NBA fans were treated to a classic between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers on Christmas Day. The game, which had the energy and feel of an NBA Finals game, was won by the Cavaliers 109-108.
The winning shot came courtesy of Kyrie Irving, who hit a turnaround jumper over Klay Thompson with 3.4 seconds remaining.
The game solidified what we already knew, the Warriors and Cavs are the two best teams in the NBA. While we wait for the inevitable Finals rematch in June, here are five takeaways from Sunday’s showdown.
1. Richard Jefferson was big off the bench for Cleveland, but the Warriors have the advantage in terms of depth.
The 36-year-old Jefferson turned back the clock with two huge dunks Sunday, reminding people of his earlier days with the New Jersey Nets. Jefferson was big off the bench in 29 minutes, accounting for a +6 plus-minus rating. For comparison, the other two Cavs used off the bench, Channing Frye and Iman Shumpert, combined for a -5 plus-minus rating.
I’m not going to overreact to Frye and Shumpert combining for a -5 rating. Frye is a veteran who was brought in by the Cavs to make his biggest contributions in May and June, not in December. For what Shumpert lacks in scoring ability, he more than makes up for on the defensive end of the floor.
What troubles me about Cleveland’s depth is the fact that Tyronn Lue feels he only has three players he can use off the bench in a big game. Steve Kerr used seven players off the bench for Golden State.
The Warriors were the deeper team in June’s Finals and the Cavaliers were only able to overcome their lack of depth when Warriors’ forward Draymond Green was suspended for Game 5. The Warriors are deeper this season, with the addition of Kevin Durant, than they were last season. Golden State’s depth advantage allows Kerr to rest his stars at different points throughout the second half without giving up any scoring ability on the floor. Lue, meanwhile, is forced to play LeBron James and Irving most of the game with little rest. James and Irving played 40 and 44 minutes, respectively Sunday.
In a seven game series at the end of a long season the advantage goes to the team with more depth.
2. Draymond Green’s emotions are still out of control
Green was unhappy with a foul called on him with 9:25 remaining in the first quarter. Green appeared to yell something at the baseline official who made the call, before walking to the Warriors’ bench, at one point turning around to yell back at the official again. Green continued to yell at the referee after he got to the Golden State bench. He was given a technical foul for his reaction and could have gotten a second, which would have gotten him ejected from the game.
Sunday wasn’t the first time Green’s emotions got him into trouble. He was famously suspended for Game 5 of the 2016 NBA Finals after receiving a flagrant foul 1 in Game 4.
Off the court, Green was arrested in July for allegedly assaulting a Michigan State football player in East Lansing, Michigan.
Green has been assessed seven technical fouls in 32 games this season, and 39 technicals for his career. He needs to understand that because of his history, his interactions with officials will be watched with more scrutiny than other players.
Green could have been given a second technical for his actions in Sunday’s game, which would’ve taken him out of the game less than three minutes into it.
3. Stephen Curry continues to struggle against Cleveland
Curry, who is averaging 24.1 points per game and 39.9 percent shooting from 3-point range this season, scored 15 points on 2-7 (28.6 percent) from 3-point land in Sunday’s loss to Cleveland.
The two-time reigning MVP’s below average performance Sunday continues a trend from last yer’s Finals in which Curry struggles against the Cavs.
In June’s Finals, Curry averaged 22.6 points per game and 40 percent shooting from 3-point range, after averaging 30.1 points per game and 45 percent 3-point shooting during the regular season.
In addition to his diminished performance on offense, Curry struggled when he’s forced to defend Irving.
4. Kyrie Irving is the NBA’s third-best point guard
Chris Paul is number one with a slight edge over Russell Westbrook (I’m willing to look beyond pure stats), and Irving is number three.
Against the best competition, the Warriors, Irving shines. In the Finals he averaged 27.1 points per game and 46.8 percent shooting from the field. Sunday, he scored 25 points and added 10 assists, seven steals and six rebounds.
Say it with me this time, Kyrie Irving is the NBA’s third-best point guard.
5. LeBron James still faces ridiculous criticism
Has there ever been another athlete in any sport who’s been forced to deal with the same level of criticism as James?
Sunday, James scored 31 points and grabbed 13 rebounds while shooting 54 percent from the field and people after the game are complaining that it was Irving, not LeBron, that took the last shot.
Why can’t we just enjoy James’ brilliance without inventing ridiculous criticisms?