Twice LeBron James turned to the referees with legitimate grievances on Christmas, and twice he came up empty.
It’s a bad sign when the most dramatic moments of the season’s most highly-anticipated game to date find the NBA’s two best players—James and Kevin Durant—bogged down in lengthy replay reviews and officiating controversies. There was no signature moment to the latest chapter between these two franchises, no chase down block or pull-up three to loop endlessly on highlight reels. Instead, there was James losing his balance and then losing possession—with help from Durant on both—as the Cavaliers lost their chance to spring a holiday upset.
With a little over a minute to go, James drove left on Durant, drawing contact across his body before losing the ball out of bounds without a whistle. With less than 30 seconds remaining, he drove right on Durant, who bumped his body and then appeared to come across his left shoulder to dislodge the ball without provoking a call. That pair of empty possessions helped Golden State close on a 7-0 run to seal a 99-92 win over Cleveland at Oracle Arena on Christmas.
“He got me a little bit [on the first one]. I lost that one,” James said. “He fouled me twice [on the second one]. But whatever. What are you going to do about it?”
Durant, for his part, suggested that armchair referees stick to social media. “Felt clean,” he told reporters afterwards. “If they didn’t call it, it’s not a foul. … Keep that [complaining] on Twitter.”
For the Cavaliers, there is far more to mull than the no-calls, as they look ahead to a potential fourth straight Finals showdown with the Warriors.
After all, Golden State, who was without Stephen Curry due to an ankle injury, prevailed despite starting Jordan Bell, a rookie center, and Patrick McCaw, a second-year wing who barely played in the 2017 Finals. The Warriors never truly found their rhythm, hitting just 10 threes in a contest that was choppy from the start. Yet they found easy pickings in the open court (33 fast-break points) and played much more soundly in the game’s closing minutes.
Before James turned to the referees with pleading eyes, he stared and pointed at his teammates during a series of fourth-quarter defensive breakdowns. Shaun Livingston leaked out for a dunk after Dwyane Wade missed an ill-advised three. Durant blocked a shot and took off in transition, racing end-to-end for an uncontested dunk when no one stopped the ball. James lost track of Draymond Green in the half-court, setting up an easy lob to the hoop. A wide-open Klay Thompson cashed in a second-chance three when the Cavaliers forgot about him.
Seeing so many unforgivable mistakes in quick succession was a reminder that Cleveland’s defense currently ranks among the NBA’s five worst. And seeing so many different links in the chain break begged an obvious question: What happens once the scheme-busting Curry reenters the fray?
“They kicked our butts in transition,” James admitted. “That was basically the tell-tale sign of the game.”
In fairness to the Cavaliers, they really could have used Isaiah Thomas, their own injured point guard. James labored through an off night, scoring 20 points on 7-18 shooting and committing seven turnovers. Thomas’s shot-creating and offensive creativity would have come in handy during an extended second-quarter lull and again during the game’s closing minutes. Kevin Love was sensational in five-out lineups, scoring 31 points and grabbing 18 rebounds, but Cleveland suffered through empty offensive minutes from half of its rotation, including starting guards J.R. Smith and Jose Calderon. A B+ from James and an A+ from Love simply wasn’t enough.
If the Cavaliers entered the holiday hoping that one of their many new faces would prove to be helpful come June, they left with more questions than answers. The 36-year-old Calderon will be targeted constantly if he sees minutes in a hypothetical Finals match-up. Although Wade had multiple savvy steals and energy plays, his lack of shooting closes the court for James and his flashes of inattentive defense will be put under the microscope. In a very bad sign, the perpetually inconsistent Jeff Green was nearly invisible. And despite playing well, Jae Crowder looked wholly overmatched against Durant, who tallied 25 points on 19 shots even though Curry wasn’t around to generate a constant stream of open looks.
While this loss was hardly a crisis for the Cavaliers, their off-season movement hasn’t really closed the gap. They still don’t have a great defensive match-up for Durant. They still have trouble getting productive minutes out of Tristan Thompson and Kyle Korver against Golden State. They are still stuck riding the hit-or-miss wave with Smith. They still have major depth concerns in a series format. And they are still left hoping that James and an electric offense can paper over that laundry list of issues.
Even a tremendous night from Love, one of the league’s most unheralded stars this season, came with an obvious caveat: Curry’s absence. Without their lead ball-handler, the Warriors have turned to the likes of Durant, Green and Andre Iguodala for more initiation. While those players present their own challenges for defenders, Curry is a much trickier cover for a big man like Love to defend in space. With both teams at full health, it’s safe to say that Love’s life will be made more difficult, not less.
Rewind 365 days, and it was Durant on the wrong side of a disputed no-call, bodied by Richard Jefferson late during a road loss to Cleveland. That Christmas defeat, which came as Durant was still integrating into Golden State’s framework, hardly foreshadowed Finals doom. By June, Durant was playing the best basketball of his life on his way to his first title and first Finals MVP.
James, with a transitioning roster that is at talent and chemistry disadvantages, will have a tougher time mimicking that Christmas-to-June turnaround should these two teams meet again in June. He needs Thomas back and fully healthy, he needs peak Love, and he needs significantly better focus and more productive minutes from a supporting cast that might need to be bolstered by midseason moves.
Without more help and improved discipline around him, James surely knows that a better whistle won’t be able to save him.