What's at Stake in Cavaliers' First True Test Against Warriors?

Greg Swartz@@CavsGregBRCleveland Cavaliers Lead WriterDecember 24, 2015

Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) walks in front of Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) during the first half of Game 5 of basketball's NBA Finals in Oakland, Calif., Sunday, June 14, 2015. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
Associated Press

Five months, one week and two days since the Golden State Warriors brought an end to their championship hopes, the Cleveland Cavaliers will finally have their first shot at revenge.

In what's sure to be an epic Christmas Day showdown, the Cavs travel back to Oracle Arena in Oakland, California, for the first of two regular-season meetings with the Warriors.

Both teams lead their respective conferences: Cleveland at 19-7 and Golden State at an NBA-best 27-1. Star power is everywhere once again, with reigning MVP Stephen Curry leading Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala and others against LeBron James, Kevin Love and the newly returned Kyrie Irving.

While the mostly healthy Warriors have torched the rest of the NBA, the Cavaliers are only now seeing their entire roster after injuries.

What's truly at stake for Cleveland in this colossal early-season clash?

Measuring Stick

The Cavaliers need this matchup with the Warriors to prove just how good they really are and how much more work needs to be done. 

Despite having spent more than a year together, the team still doesn't know how high its ceiling is. Cleveland rolled through the second half of the 2014-15 regular season following the trades for Timofey Mozgov, Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith. A 34-9 record down the stretch helped the Cavs climb to second place in the Eastern Conference.

Although they steamrolled through the playoff's first three rounds, it was largely without Love, their starting power forward. Irving was later lost in Game 1 of the NBA Finals against these Warriors. The Cavs took a pair of contests against the best team in basketball without two of their top three players. Cleveland was pretty darn good with just James and a cast of role players.

How would they have fared with a healthy Big Three?

Mark Duncan/Associated Press

When James, Love and Irving are all active, the Wine and Gold haven't lost at home in over a calendar year (Dec. 17, 2014).

But 26 games into the season, Cleveland has played just two contests with an entire roster. Despite James, Love and everyone else seemingly shuffled around on a nightly basis, head coach David Blatt's group is still on pace to win nearly 60 games.

The Cavs have taken down Eastern powers like the Atlanta Hawks (109-97), Miami Heat (102-92) and Indiana Pacers (101-97) and are off to a 4-1 start against the Western Conference.

Their toughest test of the season to date has been a Dec. 17 clash with the Oklahoma City Thunder, a game where Cleveland overcame two double-digit deficits to win, 104-100. An impressive win, no doubt, but still not the measuring stick a team like the Cavs needs.

Not like Golden State.

By the Numbers

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 16:  Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors handles the ball against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game Six of the 2015 NBA Finals at The Quicken Loans Arena on June 16, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly ackno
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

By all accounts, the Warriors are an elite team on both ends of the court.

No matter what stat, what measurement or tracking system one uses, Golden State is almost always at the top. Cleveland, now with a healthy roster, is slowly climbing its way back up.

Here's how the Cavs and Dubs rank in some key statistical categories:

Warriors vs. Cavs
Stat (NBA Rank)Off. RtngDef. RtngFG%OPP FG%AST%REB%
Warriors113.3 (1st)98.1 (3rd)48.8 (1st)43.1 (5th)68.0 (1st)52.6 (3rd)
Cavs104.9 (4th)98.8 (6th)45.5 (8th)43.5 (9th)61.0 (8th)52.6 (3rd)

Curry continues to be the heart and soul of the Warriors attack, averaging a league-best 31.8 points per game. Golden State is 28.0 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor.

Four-time MVP James has been arguably even better for the Cavs. While his scoring and outside shooting can't match up to Curry's, James actually has made a bigger difference (plus-30.6 per 100 possessions) to his team.

For Cleveland, who trails Golden State in nearly every important playing stat imaginable, this game represents a chance to help close the gap.

With the return of Irving, the Cavaliers offense can climb back into Warriors territory, especially against a group that isn't as dominant defensively as it was last season. On the other end, what better way to test out a Shumpert-led defense than against the NBA's best backcourt?

A Slight Obsession?

On more than one occasion, James has mentioned the Warriors and their record-breaking success publicly this year. He's talked about the need to stay hungry, something Golden State has appeared to do better thus far.

"We lost in the Finals. We didn't win. And the team that beat us looks more hungry than we are, so it shouldn't be that way," James said, per Joe Vardon of the Northeast Ohio Media Group.

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 16:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers goes up against Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors during Game Six of the 2015 NBA Finals at Quicken Loans Arena on June 16, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User exp
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Love admitted Cleveland has very much been paying attention to the boys in blue and gold.

"Well, they're on TV a lot, so I think a lot of us catch their games, and naturally, them being the best team in the league record-wise right now, a lot of people are going to pay attention."

This potential infatuation prompted reporters to ask Blatt about Golden State in the week leading up to the heavyweight fight, even when multiple games were yet to be played. Blatt did his best to downplay the matchup, despite earlier comments from James and Love.

"I can tell you this: There’s a lot of good teams in the NBA. Certainly the Warriors are one of the best, but they’re not all we talk or think about," Blatt said.

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Warriors will enter Christmas Day with a .964 win pct - the best winning pct in NBA history for any team entering Christmas (@EliasSports)

"Every night in this league you’re going to get challenged, and you really can’t afford to spend too much time thinking about the opponent after the opponent or what other teams are doing in the league. You’ve got to think about yourself and what you need to do and what you need to focus on. I don’t notice any particular emphasis on one team or another at this point."

Whether they talk about them or not, there's no doubt James and Company have had this game circled on their calendar since the schedules were released.

What's at Stake

If the Cavs win, it will be an impressive victory, to be sure. The Warriors are a perfect 12-0 at home and are playing at an elite level. Cleveland could come away with some added confidence and a lot more respect, but how much does that actually mean in December?

Consider this: Last year's big Christmas Day matchup had the Cavaliers traveling south to take on the Heat in Miami. The Cavs dropped the game, 101-91 and went into a dark, LeBron-less mode for the next two weeks. At the time, everything seemed bleak, and Miami appeared to be on its way to the postseason.

The Cavaliers, of course, went on to win the Eastern Conference, while Miami ended up with a shiny lottery pick. With nearly four months remaining in the regular season, no game at this time of the year really carries so much importance, no matter how sexy the headlines may be.

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 16: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers handles the basketball against Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors during Game Six of the 2015 NBA Finals at The Quicken Loans Arena on June 16, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

If the Cavs lose to the Warriors, one could point to the fact that it will be just the third time Cleveland has played with a full roster all year. Irving is far from his normal self, and Blatt still needs to establish a reliable rotation.

So place far more importance on Golden State's visit to northeast Ohio on Jan. 18. This will give the Cavs three weeks to get Irving back into game shape and finally mold a consistent rotation of players.

While the Cavaliers and Warriors will no doubt put on a brilliant performance for all to see, these are two teams with championship-or-bust mentalities that are locks to reach the playoffs. This game will be a fun dress rehearsal, but ultimately just a taste of much bigger things yet to come in January and (hopefully) June.

Greg Swartz is the Cleveland Cavaliers Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @CavsGregBR.

All quotes originally obtained unless otherwise sourced. Stats via Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise sourced and are current as of Dec. 22.


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