With four All-Star and an elite bench, reversing course and going from sloppy to lockdown doesn’t take them that long, and it also lessens the magnitude of those consequences. If Cleveland really wants a shot at beating them, going out and getting a fourth scorer who’s the same archetype as Lou Williams is vital. However, that’s a challenge.
Outside of the Brooklyn Nets‘ pick, the Cavaliers don’t have any assets. It makes sense that any team engaging in trade talks wants that pick, but would they want anyone else? Let’s continue with the Williams example. Koby Altman calls up Lawrence Frank and offers Tristan Thompson, Derrick Rose and Iman Shumpert for Lou Williams. Frank, since the return is less-than-desirable, rejects it.
He then offers up a counter, “Nope. No way I’m taking that. What about Brooklyn’s pick… and Thompson?” That’s a fascinating proposition. I’m not convinced the Clippers would entertain a call for someone who’s playing like their best player — particularly in the midst of a playoff push. Following Los Angeles’ win on Monday, they’re 22-21, tying them with the Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers for seventh in the conference. Williams’ trade value has skyrocketed recently. It wouldn’t be a shock if the Clippers wanted to keep him around even though a deep playoff run isn’t in their future.
Now, let’s play devil’s advocate. Assume that Frank does want to part ways with his walking fireball guard. Williams doesn’t make them the favorite over Golden State, but he does two things — closes the talent gap considerably and gives Cleveland a chance to win multiple games. Furthermore, he’s more of a positive than Thompson who, in 23 games, boasts a net rating of minus-6.2. The pressure is now on the Cavaliers.
They want to hold onto the pick because of LeBron’s lack of commitment, believing it’s possibly a “franchise-resetting asset,” according to ESPN’s Dave McMenamin.
LeBron James hasn’t decided on his future. The last thing the front office would want to do is muck up their rebuild. Winning a championship is the only way to convince the four-time league MVP to stay in Cleveland. Brooklyn’s pick will be part of any deal involving a player who can make an impact. Even with that, there’s no guarantee Cleveland can knock off Golden State. They’re just too talented. You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t.
Start a conversation with me on Twitter