Bounding up the floor after his fourth made three-pointer of the first quarter, Stephen Curry unleashed a primal scream. It contained no discernible words, but it conveyed a message: The Golden State Warriors, having faced adversity for the first time all season, would not fold.
The Warriors, losers in two of their last three outings, obliterated the Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday by a final score of 132-98, building a 13-point first-period lead into a 26-point advantage at halftime. The margin ballooned into the 40s as the exhibition (for it was no longer anything resembling a contest) stretched into the final stanza.
It was a statement win—one that reaffirmed Golden State's dominance and proved the roughest patch of the season was merely a wakeup call.
It was also a new low for a team led by LeBron James, according to NBA on ESPN:
NBA on ESPN @ESPNNBA
Rough night for LeBron •Worst plus/minus of career (-35) •Worst home loss of career (34) •Largest deficit ever (43) https://t.co/sIiy79xWqn2016-1-19 03:41:39
Stephen Curry led all scorers with 35 points on 12-of-18 shooting, while Draymond Green contributed 16 points, 10 assists, seven rebounds and incalculable joules of energy. James scored just 16 points, and neither Kevin Love (three points) nor Kyrie Irving (eight points) did anything to suggest their presences in last year's Finals would have made a difference—even if Irving once contended otherwise.
Sequences like this helped highlight why, per BBall Breakdown:
Golden State secured a 2-0 season sweep of the Cavs in a terrifying display of basketball ruthlessness, effectively ending the game at halftime by finding the focused, consistently intense style that had eluded it for most of the past six weeks.
Shaun Livingston's comments to Ethan Sherwood Strauss of ESPN.com suggested the Warriors remembered who they were:
Ethan Strauss @SherwoodStrauss
Shaun Livingston: "That was a championship level response"2016-1-19 04:04:44
And based on what James told Dave McMenamin of ESPN.com, the Cavs are not yet who they'd like to be:
Dave McMenamin @mcten
LeBron James: "Tonight was an example of how far we have to go to be a championship team"2016-1-19 04:11:16
The pick-and-roll decisions were crisp, and Curry's ultra-confident gunning (often from spots nearer the center-court logo than the three-point line) forced Cleveland's defense into grotesque and desperate contortions, per Seth Partnow of Nylon Calculus:
Anchorage Man @SethPartnow
I don't think I've ever seen a team send a THIRD defender to trap a pick-and-roll, but Cleveland did it on the last possession.2016-1-19 01:28:23
Defensively, the Warriors suddenly resembled the on-a-string unit that led the league last year. Every switch was communicated, every help rotation followed by another, and another, until it was time to pounce.
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Even the decisions made by head coach Luke Walton were sharper, as he staggered his rotations to ensure starters stayed on the floor with backups at all times. There would be no points surrendered by five-man bench mobs.
The Warriors stormed into Cleveland with a purpose, ransacked the town and salted the earth on their way out. Whatever hopes the Cavs might have once nurtured about matching up well with the Dubs will never grow now.
And the rest of the league is probably re-evaluating its position on a Warriors team that actually seemed vulnerable last week. The San Antonio Spurs had objectively outplayed them since the beginning of December, and both Cleveland and the Oklahoma City Thunder appeared to have caught up.
The Warriors had something to prove, if only to themselves. And that created real stakes—something no Golden State game has featured for months.
Losses to the Milwaukee Bucks, Dallas Mavericks and Denver Nuggets all came with built-in excuses: long road trips concluding, Curry injured and Green sitting, respectively. That Jan. 16 blowout defeat against the Pistons featured no such rationalizations. The Warriors, coasting and playing far below their potential for weeks, finally just coughed one up against a team that outperformed them.
Hammering the fully healthy Cavs into dust renewed the Dubs' superpower credentials—especially after those same Cavaliers played the Spurs close in San Antonio on Jan. 14.
They don't give out wins for beating the Spurs via the transitive property, though. To truly re-establish themselves as the class of the league, the Warriors will have to take care of that more directly.
They'll get their shot in a week, when they clash with San Antonio on the road in the most highly anticipated game of the season.
Judging by the destruction they wrought in Cleveland, the Warriors will be ready.
The Hornets Can Lean on Kemba
It sure was starting to seem like the Charlotte Hornets were finished as both a playoff threat and a feel-good story this season. After starting January with six straight losses, they crushed the Atlanta Hawks on Jan. 13, but then promptly gave away their next two contests to the lottery-bound New Orleans Pelicans and Milwaukee Bucks.
Kemba Walker made sure Charlotte's latest slide wouldn't reach three.
He scored 52 points on a 16-of-34 shooting line robust enough to make your right shoulder tired just by reading it. His efforts helped the Hornets escape on the right side of a 124-119 double-overtime tilt with the Utah Jazz.
Walker, on the year, continues to fend off the regression his career numbers (40 percent from the field and 32.4 percent from long range) loudly suggest is coming. Through his first 41 games this season, Walker has those accuracy rates up to 43.3 and 37.6 percent, respectively.
Charlotte will need more than sustained scoring from Walker to re-enter the postseason picture in any serious way. The defense has slipped significantly after a solid first month, and the challenge of eventually re-integrating Al Jefferson into the offense (he's still recovering from a torn meniscus) looms.
But it sure helps that Walker seems capable of winning a game or two on his own.
Sometimes, You Still Need A Little Hero Ball
We'll give Nerlens Noel a pass for not selling out to run Carmelo Anthony off of the three-point line. It's not like the Philadelphia 76ers have played many tight games in Noel's tenure, so maybe he just didn't understand the devastatingly simple concept of "don't let a team shoot a three when you're up three in the waning seconds."
Anthony, back after a two-game absence because of a sore right ankle and looking pretty rigid in his 7-of-28 performance, pulled up and buried the game-tying triple in Noel's face with 3.4 ticks left in regulation. After two shaky extra frames in which the Knicks realized Langston Galloway (and not Jose Calderon) should be guarding Ish Smith, New York prevailed, 119-113.
"He saved us in that moment," Kristaps Porzingis told reporters of Anthony's game-tying trey.
The win helped the Knicks move back to within a game of .500 at 21-22. For Philly, defeat meant the modest goal of winning two straight will have to wait.
Anthony has rightfully earned praise for moving the ball and committing to defense more consistently this season, and his team-oriented approach is a big reason New York is both competitive and watchable halfway through the year.
As the second half of the season rolls on, the Knicks will be better served if Melo's hero-ball instincts stay mostly suppressed.
Once in a while, though, it's nice to have a historically confident big-shot taker around for some old-fashioned heroism.
And speaking of old-fashioned, six players logged at least 40 minutes in this double-OT contest, led by Anthony's 49. Don't expect to see that again.
Portland Can Smell It
You're going to see nonstop usage of the phrase "bounce back" to describe the Portland Trail Blazers' 108-98 win against the Washington Wizards on Monday. That's to be expected. Winning the immediate follow-up to a loss against the Sixers (even if losing to Philadelphia carries far less shame these days than it used to), falls neatly into that category.
But the better two-word descriptor is "sniffing distance."
That's because the Blazers' win, fueled by a 23-1 run in the third quarter and a game-high 25 points from C.J. McCollum, has them smelling something they never could have imagined before the season started: the playoffs.
Jason Quick of CSNNW.com relayed the stunning postgame development:
Jason Quick @jwquick
With Utah's double-overtime loss in Charlotte, the Blazers move to within half game of 8th and final playoff spot in the West.2016-1-18 22:21:02
With four out of five starters gone in free agency and the gaps around Damian Lillard filled in with inexperienced replacements, the Trail Blazers were supposed to use this season as a hope-for-the-best transition period. The playoffs weren't in anyone's realistic projections.
Instead, thanks to surprisingly mediocre conference competition and better-than-expected play from the youth on the roster, Portland is right there.
And with a manageable seven-game homestand starting Wednesday, it'll actually be surprising if the Blazers aren't in sole possession of that No. 8 spot at some point next week.
The Bulls Will Survive Without Joakim Noah
Everybody gets it: Joakim Noah is a locker-room leader and he inspires his teammates with his competitiveness and positivity. That stuff is undoubtedly important, and Noah's dislocated left shoulder means the Bulls will have to find new sources of inspiration (and a capable backup center) for the rest of the season.
But they also improved to 9-2 in 2015-16 without Noah, adding the latest win to that tally with a 111-101 road victory over the Detroit Pistons.
So let's not get carried away lamenting the loss of intangibles when Noah was only producing 4.3 points per game on 38.3 percent shooting.
Sure, Detroit won the rebounding battle on Monday, snatching a dozen more boards (50-38) than the Bulls. Noah might have made that a closer contest. But Pau Gasol played a terrific 36 minutes, scoring 31 points on 13-of-18 shooting. And Derrick Rose added 20, partially because Noah's absence helped unjam Chicago's spacing.
Defenses have ignored Noah all year, and taking him off the floor forces opponents to treat the Bulls offense more honestly. It's not a coincidence that Chicago has scored 3.1 more points per 100 possessions with Noah sitting this season, per NBA.com.
It feels unseemly to suggest the Bulls might be better without Noah. He's the kind of teammate everyone loves, and it's clear his diminished play this year was a result of injuries he accumulated over an eight-year span in which he gave his team everything.
ESPNChicago.com's Nick Friedell echoed the common pro-Noah sentiments in his pregame column: "Yes, the Bulls went on a six-game winning streak without him recently, but without his leadership it's hard to imagine any scenario in which the Bulls rebound from this loss and improve."
Noah deserves to be revered by fans and teammates. But it's also entirely possible his absence will make the Bulls better.
Revenge Comes in Threes
Wait, that’s not how that goes. I think we’re missing something on cold dishes or good things or celebrity deaths.
The point is, Jae Crowder calmly canned three free throws in the final seconds of regulation to send his Boston Celtics into overtime against the Dallas Mavericks, a team with whom Crowder is familiar, per B/R’s Brian Robb:
Brian Robb @CelticsHub
For Jae Crowder to hit those 3 free throws on the home floor of the team that traded him away...that must feel pretty good.2016-1-19 04:04:58
Deron Williams scored 10 points in the extra frame, and Dirk Nowitzki’s game-high 31 meant Crowder’s freebies (the result of a bizarre sequence in which Raymond Felton was whistled for a shooting foul but came away bloodied when Crowder’s follow-through caught him in the eye) only suspended Boston’s defeat for another five minutes.
The Mavs won, 118-113.
Plagued by late-game offensive droughts all year, the Celtics let the Mavericks make up a six-point deficit in the fourth quarter. In this instance, though, it was Boston’s defense that slipped, as Dallas scored 28 points in the final period.
The result ended the Celtics’ modest three-game winning streak, and if they hope to post longer successful runs in the future, they’ll have to find ways to close out contests more reliably.
Long Shots Beat Big Men
The Los Angeles Clippers used a franchise-record 22 made threes (in 37 attempts) and a career-high 40 points from J.J. Redick to beat the Houston Rockets by a final of 140-132, withstanding the best individual effort of Dwight Howard's season.
Houston's center logged season highs with 36 points and 26 rebounds, making up for a pedestrian 20-point night by James Harden.
The Clips coughed up a huge fourth-quarter lead by giving up 42 points to the Rockets in the frame, but they got three of their treys in the overtime period to secure the win.
It's hard to choose just one overarching lesson to take from this game, and it's tempting to just say the Clippers have a troubling knack for giving away leads in an anxiety inducing fashion. But maybe it's better to go with the notion that the long ball now defines the NBA.
Think about it: Howard was a monster, and it didn't matter. The Clippers built their massive lead with threes, and then the Rockets erased it with the same approach. And, of course, L.A. eventually prevailed via the perimeter in OT.
It's a marksman's league.
Presented Without Comment
Holy crap this is so great. https://t.co/5m89yXaNhz2016-1-19 03:31:54
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