© Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
You might have noticed by now, but LeBron James doesn’t play basketball in Cleveland, Ohio anymore. Without James, the Cavaliers immediately went from a championship lock to a top-tier tank squad. But this Cavaliers team knows how it’s viewed by everyone around the league: as the team LeBron carried to the Finals.
With that reputation has come a chip-on-the-shoulder level of effort. The Cavaliers are not a good basketball team, but on nights like tonight, they try to compensate with a massive level of effort. Especially against their rivals of the past four seasons, the Cavaliers played hard for four quarters. Of course, that wasn’t enough against a Warriors team that recently returned Stephen Curry (and Alfonzo McKinnie) to the squad.
The Warriors won 129-105 in a game that was surprisingly close for about three quarters. But the Warriors scored 71 points in the second half and limited the Cavaliers to 41. It was a classically dominant second half from the defending champs that finalized an easy road win.
Here are three takeaways from tonight’s game:
It’s Day ‘N’ Nite
The difference between this Cleveland Cavaliers team and last year’s team is, as Cleveland native Kid Cudi put it, “Day ‘N’ Nite.” This team is clearly shifting toward its next phase. The skeletons of the “we must please” LeBron era are still as evident as ever. After this season, Cleveland still has Kevin Love signed for another four years and $120 million, and one more year of George Hill, J.R. Smith, Jordan Clarkson and Tristan Thompson that will collectively cost $65.66 million next season.
LeBron came, brought a championship to Cleveland while forcing in a short-sighted approach that, while successful, left a difficult situation in his wake. The Cavaliers have Love, Larry Nance, Cedi Osman, Ante Zizic and this year’s first-round pick Collin Sexton essentially locked in as their core pieces for the future. It’s not the most exciting core, but it’s a starting point for a team that now has its own identity outside of LeBron.
It might be a very long time until Cleveland can challenge for another championship, but now the city at least has a team that doesn’t have the feel LeBron James featuring the Cleveland Cavaliers. There are young players who work hard, and while it’s largely been unfruitful, it will likely lead to a high draft pick this year and the next. And in two years, barring any mistaken free agent signings, the Cavaliers will have heaps of cap space to work with and a young core they can call their own.
No revenge this time around
It’s hard to imagine the Cavaliers were looking at this as a revenge game. As stated, they’re a wildly different LeBron James-less team and the idea of the Warriors and Cavs continuing their four-year long NBA Finals streak this season seems impossible. Still, that Cavs core played like they were out to prove the point that they could beat the Warriors without James.
It wasn’t the case, but for three quarters, the Cavaliers gave the Warriors trouble. Granted, a lot of teams give the Warriors trouble for three out of the four quarters, but coming from a team that was 5-18, you could tell there was an extra purpose the Cavaliers were playing with. To their credit, it’s pretty tough to beat the Warriors when Stephen Curry (42 points) and Kevin Durant (25 points) combine for 67 points.
Looney frees up space, McKinnie returns with grace
Kevon Looney really likes starting. At least, he plays like he never wants to give up the starting spot. Tonight, Curry put up 42 points (11-of-20, 9-of-14 from deep), 9 rebounds and 7 assists, and Durant added 25 points (9-of-16, 4-of-7 from deep), 10 rebounds, 9 assists and 2 blocks. This is not to say that Looney was the reason Durant and Curry put up their typically absurd numbers. But he did all the little things that allow those stars to flourish at maximum capacity.
He rebounded, moved and set screens, set up in the Draymond Green high post role and passed while watching for off-ball action, and scored when needed. Looney finished with 8 points (4-of-6), 6 rebounds, 3 assists and a block. He’s maintained the bench energy into his starting spot and while it’s assumed DeMarcus Cousins will take the starting center role when he’s healthy, Looney’s performances will make Cousins need to prove he deserves it.
Next to Looney in the bench unit has often been Alfonzo McKinnie. The two have displayed boundless levels of energy this season, and while McKinnie is no Curry or Green, his absence was evident. He is an astoundingly good offensive rebounder, shoots from 3-point range with confidence and efficiency, and gives the Warriors a wing defender, which made Patrick McCaw irrelevant. He returned tonight to finish with 5 points and 5 rebounds in his 13 minutes on the floor.