CLEVELAND, Ohio — In the days leading up to the Christmas Day showdown, an NBA Finals rematch between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors, both teams downplayed its significance.
They did the same following the Cavaliers’ thrilling 109-108 win — a game in which they led for 42 seconds.
That’s the correct approach. It’s December 25, and there’s plenty of time until a Finals threequal — if both teams are fortunate enough make it that far.
Still, Sunday will likely lead to nasty flashbacks for those in the Bay Area. There were certainly enough reminders of the Finals collapse inside the arena, including a poster hanging in an office less than 100 feet from the visitor’s locker room.
Then, of course, there’s the newest picture, a reminder of the challenges when it comes to finishing the Cavaliers: Kyrie Irving’s fadeaway jumper that capped Cleveland’s latest comeback.
Here are five observations:
Locking in – With 9:35 remaining in the fourth quarter, following a Kevin Durant pull-up jumper, the Warriors boosted their lead to 14 points.
What followed was a combination of swarming Cleveland defense, sloppy Golden State turnovers and dreadful shot selection.
“Just a total team effort all the way around the board,” head coach Tyronn Lue said. “I thought defensively we really cranked it up, holding this team to 21 points in the fourth quarter. Got down 14, but we were resilient. We stayed composed.”
During that late-game stretch, the Warriors turned the ball over six times, finishing with 20 on the night, a primary area of concern for Warriors head coach Steve Kerr entering the game.
“We had a chance to put them away, for sure,” Kerr said. “Then we had several bad possessions in a row and then we had a rebound that we couldn’t quite gather. I think (Kevin) Love got a dunk and I think we turned it over at the other end. I don’t know how many turnovers we had, maybe 20? Too many turnovers. We had control of the game and we did not execute at all in the fourth quarter. It’s great tape to look at. It will be quite valuable for us to look at that tape because we know we let it slip away.”
The Warriors pride themselves on execution. They are surgical, the best offense in the league. They entered the night averaging better than 30 assists per game. And yet, when the game demanded it most, the Warriors faltered, getting outscored 29-14 and going 5-of-13 from the field.
Showing how razor thin the margin is between these teams, one of their many miscues could’ve easily have been a game-sealing dunk.
On a rebound scramble, Andre Iguodala corralled the loose ball. He had an opportunity, in transition, to pass the ball ahead to Durant for a dunk and possible five-point lead. Instead, Irving swiped the ball, one of his seven steals on the night, and pushed ahead quickly for a driving layup that cut the lead to one with 37.5 seconds left.
On the ensuing possession, the Cavs stymied the Warriors and forced a shot-clock violation, which gave Irving the opportunity for the game-winner.
“A lot of prayers and Christmas magic,” Richard Jefferson said when asked how to the Cavs were able to contain the Warriors in the final quarter. “Somebody behaved theirselves with Santa. Somebody was on the nice list. No seriously, all kidding aside, just being on the nice list with Santa is probably the most important aspect to trying to keep those boys down.”
LeBron takes defensive challenge – With DeAndre Liggins defending Stephen Curry and J.R. Smith sidelined with a fractured thumb, Lue opted to have Irving try to contain Thompson.
The result: Thompson tallied 22 points on 8-of-14 from the field in the first three quarters, as he ran around countless screens and repeatedly shook free for open looks.
Then at the 7:33 mark of the fourth quarter, Lue subbed in James for the homestretch. Instead of matching up against Durant, which had been the case for much of the game, James immediately went to Thompson, who was held scoreless and got one shot off the rest of the way.
“With Klay’s movement, we thought it was hard for R.J. to try to chase him,” Lue said. “We had Shump on Steph and we had Ky off the ball on Iguodala. LeBron took that challenge of guarding Klay, knowing if he was late we could always switch out and then he could guard the big, whoever that is, if he’s late on a pin-down. That was an adjustment we made.”
Added James: “I had to. I had to check Klay because of the personnel that we had on the floor.”
Unsung hero – A key piece in Cleveland’s small-ball lineup that spearheaded a 3-1 Finals rally last year, Jefferson proved his worth in this particular matchup once again.
The former Warriors swingman allows the Cavs to switch with ease and his combination of speed, quickness, athleticism and 3-point shooting leads to plenty of discomfort for the Warriors on both ends of the floor.
It was his dunk — and a wink to Durant that followed — which sparked Cleveland’s comeback in the final nine-plus minutes. Another jam with 4:10 left sent the crowd into frenzy and pulled the Cavs within two points.
“Ghost of Christmas past with R.J. turning back the clock,” Love said. “That last one was unbelievable. Just goes to show you, when you stick with it, it only takes sometimes one quarter, a few plays, one play, two plays and today they were huge for us.”
Prior to his dunk, Jefferson was 0-of-7 from the field.
“You owe it to your teammates to stay engaged,” Jefferson said. “Especially when we’re down some guys. You owe it to your teammates. And part of it is being a professional. Part of your frustration is not that you feel like you’re letting your teammates down, but you know you can do better.
“LeBron was joking that he saw it in warm-ups. You know, 36 years old, trying to play a game at 2 o’clock is probably not the best environment for me. And it took me a half to get warmed up.”
R.J.’s defense – His offensive contributions were vital, but Jefferson’s defense on Durant made the biggest difference. Not only did his presence allow James to hound Thompson, but he helped frustrate Durant in crunch time.
For much of the game Durant seemed to be the difference-maker, the player in which the Cavs had no answers.
But when guarded by Jefferson, Durant rushed a few shots, wasn’t able to get back to his right hand and went 2-of-9 in the final period.
The play that will be hotly debated over the next 24 hours, until the late game report comes out, will be the final one.
With 3.4 seconds remaining, the Warriors had an inbounds opportunity. Durant came to the ball near the 3-point line, got bumped by Jefferson, stumbled and threw up a desperation heave.
If a player falls to the ground and slides, that should be called a travel — unless there’s a foul. So what was it?
The opinions are mixed, of course. Durant thought it was a foul. Jefferson thought he defended it well.
Stu Jackson, the former Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations for the NBA, thought it was a foul.
Wow! When a defender’s foot makes contact the ball handler, it is always a defensive foul!! #L2M. Coupled with no tech for Lebron rim hang[?] [?]
— Stu Jackson (@StuJackson32) December 25, 2016
The most important people on the play, the ref crew, thought it was a no-call.
Second-chance points – How does a team stay in a game long enough to steal it while shooting 38.9 percent from the floor? They gobble rebounds and loose balls like candy canes on Christmas morning.
The Cavs pulled down 18 offensive boards. Tristan Thompson, who continues to be a Golden State pest, had six. James finished with five. Irving and Iman Shumpert each pulled down three.
The Cavs took 18 more shots than Golden State. They won the battle of the boards, 44-42, including 18-5 on the offensive end.