This is the marquee game on Christmas day.
Forget just Christmas, this is the NBA’s marquee matchup and rivalry period — the two best teams in the NBA three years running. While Houston and Boston want to try to crash the party this year, there’s at least a 50/50 chance Golden State and Cleveland will be back in the NBA Finals for a fourth straight season.
There’s a little firepower missing in this meeting: Stephen Curry is out for the Warriors (sprained ankle) and Isaiah Thomas (hip) will suit up for Cleveland for the first time in the coming days, but not on Christmas. And both of these teams have coasted to good but not great records to start the season, knowing their real season begins in mid-April. Still, these teams are loaded with All-Stars and recognizable names, and more importantly they know each other very well — unlike almost all NBA regular season games, these two teams are very familiar with the deep scouting report on the other. Coaches can go deeper into their bag of tricks with certain plays or try to force specific matchups more than they would in most NBA regular season matchups.
Here are three things to keep an eye out for when the Warriors and Cavaliers tip-off.
1) LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant. These are the two best basketball players walking the face of the earth right now, and the debate of who is better flared up in the Finals last season when Durant hit a dagger three over LeBron in Game 3, a shot that put the Warriors up 3-0 and all but sealed the series.
Durant went on to be the Finals MVP, but he wouldn’t even have been in Golden State if LeBron hadn’t been the Finals MVP the season before sparking Cleveland to come from 3-1 down to win the series. That loss opened the door to KD in Golden State. These two men’s careers have been intertwined because of it.
They will be intertwined — and at times matched up — on Christmas.
LeBron is having an MVP-level season, averaging 28.4 points, 9.2 assists, and 8.2 rebounds per game, is shooting 41.1 percent from three and has a ridiculous true shooting percentage of 65.7. He also put it upon himself to lift up the Cavaliers defense up after a sloppy start to the season on that end, and that sparked a 14-game win streak.
Durant says he is on the level of LeBron. If anyone is, it’s him. KD is averaging 26.3 points per game, 7.2 rebounds, and 5.2 assists per night, and with Curry out he has taken over the Warriors offense, becoming the focal point of its scoring (much of it during an 11-game win streak that ended Saturday). Durant is also having his best defensive season ever, an All-Defensive Team level season.
This game is going to be decided more by which superstar gets more help than their head-to-head matchup, but when you get to see two future Hall of Famers at the top of their craft going at each other, it is must-watch television.
2) The Warriors’ secret weapon: Andre Iguodala. It wasn’t Curry, and Durant wasn’t around yet, but when the Warriors won the first title of this run in was Iguodala who was the 2015 Finals MVP. He has been the Golden State’s secret weapon in these matchups. As Kevin Pelton of ESPN noted, since the start of 2014-15 (the first season these teams met in the Finals) the Warriors are +208 when Iguodala is on the court against the Cavaliers, and -54 when he is not.
With Stephen Curry out, coach Steve Kerr is leaning more heavily on Iguodala in recent games. Kerr regularly talks about how much he trusts Iguodala and can lean on his steadying veteran influence as the second unit as a playmaker and leader. More than just that, he’s a strong defender who back in 2015 was the guy Kerr turned to when he needed someone to make LeBron really work for his points.
Iguodala has not quite been himself this season, he looks a step slower to the eye and his numbers are down (his PER is just 10.4, his true shooting percentage is below the league average and stands at 51). Is that just part of not taking the regular season seriously enough, or is Father Time starting to win the race he eventually wins with all of us? We will see on Christmas because Kerr will lean heavily upon Iguodala in this one.
3) Warriors small ball looks different, but will the Cavaliers have an answer? Golden State’s most notorious small ball lineup — “Hamptons five” with Curry, Klay Thompson, Iguodala, Durant, and Draymond Green — has only played 58 minutes total this season and been unimpressive when it has been out there (-8.6 per 100 possessions). Injuries have limited how much Steve Kerr can go to it what has been his best lineup in the past, but even when all five are healthy he seems to keep it in his back pocket this season. Without Curry playing, we will not see this lineup on Christmas.
However, the Warriors still have a couple dangerous small ball lineups. The lineup of Shaun Livingston, Thompson, Iguodala, Durant, and David West is outscoring opponents by 10.8 points per 100 possessions, and West has been the Warriors best small-ball center all season. Another small-ball lineup using bench players — Patrick McCaw, Thompson, Durant, Green, and rookie Jordan Bell — is outscoring teams by 16.4 points per 100 possessions.
Cleveland’s Tyron Lue can counter because he starts the game smaller now, with Jose Calderon, J.R. Smith, Jae Crowder, LeBron, and Kevin Love — and that lineup has outscored opponents by 7.7 points per 100 possessions.
Kerr will go to his small ball lineups against the Cavaliers, possibly early, and then tell his team to get out and run — Cleveland has been one of the worst transition defenses in the NBA this season. Only two teams (and not good ones, the Clippers and Kings) allow opponents to get a higher percentage of their offense in transition, and teams are scoring 125.6 points per 100 transition opportunities against the Cavaliers (26th in the league).
If the Warriors are racking up easy buckets in transition on Christmas, this game will be over early. Cleveland has to be efficient on offense and get back on defense to have a shot for the upset on the road.