at GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
Tip-off: Monday, 3:00 p.m. ET
Line: N/A, Total: N/A
The only thing more certain than a Cavs-Warriors matchup in June is a Cavs-Warriors matchup on Christmas.
Is it still Christmas if Steph Curry isn't playing? It certainly won't be the same without the injured superstar, but the annual Golden State-Cleveland Christmas game still, of course, features plenty of star power, not to mention a court full of players that don't really like each other. It will be the first time the squads have seen each other since the Warriors rolled through the Cavs in last season's NBA Finals, but a second matchup is scheduled for soon after on January 15th. Curry's absence isn't the only one that will loom over the Christmas Day game: It will be the first game between the two teams in recent memory with Kyrie Irving not as a member of the Cavs and Isaiah Thomas, the guard for whom he was traded, won't return to the court until early January. Kyrie took last year's Xmas game for Cleveland with a game-winning jumper to put the final score at 109-108.
We got our annual "What's wrong with Cleveland?" conversation over with early this year, as a tough start for the Cavs was followed by a stretch in which they won 13 straight games and 18 of 19. And you'll never believe it, but it's been the play of SF LeBron James that has brought the team up to its expected level of dominance. He'll turn 33 on December 30th, but he's been nothing short of thrilling in averaging 28.2 PPG, 8.3 RPG and 9.3 APG heading into Thursday night's game against Chicago. If those numbers hold up, it will be his biggest scoring year since his first stint with the Cavs and his biggest assist year ever. His 57.2 shooting percentage would also be a career best. He's playing over 37 minutes per game, and is kind of like Tom Brady at this point: Until he shows actual signs of aging, the man still has to be considered to be in the prime of his career despite being far outside of the usual age range. Without Kyrie as a 1B, PF Kevin Love is relied upon more heavily than in the past. He's actually shooting fewer threes and overall shots than he did last year, but has a higher scoring average thanks to better shooting percentages. SG Dwyane Wade has had some difficulty adjusting to life coming off of the bench, but more significantly he's just getting old. He did hit four of six threes in a loss to Milwaukee this past Tuesday, though. PG Jose Calderon is the starting point guard these days thanks to the flaming out of Derrick Rose, and he could best be described as a crafty veteran. SG J.R. Smith is crafty in his own way but is scoring less than he has in over 10 years, and SF Jae Crowder is scoring significantly less than he did in Boston. Clearly the team is starting to jell, though, and it's LeBron holding it all together. The Cavs will have had three full days of rest entering the Christmas Day game.
Golden State has a back-to-back on Friday (LAL) and Saturday (DEN) nights, but have Christmas Eve off to prepare for the big game. Curry had missed six straight games going into the weekend, and the Warriors won all six. As you might expect, SF Kevin Durant has become a full-on alpha while Steph has sat. He had exactly 36 points in three out of four games between December 8th and December 18th, but the Warriors aren't wholly reliant on him going off. He only had 22 in a 97-84 win over Memphis on Wednesday night. SG Klay Thompson was lights out to make up for Durant's relatively slow night, shooting 10-of-16 from the floor en route to a smooth 29 points. He would be the first scoring option in many NBA offenses, so it's hard to feel bad for the Warriors when he's bumped up to their second option in the case of an injury. With Curry out, Steve Kerr has taken the opportunity to experiment with different lineups. Patrick McCaw, Shaun Livingston and Quinn Cook have all gotten the start at point guard in his absence. There's been flexibility at the forward positions, too, as PF Draymond Green had missed five of six games entering the weekend. He was expected to return for either the Lakers or Nuggets game, and it's doubtful he'll want to miss the national TV spotlight on Christmas. Rookie PF Jordan Bell has looked good getting increased minutes with Green out. The rest of the league should be very mad at Chicago for literally selling him to the already stacked Warriors.