The last time LeBron James visited Oracle Arena, his high-flying, full-court block provided the indelible moment for the Cavaliers’ first championship. On Monday James was again in the middle of an open-court play that defined another highly-anticipated showdown with the Warriors, except this time he barely made it over half-court before being flattened.
Golden State scored a 126-91 home win over Cleveland on Monday, in a game that mimicked previous one-sided contests between these two championship clubs. Last January, the Warriors dealt the Cavaliers their worst loss of the year in Cleveland, a 132-98 defeat that cost coach David Blatt his job days later. Then, in the Finals, Golden State posted a 15-point win at home in Game 1 and a demoralizing “This series looks over” 33-point win in Game 2 before James led Cleveland to its unprecedented comeback.
Instead of soaring to smother an Andre Iguodala lay-up attempt from behind, James was crashing to the hardwood, on the wrong side of a flagrant foul from Draymond Green. After leveling the Cavaliers’ four-time MVP, who lay prone on the court and then stroked his beard in apparent pain, Green then walked towards a group of fans seated courtside and threw his arms and legs into the air to mock James’ reaction.
“Just in the heat of the moment of the game, having some fun,” Green said of his flailing, while wearing a wide smile. It was hardly Green’s only provocative moment of the night, as he said on the TNT broadcast and in his post-game interview that he considered Cavaliers/Warriors to be a “rivalry,” even though James had recently downplayed such talk.
For James, the night will surely be direct-deposited into his motivational memory bank, right next to Green’s “They suck, yeah” and Klay Thompson’s “This is a man’s league.” The 35-point loss stings not only because of Green’s hit and the subsequent preening, but also because it was the worst defeat of Cleveland’s season. What’s more, after posting a minus-34 in Cleveland’s loss last January—the worst plus/minus mark of his career—James finished with a minus-32 in 35 minutes on Monday, which stands as the second-worst.
The Warriors will cherish this win on several counts, even if they didn’t get a chance to iron out their late-game issues. The victory snapped a four-game losing streak to Cleveland. It snapped Kevin Durant’s five-game losing streak in head-to-head match-ups with James (the last time Durant beat James, they were in Oklahoma City and Miami, respectively). And it marked Golden State’s most impressive win of the season after losing its opener to San Antonio and collapsing in the fourth quarter against Cleveland on Christmas.
Stephen Curry (20 points, 11 assists) was masterful, particularly with the pass. Durant (21 points, six rebounds) played a smart all-around game, avoiding isolation situations, getting out in transition for easy points, and turning up the defensive intensity, including one highlight block on James. And Green delivered a triple-double (11 points, 13 rebounds, 11 assists) with five blocks in the type of high-impact performance that is worthy of an All-Star starting spot. The Cavaliers, who gave up 78 first-half points, didn’t bother prolonging the agony, as Tyronn Lue pulled James and his other starters with more than six minutes left in the fourth.
More than anything, though, the Warriors’ victory was a reminder that they possess the NBA’s highest ceiling. Their ball movement was crisp (37 assists on 46 field goals), their defensive energy was excellent, and sixth man Andre Iguodala far outclassed Cleveland’s second unit. This version of the Warriors – unselfish, focused and enjoying home-court advantage -- is close to unbeatable. Of course, it didn’t help that the Cavaliers were stuck in a mini-swoon (losing three of their last four), on the final night of a six-game road trip, and without the full services of J.R. Smith and Kevin Love (who injured his back and sat out the second half).
If everything unfolds as expected, come June these teams will face off in the Finals for the third straight year. Go ahead and start bracing now for Green’s mock flailing replayed thousands of times in the run-up to that series, as it will fit nicely into a montage with his suspension-inducing below-the-belt hit to James in Game 4 of the 2016 Finals.
James responded to that shot with perhaps the greatest three-game stretch in Finals history. How he responds to this one, and whether this version of the Warriors is better prepared physically and mentally to withstand his peak play, may well decide the 2017 title.