Warriors tease in first half, then torture Cavs

Warriors tease in first half, then torture Cavs

After all the battles over the past three years, the exchanging of championships and champagne celebrations, the Warriors truly respect the Cavaliers and give honest props to LeBron James for being a great player.

But the Warriors have moved beyond the days of considering the Cavs a legitimate threat to rob them of their goals. That much was evident in the first half of their 118-108 victory Monday night in Cleveland.

“I was a little upset at halftime just because we weren’t guarding anybody,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr told reporters at Quicken Loans Arena. “We didn’t play with much intensity.”

The Warriors spent the first quarter lounging about at scrimmage speed. They could’ve wearing robes and smoking pipes. Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry combined for six shots. There wasn’t much sweat at all, yet the offense was effective: 35 points, 56.5-percent shooting and 11 assists on their 13 buckets.

The offense slowed to a crawl in the second quarter, as the Warriors managed only eight field goals while shooting 36.4 percent.

And Warriors defense was a rumor throughout the half, during which Cleveland shot 56.5 percent.

“We kind of let them do whatever they wanted in that first half,” Klay Thompson said.

That’s not the way Cavs big man Kevin Love saw it.

“We played well in the first half,” he summarized.

Fools gold. Cleveland went into the locker room with a seven-point lead, 64-57, in part because a Kevin Durant live-ball turnover in the final seconds resulted in at least a four-point swing.

Once the Warriors actually arrived in the second half, the blowout was on. They poured in 56 points in a little more than 20 minutes, during which time Cleveland managed only 35 points.

“We just started focusing more,” Durant said.

“In the first half, we were just out there,” Draymond Green conceded. “We played with more force in the second half.”

Put another way, the Warriors spent 24 minutes toying around, skipping and shrugging and whistling, before operating on the team they have faced in the last three NBA Finals.

The team widely considered No. 2 in the NBA despite its current 26-17 record.

When the Warriors pulled away for good early in the fourth quarter, Durant and Curry were sitting on the bench, peeking out from beneath hoods. They’d crushed it in the third quarter, combining for 27 points to equal Cleveland’s total for the quarter. Now they were watching Green and Thompson and the Vet Platoon -- Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston and David West -- bury the Cavs under a ton of defense.

“Seemed like the rim got smaller and smaller,” James said.

“That group that was out there, they have hung their hats on being a defensive unit and getting stops and that’s what they did the first four minutes,” Curry said. “I don’t think they gave Cleveland any daylight.”

Leading by two entering the fourth quarter, the Warriors needed about six minutes to push it to 10. They were up eight, 105-97, when Curry and Durant returned with 5:29 remaining to deliver the goodnight kiss.

The Warriors well into that stage that most great teams experience. They know that if they do what they’re capable of doing, the competition is irrelevant.

They also are aware that if they are too careless or complacent, they can lose to any team. Five of their nine losses are to teams simply hoping to make the playoffs.

The Cavs aren’t hoping. They’ll be there. The question is will they be there in June.

“I don’t think this game was any indication of what’s going to happen with this team down the line,” Durant said of the Cavs. “They’re going to be much better than what they are right now. And we all know that.”

Durant is right. The Cavs will be better in April than they are in January. Isaiah Thomas, who missed the first 11 weeks before taking the court on Jan. 2, will have shaken off the rust long before the playoffs. James will be in championship-or-bust mode. Whether there is a trade or not, Cleveland’s rotations will be set.

But the Warriors know they’re the better team, able to keep up with the Cavs even while snoozing. When the defending champs decide to work at it, they know Cleveland is helpless, even if it’s not something said in public.

Gameday: Intensity, fury rages as Warriors visit Cavaliers in rivalry's next chapter

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Gameday: Intensity, fury rages as Warriors visit Cavaliers in rivalry's next chapter

The Warriors will have their full squad available Monday when they wrap up their season series with the longtime rival Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.

The teams have met in the last three NBA Finals, with the Warriors winning twice.

The Warriors (35-9) are coming off an impressive back-to-back road sweep, winning at Milwaukee on Friday and at Toronto on Saturday. Their regular starting lineup -- Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Zaza Pachulia and Draymond Green -- will be together for only the fourth time in the last six weeks.

The Cavaliers (26-16) have stumbled lately, losing seven of their last nine. Isaiah Thomas, acquired in the trade that sent Kyrie Irving to Boston in August, made his debut on Jan. 3 and will be playing his fourth game as a member of the Cavaliers.

BETTING LINE

Warriors by 5.5

MATCHUP TO WATCH

Kevin Durant vs. LeBron James: The top two forwards, and conceivably the two best players, in the game today. The Warriors are 5-2 against Cleveland since Durant was acquired to offset James. James is No. 3 in scoring (27.1 per game), Durant No. 5 (26.3). Both are efficient scoring machines. James is rebounding better (8.0-7.0), Durant blocking more shots (2.14-1.07). When these two clash, it’s hard to take your eyes off them. Durant asks to defend James and won the battle when the teams met on Christmas Day in Oakland.

INJURY REPORT

Warriors: F Omri Casspi (low back soreness), F Andre Iguodala (hip flexor strain) and G Shaun Livingston (L shin contusion) have been upgraded to available.

Cavaliers: G Derrick Rose (L ankle sprain) and G Iman Shumpert (L knee surgery rehab) are listed as out.

LAST 10

Warriors: 8-2. Cavaliers: 3-7.

GAME OFFICIALS

Scott Foster (crew chief), Marat Kogut, Eric Lewis

SERIES HISTORY

The Warriors won the first of two meetings this season, 99-92, on Christmas Day in Oakland. The teams split two meetings last season. The Warriors have won five of the last seven regular-season meetings and 11 of the last 14. They have won 11 of 18 NBA Finals games played in the last three years.

THREE THINGS TO WATCH

THE POINT MEN: Neither Curry nor Thomas played on Christmas Day, so it’ll be intriguing to see them renew a battle that dates back to Thomas’ days in Sacramento. Curry generated dominated the matchup, though Thomas has since made the leap from good to great offensive player. One thing remains, though: Thomas remains among the league’s worst defenders.

INTENSITY LEVELS: Because of the history, the air crackles with fury when these teams meet. That won’t change anytime soon. But the Cavaliers, having beaten the Warriors only once in the last seven meetings, should be particularly fierce. This game means more to Cleveland than it does to the Warriors. Will the Warriors be able to match the intensity they’ll face inside the Q?

THE ARC: The 3-ball almost certainly will be crucial in this game. The Cavs are third in 3-pointers made (513), while the Warriors are fifth at 505. But the Warriors are more accurate, shooting at 38.9 percent to Cleveland’s 37.2. The Warriors are slightly better at defending the arc and, on the other end, can use ball movement to stress the Cavs’ relatively slow defenders.

Warriors vs Cavs -- an endangered rivalry

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Warriors vs Cavs -- an endangered rivalry

Sexy once upon a time, filled with chunks of drama that metastasized into two years of rage and conflict, the rivalry between the Warriors at the Cavaliers ends its 30th month Monday in need of resuscitation.

The surest way, perhaps the only way, to revive it is if the Cavaliers somehow beat the odds Monday and take down the Warriors in Cleveland.

And even if that happens, can the friction really be as robust as it was at this time last season, when the teams were on a collision course to meet in the NBA Finals for the third consecutive season?

The rivalry at that time had been refreshed. The Warriors won the free agent lottery in July 2016 and brought in Kevin Durant as the antidote to LeBron James. Voila! KD did not so much neutralize LeBron’s presence in The Finals as cook him.

The Warriors won the first three games of the series by an average margin of 12 points. They lost Game 4 by 21 in Cleveland and then returned to Oakland to win Game 5 by nine for the gentleman’s sweep.

When the Warriors won -- without Stephen Curry -- on Christmas Day in Oakland last month it was their sixth victory in the last seven times, including The Finals, against Cleveland.

A Warriors win on Martin Luther King Day would give them five wins in the last six regular-season games against the Cavs. It would give Steve Kerr a 16-8 overall record against Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue and his predecessor, David Blatt.

Granted, the Durant acquisition surely pushed this once-great rivalry toward its current fragile state. Though he lacks LeBron’s deep postseason resume and has not been his equal at tilting the balance of power in the NBA, Durant is that one forward who holds his own, if not better, when they share the court.

Given that the two superstars are at different stages of their careers, the future is brighter for Durant, at 29, than for James at 33.

Anybody seriously believe the remaining Cavs can take the Warriors?

The Warriors, have created separation that, by logic and reason, will only grow wider. While the average age of their roster is 28.2 years, the Cavaliers are the oldest team in the league, averaging a little more than 30 years of age. Kyle Korver and Jose Calderon are each 36, and Dwyane Wade turns 36 on Wednesday. Channing Frye is 34.

LeBron is “only” 33, but counting his 217 postseason games he has played more NBA minutes than every active player except Nowitzki.

To watch LeBron these days is to see a player pushing himself on offense, admirably so, but coasting on defense. Older teams don’t defend well because they can’t, at least not consistently. Takes too much energy.

While the Warriors, players and coaches, groan about their defensive lapses, they’re still very much an elite defensive team. The Cavs? They’re 29th in defensive rating, 28th in blocks and adjusted field-goal percentage defense, 24th in deflections and loose balls recovered and field-goal percentage defense. These numbers are, for the most part, appreciably worse than they were last season.

And Cleveland’s D is not going to improve as Isaiah Thomas -- a sieve on defense -- gets more minutes. Should Monday’s game remain close in the fourth quarter, how on earth will the Cavs respond when Stephen Curry and Durant play pick-and-roll?

It’s common to dismiss Cleveland’s 26-16 record and the causes for it by saying the Cavs don’t worry about the regular season because when the whether warms, so will they. That’s what happened last season.

Until they ran into the Warriors.

With the Cavs alternately breezing and wheezing through this season -- they were 30-12 after 42 games last season -- there is no reason to believe a fourth consecutive matchup in The Finals would be any closer than it was last time.

If the Warriors sweep the season series, as they are favored to do, a reunion in June would be almost unfair to the good folks of northeastern Ohio.