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Warriors vs. Cavaliers Christmas Day preview: Santa brings us the most anticipated game of the season

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The NBA puts a Finals rematch in our stockings as a healthy Cleveland team visits Golden State on Christmas. The players and coaches are downplaying the significance of this battle of the conference leaders, but we all know they want this one.

Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
Matchup
Golden State Warriors
27-1 (13-0 HOME)
vs
Cleveland Cavaliers
19-7 (6-6 ROAD)
Details
December 25, 2015
Oracle Arena, Oakland, CA
2 pm PDT
ABC | KNBR 680 AM
Blog Buddy: Fear the Sword
Projected Starters
Stephen Curry G Kyrie Irving
Klay Thompson G J.R. Smith
Brandon Rush F LeBron James
Draymond Green F Kevin Love
Andrew Bogut C Timofey Mozgov
Key Injuries
Harrison Barnes (doubtful) - Ankle
Kevon Looney - Hip
NONE

★★★

Golden State hosts Cleveland this afternoon as the respective conference leaders square off for the first time since the NBA Finals.

The Cavaliers are healthy this time around, as Kyrie Irving made his season debut on Sunday after recovering from a broken knee cap. Meanwhile, Harrison Barnes remains doubtful for the Warriors with a sprained ankle, so the Cavs will likely be spared the threat of the Warriors' Small Ball Death Squad lineup of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes, and Draymond Green that crushed the Cavs in the last 3 games of the 2015 NBA Finals.

While the NBA and its broadcasting partners are understandably building up the magnitude of this game, both the Cavaliers and Warriors are downplaying its significance. David Blatt told Brian Windhurst with ESPN that the Cavs didn't follow Golden State any more than the other good teams in the league. And in speaking with Tim Kawakami on Wednesday, Green claimed that the team hadn't talked about the Christmas Day match up yet, crediting the team's "one game at a time" approach to the season.

That's the mature approach that the Warriors ought to take in handling their business as the defending champs this season, but it's hard to believe that it's 100% true...

In an ESPN media session on Tuesday, Jalen Rose and PJ Carlesimo acknowledged that the players would say all the right things to make it sound as though the game didn't have any special meaning, but they didn't believe it. Rose was adamant that both teams want this game; the Cavs will seek retribution for the Finals loss now that they have a healthy starting five and the Warriors want to show that luck had nothing to do with their championship. Granted, Rose and Carlesimo had an interest in winding up the hype machine as spokesmen for ABC and ESPN, but they've been around the league for a long time and probably have a sense for what the players are thinking leading up to the game.

From the Warriors perspective, if this were more than just a regular season game they might consider the strategy of starting Andre Iguodala to guard LeBron James, as Iguodala did brilliantly on his way to being named the Finals MVP. Iguodala could be called on for heavy minutes against LeBron, almost as if Iguodala's minutes were down against Milwaukee a week ago to keep him ready for this one... But the Warriors only take it one game at a time, so that couldn't be the case!

I asked Rose and Carlesimo if they would consider taking Andrew Bogut out of the starting lineup in light of how he struggled against the Cavs in the Finals, playing less than three minutes over the final three games. Both Rose and Carlesimo played it safe in recommending that Bogut remain in the starting role, noting that he helps facilitate the offense.

"They both rim protect and they both shot block," Rose said. "The difference when you have Bogut out there is instead of him being on the post or on the baseline like Festus would be, they like to keep the floor spread. People underestimate Bogut's ball skills from the top of the floor, with the simple hand off and the screen and his ability to pass to open shooters."

Maybe that will work as long as Kevin Love starts at power forward for the Cavs, but look for the Warriors to counter with Festus Ezeli when Tristan Thompson enters the game. Ezeli is generally faster than Bogut in rebounding the ball while it's in the air, which is important when Thompson is in the vicinity. Thompson gave the Warriors fits on the glass in the Finals, gathering double digit rebounds in each game of the series.

Rose also suggested that the Cavs put their best defender on Draymond Green because of the role Green plays in running the offense as Curry faces constant double teams.

"The one thing I want to see is when a team puts their best forward defender on Draymond Green, in particular if it's a three, as opposed to Steph Curry," Rose said. "A lot of people think, for example, if you go Spurs, you try to put Kawhi against Steph. I think the person you've got to try to stop is Draymond, because he's so underrated, will be an All Star this year. He's actually the anchor to what they do up front."

If LeBron James were to guard Green, it would be up to Brandon Rush and Iguodala to make quick cuts to the basket to get past bigger, slower defenders. Shaun Livingston makes a living cutting to the rim, so look for him to slip past the defense, too.

If he's unable to play, the Warriors will miss Harrison Barnes on defense when dealing with Cleveland's bigs today. But Brandon Rush is doing a solid job of filling in for Barnes on offense, shooting 50% from behind the arc. With Rush keeping the Cavs' defense honest, the Splash Brothers could see additional looks at the basket, which is always a good thing.

Whatever the outcome, let's just remember that it's only a regular season game. Like Draymond says, the only significance of the game is that the Warriors will either finish it 28-1 or 27-2. Nothing more, nothing less... Or maybe it'd be really nice for the shorthanded Warriors to stick it to a team that questioned the validity of the Warriors championship. Because, you know, it's no big deal...