The Cleveland Cavaliers topped the Golden State Warriors 108-109 in a memorable Christmas Day rematch that featured old man Richard Jefferson having flashbacks to 2004, Stephen Curry bottled by aggressively physical defense, mental lapses on both sides, and a wild last two minutes.
The Warriors led for 40+ minutes of the game, including a double-digit lead in the early part of the fourth quarter built off the outstanding performance by Kevin Durant. 2016, however, is the year of the Cavalier comeback. The game served as a microcosm of the 2016 NBA Finals, replete with late-game heroics by Kyrie Irving and Draymond Green turnovers borne from senseless aggression.
But the story Warrior fans are pining for has nothing to do with the astounding individual games by LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, or Klay Thompson. What will make waves among Warrior Nation is the last-second contact with Durant on a potential game-winner; or the way LeBron hung on the rim after a game-breaking dunk; or the referee review of a shot-clock violation that granted the Cavaliers a de facto timeout to set up the game-winning play.
Refereeing hardly cost the Warriors the game. Two calls against DeAndre Liggins went the Warriors’ way (for a combined five points, Warriors’ favor), as did a perplexing technical against old man Jefferson (an additional point).
Moreover, the Warriors cost the Warriors this game.
Both teams were playing on heavy “three games in four nights” legs, although the additional attrition of traveling cross-country (and doubling back) was apparent in the way the Warriors struggled to negotiate switches on defense or grab rebounds against the mauler Tristan Thompson. Despite the lapses in communication, and David West’s general immobility, the Warriors’ defense was generally active enough to stave off Cleveland’s initial options. The leaks sprung later, when the scrambling D had to deny cutters, back-screens, and finish the possession with a rebound.
The Cavs enjoyed an advantage of 18 FGAs over the Warriors thanks to their 18 offensive rebounds. It hardly mattered that the Warriors brought a stronger FG% defense into the game (and bottled the Cavs to 38% shooting on the night) when the disparity in attempts tilted the floor in the Cavaliers’ direction so heavily.
Offensively, the Warriors saw great production from the aforementioned Durant and Thompson. Steph Curry was apparently content playing decoy on most possessions when it became apparent the Cavs were geared to play him physically off the ball. Kyrie Irving spent a few possessions seemingly deliberately guarding Green in the post, a potential field test by coach Tyrone Lue (Steve Kerr mirrored this, sticking David West on Jefferson).
The last few seconds of regulation were wild and will undoubtedly be dissected in-detail later on. In the immediate fallout, the pivotal moment may have come nine minutes beforehand, when Richard Jefferson spiked a dunk over Durant’s outstretched arm, halting a Warrior run and reversing momentum. The Cavaliers would outscore the Warriors by 15 points over the remaining nine minutes.
Sometimes, final scores can be misleading. The close-as-possible, relatively low final score between the Cavs and Warriors feels about right for the quality of performance each team had on both sides of the ball. A rematch later in the year, and an unprecedented possible re-rematch in June, will be a good test for both teams. In the meantime, it’s back to peering over the top of the trenches.
Happy holidays from GSOM to all of you!