Cavaliers-Warriors Rematch Carries Meaning for Past and Future

LeBron James and Stephen Curry on Christmas. The final regular-season game between the Cavaliers and Warriors is Monday. Credit Tony Dejak/Associated Press

OAKLAND, Calif. — No team is immune from the rigors of the N.B.A. schedule, not even royalty like the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers.

The Cavaliers are on their most extended trip of the season, a stretch that has already included five games in five cities. They have persevered through illness, injury, snowstorms and personnel moves to win three of those games. It has not been easy.

The good news for the Cavaliers is that they will return to Cleveland on Tuesday. The bad news is that they have one game left on their cross-country trek, a reunion here at Oracle Arena on Monday night with a familiar foe: the Golden State Warriors. It could well be a prelude to a rematch in the N.B.A. finals.

“It means something,” Warriors Coach Steve Kerr said.

The season is long. A lot of things can happen between now and the playoffs. But even Kerr, who tends to be as measured as coaches come, acknowledged that the game carried extra weight, if only because of the history between the two teams — and what the future could hold.

The N.B.A. All-Star Game next month is sure to be cluttered with players from both sides. But the Warriors (34-6) and the Cavaliers (29-10), who have the best records in their conferences, will not play each other again in the regular season. So Monday’s game is significant in its own way.

“Absolutely,” the Warriors’ Draymond Green said. “That’s human nature. As a competitor, you want to give it all you got each and every time you step on the court. But that’s just not realistic.”

Their previous meeting this season, on Christmas Day, was a thriller. The Cavaliers erased a 14-point deficit in the fourth quarter to win by 1 in Cleveland. The Warriors’ Stephen Curry struggled, finishing with 15 points on 4-of-11 shooting, and the Cavaliers’ Kyrie Irving sank the winning jumper over the outstretched fingertips of Klay Thompson.

It was eerie how much the game resembled what had happened in the finals last season, when the Cavaliers won the final three games of the series to rebound from a three-games-to-one deficit and claim their first title in franchise history. Curry largely struggled, and Irving clinched the Cavaliers’ Game 7 victory with a late 3-pointer.

Even if Curry had been hoping to forget about his experience in the finals, certain segments of the population — Cavaliers fans, in particular — have refused to let him move on. Curry recalled his trip to Napa, Calif., in October to participate in the Safeway Open pro-am, where he played golf with the PGA Tour pro Harold Varner III, an Ohio native.

“He was rubbing it in the entire round,” Curry said. “I take that back: He waited until the ninth hole because he wasn’t sure how I’d take it, how much of a good sport I’d be. And then, once he tested the waters, he didn’t hold back the rest of the round.”

The N.B.A. has seen scintillating offensive pyrotechnics this season. James Harden of the Houston Rockets and Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder are triple-double threats any time either sets foot inside an arena. Scoring has increased, and teams are launching more 3-pointers than ever. It has been fun to watch.

Yet the Warriors and the Cavaliers still stand apart. Nobody would be surprised to see them back in the finals for the third straight season. In fact, most casual basketball fans would love to see them right back at it again. In that sense, Monday’s meeting could be an appetizer — a taste of the potential feast to come.

“It’s a good gauge for us,” Kerr said. “Obviously, it’s a great rivalry. We’re looking forward to the game. What it means long term? Probably not a whole lot.”

Unlike the Cavaliers, who must be weary after so many games on the road, the Warriors have been homebodies. Seven of their last eight games have been at Oracle. Over the weekend, Kerr took advantage of a rare gap in the schedule to summon his players to consecutive practices.

“It’s been nice,” Kerr said, adding, “I think we’re usually sharper after a couple of days like this.”

Curry, for one, has been on a tear since the Warriors’ loss on Christmas Day, averaging 27.1 points a game and 6.1 assists while shooting 48.1 percent from the floor. The Warriors have won seven of their last eight, with the notable blemish being a 9-point loss to the Memphis Grizzlies.

“Throughout the course of the season, you’re going to learn a lot of lessons, with games like the Christmas Day game,” Curry said. “So you’ve got to take those in stride and keep moving, keep pushing.”

Curry sees every game as an opportunity to improve, he said. Some just happen to mean more than others.

Source: NYTimes