Cleveland is a football town in a football state. No matter how good the Cavs are, they will pale in the spotlight compared to the Shakespearean hate-watch tragedy that is the Cleveland Browns. That may have served this year’s Cavs team well. They do have some characters that crave the attention, but taking a backseat to the Browns comedy of errors probably took some considerable and unwanted pressure off them at the beginning of this season.
The Cavs were coming into this year with high hopes but questions loomed on how injuries would affect Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving coming back into the fold. The early word was that Kyrie would be out until January. Another question mark was 2nd year “head” coach David Blatt and chemistry on a team that would be adding Mo Williams, Richard Jefferson, and the effusive Anderson Varejao. The Cavs opened the season with a tough loss in Chicago, 97-95, but proceeded to reel off 8 straight wins. They started December with 3 straight disappointing losses, including a 99-84 clunker against the old evil empire of the Miami Heat but rebounded to go on another winning streak. On December 19th, Kyrie Irving tweeted that he was back. Perfect timing for the Game of the Year showdown on Christmas Day against the Golden State Warriors who were on their own unprecedented, epic run.
Those that follow the NBA know full well the masterpiece of a season that the Warriors were conducting. The Warriors started strong and didn’t look back, ball moving their way to a NBA record 24 straight wins to open the season. Steph Curry was taking the minor backlash to his MVP win last season personally and putting together a season that was rivaling one of Jumpman 23's. It wasn’t until December 12th, on the last leg of a 7 game road trip (the day after a double overtime escape in Boston, mind you) did the Warriors finally lose their first game to the Greek Freak’s Milwaukee Bucks. Needless to say, the Warriors were the talk of the basketball world, boasting a 27-1 record under interim head coach Luke Walton, the 35 year old son of Bill Walton. It was a triumph for stoner bros everywhere.
Christmas is the NBA’s holiday much like the NFL exudes entertainment ownership over Thanksgiving. It’s the annual reminder during the crucial part of the NFL season that basketball has started and will still be going on long after the Super Bowl, helping you forget. This season there were 5 televised games on Christmas, but the one that mattered most was the rematch of last year’s Finals.
The game lived up to it’s billing for the most part. Enough people watched it (11 million total, record ratings in Cleveland and San Francisco), it came down to the last minutes, and most important for the Cavs, most people came away kind of impressed. The Warriors escaped 89-83 at home where they’ve not lost but this was their lowest offensive output of the season. Stephen Curry struggled, leaving the game to injury at one point, scoring only 19 on clunky 5-16 shooting. The Cavs shot worse as a team, 30-95 from the field for %31.6, with Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving shooting an embarrassing 0-11 on 3 pointers. Most importantly, the Cavs controlled the tempo as evidenced by the low score. Maybe the extra defensive effort led to the poor shooting but the Cavs will need to find the right balance when going up against the best of the West.
Fast forward to Martin Luther King Jr Day, the NBA’s 2nd holiday showcase. The NBA has probably got the smartest marketing strategy of any of the major sports, taking advantage of a day that most Americans have off to celebrate a great American legacy with the most visibly black American sport. Tonight’s game with Golden State in Cleveland will be the highlight of the day, especially with some early trash talk coming from Steph Curry.
Coming into this hyped rematch, the Warriors and Cavs have gone in slightly different directions. The day after Christmas, Cleveland fell 105-76 to the Portland Trail Blazers, their worst loss of the season. That lit the proverbial fire under their ass and Cleveland has gone 9-1 since then; the only loss being on the road, at the hands of the hottest team in the NBA, the San Antonio Spurs. They of the 36-6 record (24-0 at home) on pace to win 70 games and bathe in the blood of the damned. In fact, the Cavs have gone 15-3 since that loss to the Heat with losses to the 2 best teams in the NBA. Golden State has struggled a bit but only by their own lofty standards, limping to a 9-3 record since the last Cavaliers battle.
This will be the last regular season match up for these 2 teams and that means bragging rights for a while. How will Cleveland react to Curry's snide remark and Golden State's cocksuredness when playing the Cavs? Will the Cavs be able to control the tempo again? Kyrie Irving, having many more games under his belt should be closer to mid-season form and a much bigger factor tonight. Kevin Love, as always, has something to prove. The Warriors are coming off an embarrassing loss to the Pistons and they don't make a habit of losing back to back seeing as they haven't since facing the Cavs in the Finals.
All in all, this one should be a hard fought classic. It's still not the playoffs but the Cavs are going to take this one really seriously and they want to save face. It will be interesting to see how they fare under this pressure and if their best players (the advantage they have on Golden State) can come through. Golden State is going to force their brand of basketball because let's face it, it works. Their struggle will be on the defensive end with how they can stop Kyrie and how they'll defend LeBron all while not letting K Love beat them from outside. All in all, a great way to end an important holiday.
My Pick: Really tough to call with these 2 teams. When Golden State is on, there may not be any team that can beat them. I like Cleveland at home and there will be no champagne in the shower for Curry. Cavs 101-96.