The Warriors’ first-half performance against the Cavaliers Monday night in Oakland was something close to perfect.
The Warriors dominated the pace, the paint, 3-point arc, and the scoreboard, opening up a 78-49 advantage at the break en route to an emphatic and resounding 126-91 win.
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Golden State had something to prove with their play Monday — they had lost the last four games to the Cavs, and Monday’s matchup was the final regular-season game between the rivals this year. The Warriors’ incendiary start highlighted the seriousness of their situation — they couldn’t go into the playoffs having lost five straight to the Cavs — and it ultimately left little to be desired.
But not all the concerns that stemmed from that four-game losing streak were quelled by Monday’s decisive first half — the Warriors still have one significant question they’ll need to answer before you can concede that Golden State is truly the better of the two squads and NBA title favorites.
It seems inevitable that these two teams will meet in the NBA Finals for the third straight year — the Warriors only solidified their strong stance as the team to beat in the Western Conference with Monday’s win, but the Cavaliers’ loss did nothing to knock them off their perch atop the East.
If the Warriors can start every game like Monday’s contest, there isn’t a team that can beat them in the NBA — playing suffocating defense on the perimeter and at the hoop and posting an offensive rating of 148 in the first two quarters is a highly effective way to win basketball games.
Perhaps the Warriors are so good that they can blitz teams early and never have to look back.
But how much of Monday’s Warriors’ win stemmed from the need — it’d be unfair to say desperation — to put a win on the board against Cleveland?
How much of the Cavs’ poor start can be attributed to them being in the final game of a six-game, 10-day West Coast road trip?
Neither factor can be overlooked.
Monday’s game might have been billed as a playoff-like contest before the opening tip, but it most certainly wasn’t — when these two teams tangle in that seemingly inevitable seven-game series, it’s far more likely that the majority (or at least the most critical) of the contests look like that down-to-the-wire Christmas Day game.
And if that proves to be the case, how will the Warriors perform in the clutch against this Cavs team that is putting up incredible crunch-time numbers?
That’s the big question: Can Golden State beat Cleveland should a contest come down to the each team’s final possessions?
The Warriors might look like unbeatable juggernauts at times, but after their loss in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals and then their Christmas falter, they cannot be sure if they can go possession-for-possession down the stretch with Cleveland.
It’s in those critical moments that the Cavs have shined this year — Cleveland has a league-leading 29.6 net rating and a 14-2 record in clutch situations.
The Warriors, with their eight new players, have a net rating of 0.4 in those same situations so far this season.
That’s a significant disparity, and it certainly doesn’t bode well for Golden State if the gap remains that wide come the spring and summer.
It might not matter — perhaps Zaza Pachulia is that good at trapping the pick-and-roll and the Cavs are no longer interested in moving the ball, controlling the pace, or driving to the basket with real zeal.
Perhaps Kyle Korver’s poor defense will prove to be the difference in a seven-game series — much like it seemed like the difference in Monday’s contest.
Or maybe J.R. Smith will be back for the NBA Finals, Kyrie Irving will play with more aggression, LeBron knows how to save his bull rushes to the hoop for the playoffs, and Korver will be better assimilated to the Cavs’ way of playing by June.
Even if all those things come to pass, perhaps the Warriors will still win a seven-game series with ease. Everyone knows they’re talented enough to do that.
But if any of those contests are nail-biters, will the Warriors have the confidence they can take the Cavs?
Even after an awesome performance like Monday’s, that’s the question that’s yet to be answered, and we might not find out until June.