CLEVELAND, Ohio — The game is special.
The Cleveland Cavaliers vs. the Golden State Warriors.
The Cavs’ Big Three vs. the Warriors’ Big Four.
The two teams who have faced each other in the last two NBA Finals, only now the Warriors have added Kevin Durant.
Where would you rank Durant in the NBA galaxy of stars? In the top five? The top three?
No matter where you put him, he’s behind LeBron James.
In the regular season, James has a 13-3 record vs. Durant. It’s 8-0 when James wears a Cavs uniform, and that dates back to LeBron’s first stint in Cleveland.
In the playoffs, James and Miami faced Oklahoma City and Durant in the 2012 Finals. Miami won in five games.
So that makes it 17-4 overall in favor of James.
You have to love the idea of stars colliding. You know that James lives for these games where he is in the national spotlight.
Meanwhile, Durant has never been surrounded with more talent — or greater expectations.
The Warriors have a 27-4 record, the Cavs are 22-6.
A few things about the matchup:
1. The Warriors are sharing the ball. They lead the NBA by having 72 percent of their field goals come via the assist. Next is Boston at 64 percent. The Cavs rank 12th at 55 percent.
2. While the Warriors are extremely athletic, it could be wise to slow them down and make them play some isolation basketball. I think about how the Cavs won Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals by a 93-89 score, and they did it with defense and by controlling tempo. They turned the game a bit ugly.
3. But the Cavs are at their best when they run. Coach Tyronn Lue wants his team to run, and so my guess is they probably will try to run with the Warriors on Christmas Day.
4. In the seven-game 2016 NBA Finals, the Cavs averaged 100 points, Golden State averaged 99. The Cavs held the Warriors to 97-101-89 points in the last three games as their defense rose to the challenge.
5. The Warriors are averaging 117.4 points. They are shooting .494 from the field, .379 on 3-pointers. The player who has sacrificed his offense is Draymond Green. It’s not drastic. He is averaging 10.6 points, compared to 14.1 points last season. He is taking about two fewer shots per game.
6. The Warriors have found a way to keep Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Durant and Green happy so far. Curry, Durant and Thompson are all averaging more than 20 points.
7. The Cavs will be tested. J.R. Smith is out for at least three months after thumb surgery. DeAndre Liggins will start in place of Smith at shooting guard.
8. It was Smith (10.6 points) rather than Kevin Love (8.5) who was the Cavs third leading scorer in the 2016 Finals. Tristan Thompson (10.3) averaged more points than Love in The Finals.
ABOUT KEVIN LOVE
Until Game 7, The 2016 Finals were a nightmare for Love. Here’s what happened:
1. Love scored 17 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in the opening game loss to the Warriors.
2. In Game 2, he suffered a concussion.
3. The Cavs lost the first two games of the series. Love missed Game 3 because he was in concussion protocol. The Cavs won Game 3 with Richard Jefferson starting in place of Love.
4. Love was eligible to play in Game 4, but the Cavs started Jefferson instead. It was the first time Love didn’t start a game in his two years with the Cavs. They lost Game 4 at home, falling behind 3-1 in the series.
5. Love started Games 5 and 6. He was a non-factor. From Games 4-to-6, he played a grand total of 75 minutes. He scored 20 points and had 13 rebounds.
6. Game 7 turned out to be Love’s day. Not as a scorer. He turned himself into a rebounder, a defender, a total team player. He set picks. He had a modest nine points, but grabbed 14 rebounds. He defended Curry on that last possession, when Curry missed a 3-point shot. James called that play “The Stop.”
7. In Game 7, the Cavs outscored the Warriors by 19 points with Love on the court. It was the best plus/minus of any player on the court. It’s the game where Love felt fully embraced by his new teammates.
8. Golden State presents a very tough matchup for Love. He’ll probably open the game covering Zaza Pachulia, the Warriors center. That’s not a major issue. But Pachulia plays only 18 minutes a game. He has taken the place of Andrew Bogut, who played only 17 minutes a game in the playoffs last season.
9. When the Warriors pull their center (Bogut last season or Pachulia now), they go with a smaller lineup. That’s when Love has defensive problems. They often would replace the center with Andre Iguodola, a 6-foot-6 small forward. Suddenly, the 6-foot-10 Love was in a difficult spot keeping up with the action.
10. The Warriors are different now. Harrison Barnes and Bogut are gone. They have been replaced by Durant and Puchulia. In Game 7, Love spent a lot of time defending Draymond Green, and that will probably be his matchup on Sunday. I’m very anxious to see how he performs.
ABOUT THE CAVS
1. DeAndre Liggins will start in place of Smith. Liggins can be a good option as Smith recovers. Liggins is a determined defender against shooting and point guards. The sample size is small — only 46 minutes. But the Cavs most efficient lineup this season has been with Liggins as a shooting guard when he is with the other four starters: Kyrie Irving, James, Thompson and Love.
2. Part of the reason for Liggins looking so good compared to Smith is Smith has had a tough time. He missed most of training camp as he was trying to get his contract extension settled. He was rusty in the early games. Then he had a mild knee injury. Then the thumb injury. The Cavs just want Smith to heal from the thumb surgery and be ready for the playoffs.
3. The NBA has so many stats and analytics, your head will explode. One of those is “Net plus/minus per 100 possessions.” Liggins rated very high in this area when in the D-League the last two years. It’s part of why the Cavs wanted the two-time D-League defensive player of the year. The stat is a way of giving emphasis to defense.
4. On the Cavs this season, the top six players in this “Net plus/minus” are: James (13.4), Liggins (12.4), Love (12.3), Smith (8.7), Irving (8.2) and Thompson (8.0). But part of the reason Thompson and Irving have lower numbers is they are not on the court as often with James as some of the other players.
5. Liggins actually fits in better with the starters. His lack of offense is not a problem, because others can score. His defense means a lot, because he serves the Matthew Dellavedova role of attacking the opponent who suddenly has a hot shooting touch in the backcourt.
6. The Cavs have another option in the backcourt. Iman Shumpert is playing his best since joining the Cavs in January of 2015. Shumpert is averaging 7.2 points and shooting 46 percent from the field. The 6-foot-6 guard also is an excellent defender. The Cavs have been very pleased with Shumpert’s improved 3-point shooting (.436).
7. Between Shumpert and Liggins, the Cavs think they have shooting guard covered with Smith out. They would like to add another point guard. Shumpert and Liggins have played some point guard, but it’s obvious they aren’t very comfortable when they have to handle the ball often.