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Cleveland Cavaliers Will Take Lessons Learned into Future Battles with Warriors

Scott Sargent@WFNYScottFeatured Columnist IDecember 27, 2017

OAKLAND, CA - DECEMBER 25:   LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers drives to the basket against Kevin Durant #35 of the Golden State Warriors on December 25, 2017 at ORACLE Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)
Noah Graham/Getty Images

CLEVELAND — LeBron James' suspicions were confirmed. Despite being in the top three in field goals attempted within five feet of the rim, he once again did not get the benefit of the doubt, as two fouls on the same play would not be enough to send him to the line.

"He fouled me twice," James said (of Kevin Durant) following Monday's 99-92 loss to the Golden State Warriors. "But, whatever. What are you going to do about it?"

The NBA's Last Two Minute Report of the Christmas Day matchup stated that Durant got away with not only a foul with 1:12 remaining in the game, but also two fouls on a single drive that saw the Warriors end up with the ball after what was ruled to be a turnover by officials.

It was a tough two-minute stretch that saw emotions heat, tempers flair and officials look like they were in the midst of a dizzy bat race. The game, however, should not have come down to those now-infamous two minutes, as the Cavaliers had several opportunities to put the Warriors away on their home floor but simply could not capitalize.

Had the league issued a report on the first 46 minutes, it would have depicted a late-December battle between the Cavs and Warriors that, at times, appeared more like a Game 7 than Game 34. There were costly turnovers. There were stretches of play that were reminiscent of the deciding game of the 2016 NBA Finals where Cleveland simply couldn't convert from the floor. The Cavaliers were ice cold on two-point attempts throughout the afternoon, shooting just 25 percent inside the arc and being outscored in the paint 44-20. Over the final 1:40, the Warriors pulled down three offensive rebounds, keeping the Cavs scoreless.

Yet here Cleveland was, a questionable Last Two Minute Report away from stealing a victory on the road against the reigning champions, looking much different than the hope-and-a-prayer version that lost in five games in the 2017 championship series.

     

Lessons Learned: For Better

Taking away the questionable play in the game's final minutes, James was his dominant self in the paint—when he could get to it—hitting four of seven attempts inside of five feet. Outside of the painted area, however, The King's game was not as royal, as he converted on just 3-of-11 attempts. Playing in his most efficient season as a professional, these shooting struggles were ill-timed. The Golden State swarming defense suppressed his assist numbers, and seven turnovers were one part Warriors lighting-fast switching and another part one of the league's best trying to do too much on his own.

Brian Windhorst @WindhorstESPN

LeBron James averaging 5.9 free throws per game this season, lowest since rookie season (which was pre hand check rule).

In this one, it was the rest of the Cavaliers—the unit that was "top-heavy as s--t" just a year earlier—who would help keep things closer than they should have been.

Considered a liability against Golden State in each of the last two NBA Finals, Kevin Love was masterful. In previous matchups against the Warriors, it was Love playing the power forward position along more traditional big men like Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson. Now playing the center, Love showed on Christmas Day what a series against the Warriors could look like with a new rotation.

Love has succeeded at the center spot through much of this season, holding his own against opponents like Dwight Howard and Joel Embiid. While he was suffocated in the paint against the smaller and quicker Warriors, Love's ability to stretch the floor alongside forward Jae Crowder provided a much different look for Golden State coach Steve Kerr, one that the Cavaliers should be pleased with in terms of small sample size returns.

Specific to Crowder, who has arguably had the biggest adjustment out of all new members of the Cavs, his addition to Cleveland's roster was one that has had "Golden State" scribbled all over it since his arrival this past summer. In the 2017 Finals, James was nearly exclusive to guarding Durant outside of the occasional spells from then reserve Richard Jefferson. Crowder not only eased the Cavaliers' burden defensively, but also did so with an efficient 15 points on 10 shots, pulling down four offensive rebounds of his own.

In the event the Cavaliers and Warriors have yet another rematch this June, going toe-to-toe with Durant over the course of a seven-game series will not be an easy task for Crowder. What the Cavaliers have, however, is a player who is up to the task of taking on such a challenge. It wasn't that long ago when the Boston Celtics elevated Crowder to guard LeBron James over the course of a playoff series. Now that he's James' teammate, his presence on the floor will have value much beyond his box score.

     

Lessons Learned: For Worse

Tony Avelar/Associated Press

James' struggles traversed between uncharacteristic and frustrating. Just months removed from being the first player to average a triple-double in the NBA Finals, James' turnovers were closer to double digits than his rebounds or assists. At times, it appeared as if the Warriors defense was keying on James the way Bill Belichick is famous for taking away the biggest weapon on the other side from his New England Patriots. The Warriors' length and switching dismantled one of the best drive-and-kick games in the league.

This cuts two ways, as James' assist total would have been higher had the Cavaliers not shot so poorly (JR Smith, for example, went 0-of-4 on uncontested shots), but Cavs head coach Tyronn Lue will need to scheme better ways to get the rest of the team in position to succeed.

After all, the Warriors aren't losing that length and switching ability any time soon.

During what appeared to be a moment of weakness, the Cavaliers' bench unit, one of the best in the league heading into Monday, was a substantial part of a second quarter that saw the Cavs score just 16 points. Its first bucket of the quarter, at the 10:18 mark, came after four missed attempts, and eight more missed field goals would occur before its second make with 5:33 left in the half. This shocking lack of execution led to a host of transition baskets, with one instance resulting in Shaun Livingston throwing down a dunk after a missed Dwyane Wade three-pointer.

The entire sequence was reminiscent of Game 1 of the 2016 NBA Finals when Golden State's heroes were players like Livingston, Andre Iguodala and Leandro Barbosa. The Cavs, however, are no longer attempting to win championships with Matthew Dellavedova, James Jones and Mo Williams. The upgrade to Wade, Jeff Green and Kyle Korver is a substantial one that needs to be exploited if the Cavaliers are going to run with a team like Golden State when James and the rest of the starters catch some much-needed rest.

And that final 1:40? The Cavaliers' five-man lineup was in a state of flux as Lue attempted to switch his players based on offensive and defensive possessions, doing so while having just one timeout at his disposal. During one sequence where the Warriors nabbed two offensive rebounds on the same possession, neither Love nor Thompson was on the floor as the Cavs had Green as their tallest player.

Having one or both of Love and Thompson on the floor for key defensive possessions will be crucial against the longer Warriors.

     

The I.T. Factor

Milwaukee, WI - DECEMBER 19:  Isaiah Thomas #3 of the Cleveland Cavaliers handles the ball before the game against the Milwaukee Bucks on December 19, 2017 at the BMO Harris Bradley Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges
Gary Dineen/Getty Images

There is also the unknown surrounding each team's roster. In their next meeting, Stephen Curry will take his minutes back from Patrick McCaw and rookie guard Jordan Bell. The Cavaliers, however, will have their very own All-NBA guard in Isaiah Thomas.

Thomas, if utilized properly by the Cavaliers, will provide Lue and James with another off-ball threat, running around some of the same screens that have allowed Korver and others to thrive. Last season, the Celtics exploited opposing defenses with a league-high handoff rate, one that the Cavaliers should be able to replicate given their versatility across multiple possessions.

As it pertains to Thomas against Curry, recent history has shown the two to be nearly arm-in-arm when it comes to scoring and assist totals since Thomas joined the Celtics. The glaring difference between the two comes in the way of efficiency, with Curry bettering Thomas throughout much of his career. Lue and the Cavaliers coaching staff will need to find ways to get I.T. in space, allowing him to exploit his speed and ability to finish under the rim while providing a threat from three-point range in the team's drive-and-kick schemes.

     

What's Next?

For Warriors fans, this one is simply the latest in a line of recent success against their Eastern Conference rival. While both sides wish to downplay the magnitude of the game prior, it was clear from the energy both on and off the floor that this one was going to be used as a barometer for things to come.

For Cavaliers fans, this game will be eerily reminiscent to Game 4 of the 2017 NBA Finals where Draymond Green appeared to be awarded a technical foul early in the contest only to have it later clarified it was given to Kerr after Green earned a technical later in the game. After Durant earned a technical foul early on Christmas Day with a second tech going to Green later in the same quarter, a feeling of "here we go again" would be understandable, if not completely warranted.

"Man, I understand that's a part of the rules, but they [the Cavaliers] didn't want me out the game," Durant told ESPN after the game. "They didn't want to win that way. ...

"Hell nah. They're not tossing me in the first quarter," he said defiantly.

Tony Avelar/Associated Press

While Cleveland fans would be more than happy seeing Durant add to that league-high total in technical fouls and get ejected, the Cavaliers have to find ways to beat the Warriors with Durant on the floor, be it with better execution on the offensive end or improved defense, specifically in transition.

Despite all the headwinds being faced—travel, turnovers, ice-cold shooting, a disappearing bench, a four-time MVP playing poorly or questionable officiating—the Cavaliers were a rebound and converted offensive possession away from having the lead with less than a minute to go.

Smart money would say LeBron James shooting 3-of-11 outside of the paint is more of an aberration than foreshadowing. Smart money would also say that the Cavaliers bench, which has been a mainstay throughout the entire season, will not shoot 6-for-26 again. And in the event this isn't enough, there's an All-NBA point guard waiting to make his debut who will gladly help steer those feelings in the right direction.

Much of the focus will be placed on the game's final two minutes, but if the Cavaliers can continue to thrive in places of strength and right the ship in places where they struggled, those last two minutes may not be needed for Cleveland to steal a win—or four.

     

Advanced stats courtesy of NBA.com and hoopstats.com.

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