Last time the Cleveland Cavaliers played the Golden State Warriors, things were very different. While Golden State was already at their current cruising altitude at the top of the Western Conference on January 9th, the Cavs were just 19-18, and in the middle of an ugly six-game losing streak coinciding with LeBron James's two-week shutdown. Mike Miller was not only playing, but starting. Timofey Mozgov had just joined the team. J.R. Smith was still playing his human torch role, leading the Cavs with 27 points in the 112-94 loss. These were different times. More desperate times. "James Jones playing 19 minutes by design" times.
Tonight, though, it's a different story. The Cavs are the hottest team in the East right now, winning 17 of the 21 games since that Warriors loss. They've looked unstoppable at times on offense, and their defense is........above average? dare I say, GOOD?
The Cavs have been winning, but since the All-Star Break, they haven't gotten the chance at what most would call a statement win. Beating the flailing Wizards, the inspired Pistons, and the Knicks' rec league team is nice, but the last time the Cavs truly were tested by a good team and won was Kyrie Irving's 55-point game against the Portland Trail Blazers nearly a month ago. Tonight, they get a great chance. Golden State comes to Cleveland, the game is on TNT, and the Cavs can make a statement: Win, and it's a declaration: They are here for your playoff wins, your money, and your women.
Who: Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Golden State Warriors
When: 8:00PM ET
Where: Quicken Loans Arena - Cleveland, Ohio
Is this on TV Anywhere?: As the TNT opener before the main event, an epic showdown between the Western Conference's 8th and 10th-best squads.
Music: Inspector Owl - "Mousey"
Our music today comes from a Chicago band that I interviewed a couple times when me and a friend used to run a local music show at our college radio station. This is without a doubt the greatest music video I have ever seen. The Cavs are the man with the sunglasses and the Warriors are the guy with the eyepatch, if things go according to plan.
POINT GAWDS! That should really be the main story tonight. Stephen Curry returned to action from an ankle sprain against the Wizards on Tuesday, and he only dropped 32 points and eight assists while helping force eight John Wall turnovers in the Dubs' win. Curry's basically the de facto MVP at this point in the season, averaging 24/5/8 and shooting 40.4 percent from three on just under eight attempts per game. Kyrie Irving, meanwhile, is always good for a scoring explosion every few nights, and he always seems to play better against elite competition. While Curry probably has the edge defensively, Kyrie also is probably Curry's closest equal in terms of making good defense not matter at the point guard position. These two should get plenty of buckets tonight, and it's going to be fun to watch.
Overcome the Length. Golden State's defensive success hinges on the versatility and size of their wing players, with Andrew Bogut captaining things from the inside. They're really difficult to run pick-n-rolls against, due to the multiple good available defensive options at all times. Between Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green, Shaun Livingston, and Andre Iguodala, the Dubs have five guys who can easily defend three or four positions, and they switch freely to thwart misdirection and PNR looks. The Warriors also use their length to bother isolation plays, ranking third in the league at defending these plays, per Synergy. The Cavs will have to get creative in order to overcome this, but they do have a natural advantage, in that all the length in the world won't easily affect LeBron working his way to the rim.
Let's Check in with the Former Cavs. Livingston and Marreese Speights have both been incredible for the Dubs this season, and that's kinda fun, given that they were always both weirdly effective players in their short stints in Cleveland. Livingston has been part of the previously mentioned key to the Warriors' defense, and he's also a great outlet for their offense, as he's one of the better cutters on the team, and can take advantage of the spacing offered by the Splash Brothers to get open looks at the rim. Speights, meanwhile, continues to baffle, shooting near 50 percent from the field and averaging a berserk 24.1 points per 36 minutes. The Dubs have been treating Speights like a mini-Wilt Chamberlain, just feeding him field goal attempts incessantly as the focal point of bench-heavy units, and he's responded with career numbers. It's basically been a season-long copy of the fabled MARREESE SPEIGHTS GAME from two years ago, and if he's the one who kills the Cavs tonight, I think I'll get a weird joy out of that.
Fear the Sword's Fearless Prediction: Logic says the Warriors are the best team in the league, with the best player in the league, and the Warriors kill teams with spot-ups and great perimeter defense that kills ISOs. I'm drinking the Cavs Kool-Aid more than usual lately, though, so I am going to say that doesn't matter, Klay Thompson tries to do too much, and the Cavs can generate consistent offensive looks. I think this will be awfully tight and a ton of fun to watch, but I'm rolling Cavs here. Cavs 109, Warriors 104.