Rarely does Santa deliver the same gift to a Christmas stocking three years in a row. But he has.
For the third year in a row, the Golden State Warriors will play the Cleveland Cavaliers on Christmas Day, a festive trilogy that is as hotly anticipated as any classic film series, as confusing as it is wrapped in storylines, as overly-hyped as it is unmissable.
Both teams have gone through more changes than we expected since Stephen Curry puffed on a cigar inside Oracle Arena just half a year ago, and perhaps we have spent more time focusing on other teams for the sake of fresh stories. Our perspectives on both teams look different this year because of injuries, aging bench units and surprising names playing their part, with of course the exception of the rather predictable plot; LeBron James doing Jamesy things.
Soon, it will be time to demolish as much turkey as possible and excuse yourself from the dinner table to watch not Home Alone, but a game of NBA basketball (or four if you can eat enough sprouts to banish all family members for an extended period). Oh, to be in Austria, Germany or Finland, where December 24th is the day of celebration. That would make for a more seamless NBA viewing experience.
Nevertheless, this year’s dinner accompaniment will again be Dubs-Cavs Festive III. And we haven’t seen this version of this matchup before.
The Cavaliers have learned a lot about themselves. Cleveland have been re-shaping their roster considerably, and it still doesn’t feel like this is the team we’ll be seeing after Easter.
We already know the return of Isaiah Thomas will happen beyond the Christmas period, his debut likely coming in the first week of 2018 when - guess what? - his new team travels to his former team, the Boston Celtics, on 3rd January. Aside from Thomas, new additions likely will come to further consolidate this team via the trade market. But for now, Cleveland has found an identity and one that has led to a lot more positives vibes and good play.
Let’s start with the bench.
Dwyane Wade is running the second unit with precision. He seems to be enjoying his role as the primary ball handler, running regular pick-and-rolls with the effervescent Channing Frye, who has even taken to dribbling from above the three-point line to the basket on a handful of such plays. It’s frisky stuff, and with Kyle Korver and his beautiful form being dangled off screens and Jeff Green acting as the devious defender and cutter with no starting responsibility, for the first time ever we saw a LeBron James team performing slightly better with him off the floor than on.
Considering it is a bench led by three guys who combine for 105 years in age (sorry chaps), that’s even more staggering.
By embracing the grey, the team has shaken their OAP reputation. As the oldest roster in the league, they are literally old by NBA standards and will still struggle to keep up with Golden State’s ‘get stops and run’ strategy, but they are playing wise rather than slow. The team regularly attempts more than 30 shots a game from deep and has constructed a formula of 'make more than 10 and win', an effective tactic against the Warriors who thrive on breakaways after misses.
From the bench, Cleveland has specialists checking into games, and it has simplified the team's balance. Whereas Wade’s presence in Freshers Week unintentionally confused matters for J.R. Smith, Jae Crowder and even head coach Tyronn Lue, the Cavs now know why they stashed him in their halls of residence. Frye’s involvement on the ball as opposed to living as a corner dweller has not just expanded his scoring game but also engaged him defensively, his fervent swipes at balls even as he tumbles backward on a penetrating opponent being a crafty tactic.
Elsewhere, current starter Jose Calderon looks as engaged as a child halfway through opening their pile of big presents, and as Derrick Rose’s absence continues, Calderon runs the show - OK, so James really runs the show - admirably. Back in November, Calderon looked very wary of doing anything other than getting the ball to LeBron as quickly as possible and staying out of the way. However, as he sees the team have more fun and the wins pile up, Calderon has begun to drive the ball, is shooting more threes off action and has broken the law a couple of times by actually looking at and then disregarding James. That’s daring stuff.
Remember, Cleveland’s starters outscored the Warriors’ 482-463 in last year’s NBA Finals. They were burned 145-92 from the bench. That makes sustaining the above crucial, as well as relocating the meandering Tristan Thompson.
December isn’t a time to preview how things might look in June, not least because coaches are uncomfortable showing and telling how they plan to scheme against potential Finals opposition until it counts. The far bigger problem from a viewing standpoint currently is injuries, which might prevent us from the delights of Draymond Green (right shoulder soreness) guarding James and barking at Kevin Love, and which will prevent the slippery Curry (ankle) running and gunning against a veteran like Wade.
Perhaps unsurprising from a team making their fourth straight run at a Finals appearance, the Warriors in particular are beaten up right now.
There’s little new to say when it comes to the champions, but when there is, it inevitably receives scrutiny. More often than not, any new angle is negative.
Last year, people found ways to dislike Curry, the latest player to feel the wrath of fame’s typical cycle. Kevin Durant gave us the shooting-in-a-hoodie-in-New-Orleans video and we now know he has a fake Twitter account to respond to critics, giving people more reason to believe he is overly sensitive. Even gamblers are turning against the Dubs as it’s impossible to bet on them. Bookmakers struggle to set the line, and as otherworldly talent gets complacent, maximum effort returns when you least expect it.
Injuries, it seems, are the new current negative Warriors storyline. Steve Kerr learned a lot from the 73-9 season, particularly in terms of the physical toll it took on his team. He usually has a few players listed as 'probable' or 'doubtful' to avoid getting fined through the new 'rest' rules. If he wants to sit guys, he will find a way. But the team has experienced significant injuries anyway.
While the Cavs have explored different lineups – and boy did they have enough opportunities at the beginning of the year - the Warriors have had less chance to field the Death Lineup and test quirky ones because of all their injuries.
We’ve seen once more in Curry’s recent absence that Durant is able to carry a franchise and put up huge numbers, but we must acknowledge more deeply that this is Curry’s team, and that the Warriors move, run and expose the opposition best with him at the head of it all. Without Curry, Golden State have set up more isolation action with Durant as the go-to weapon, which is fine with four shooters spread, but Klay Thompson has been forced to create his own shot in other ways than just running off screens, something that is less viable without Curry.
The two have had to share an overlarge portion of the scoring load. In their win against Dallas a few days ago, it was five minutes into the game before a player not named Durant or Thompson scored a point. Shaun Livingston did the honours, and he is now missing time because of soreness in his surgically repaired left knee.
Elsewhere, Nick Young had to go through the league's concussion protocol, as did Patrick McCaw, who hasn’t received the minutes he may have expected. Zaza Pachulia has also been out and Green’s injury seems like a red flag considering there has been no diagnosis. Curry will be re-evaluated this week and it’s unclear if he will ruin Christmas for Warriors fans. But his return before the New Year is unnecessary as the Warriors prepare for another deep run.
The NBA just had its shortest ever offseason because of the reduced preseason schedule, and the Warriors played into mid-June before heading to China in early October. Complacency and mental fatigue have crept in, too.
But maybe a rejuvenation of their rivalry with the Cavaliers may restore the fire.
James is having a historic season and has now led his teams in points, rebounds and assists 110 times all time. In his 2012-13 campaign with the Heat, he registered his highest percentages from the field, yet he is on pace to beat that this year, having becoming a good three-point shooter. Defenders disrespected his deep ball a couple of years ago, a first-round series against Detroit a memory of opponents going under picks, but that’s done at their peril now.
Pick-and-roll defence and attacking mismatches have been as important in these Finals matchups as old-school songs on a festive playlist, and if James can shoot from deep, it will pose an issue for Durant, who defended admirably in his first postseason with Golden State.
The two superstars will play up to their rivalry again on the 25th. With Curry forced to sit, Durant will have even more to prove in his own mind. Everything comes back to the Warriors, and to James’s ability to not let age precipitate decline.
James has invented an offensive play that doesn’t involve a dribble, launching passes from defensive rebounds to a runner leaking out to the opposite basket. He’s a master at two-handed assists, and it has encouraged Jae Crowder to find his feet in the offence by cutting more.
The Warriors haven’t defended such an active Cavaliers team before, mostly because James and Kyrie Irving dominated the scoring load as the offence often stagnated. This time around, even with Iman Shumpert struggling for health, Thompson demoted and Derrick Rose sidelined, we get to see a deeper Cavaliers team.
In the Warriors' camp, it also feels different. Quinn Cook has been up and down from the G-League and will likely play out the full 45 days of NBA eligibility on his two-way contract, a much-needed point option currently due to the injuries. Rookie Jordan Bell has been used as a defensive presence, and athletic hustler and Omri Casspi is seeing more time in recent weeks.
Cook, Casspi, Bell, Young, Thomas, Rose, Crowder, Calderon, Green, Wade and Ante Zizic have never played in this seasonal matchup before. As the third annual Christmas party, a long list of new employees gives it a twist.
So, are we staring at a fourth straight Warriors-Cavs NBA Finals? Could the Christmas game be a preview of the end of the season?
Perhaps. After all, these two teams have of late become the gold standard. And that, of course, is what we want for Christmas.
Therefore, we ask once again: O Come All Ye Faithful, 8pm UK time on Christmas night.
Grab your turkey leftovers, ponder over the remaining side dishes and sit yourself in front of the set. We will shortly we resuming our regularly scheduled programming.