In a Christmas Day rematch of last season's NBA Finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers got nearly everything on their wish list. They limited the Warriors to 89 points, their lowest total all season. They held reigning MVP Stephen Curry to 19 points, tied for his second-lowest total all year. I mean, for the entire game, Golden State only hit five three-pointers!
And Golden State still won.
This is the juggernaut that NBA teams are facing this season. The Warriors won 89-83 and improved to 28-1, the best start for any team in NBA history. We usually watch Golden State outrun and outgun teams, sprinting into open transition jumpers and sending their defensive schemes into disarray with deleterious shooting that threatens teams from everywhere on the court. On Friday, the Warriors reminded everyone that they can play slow and physical, and they can still win.
This game felt like it was pulled right out of those finals last June. Cleveland's game plan, at the very least, was taken directly from that six-game series. They made sure the Warriors felt them constantly, bumping and pounding them every chance they had. They sprinted back in transition, taking away all the fast break opportunities that Golden State routinely turns into viral Vines. The Warriors had about three fewer possessions than they average this year, per SportsVU data, but they adjusted. And they still won playing the game Cleveland wanted them to play.
When watching Curry bomb 30-foot shots and Draymond Green throwing perfect full-court passes, it's easy to forgot how good Golden State is on defense, too. After finishing No. 1 in the NBA last year, the Warriors were No. 5 in defensive rating entering this game. When playing at their best, like they did Friday, Golden State turns into a swarming hornet's nest of long, athletic defenders that forces opposing offenses into excessive amounts of one-on-one play simply out of necessity.
This is what makes Golden State the best team in the NBA. This is why they're so scary. They have a style, sure, but they don't have to play it to win. They can muck it up, get ugly, barely shoot over 40 percent and still end up ahead. Kyrie Irving could pose greater problems for Golden State in their next regular season matchup -- in his third game back, Irving clearly wasn't his fully healthy self. But Irving did play while the Warriors were the less healthy team, still missing Harrison Barnes.
As we charge through another NBA season, a Warriors-Cavaliers rematch seems like the most likely ending right now. Cleveland should be healthier than they were last June, but simply making the game ugly won't be enough to earn a different outcome. In fact, there may not be a good answer as to what will.
The Miami Heat beat the New Orleans Pelicans 94-88 in overtime in an ugly affair to kick off the NBA's slate of games. There were great individual performances: Chris Bosh had 30 points and 10 rebounds and Anthony Davis had 29 points, 15 rebounds, four assists, four steals and three blocks. But these teams struggled to find a lineup that worked with their best players. Neither team has any outside shooting -- the Heat were 6-of-26 from three and the Pelicans were 6-of-20. And both cannot find a cohesive style of play -- the Pelicans were relying on Tyreke Evans isolation plays even when he was 0-of-7 from the field (he finished 2-of-9).
The Heat have the best shot blocker in the NBA in Hassan Whiteside, but he only played four minutes in the fourth quarter and overtime -- and it ended up working out. Fortunately for the Heat, they have more than just one star and can rely on Bosh and Dwyane Wade to take over and are 17-11 despite an incompatible roster. The Pelicans have fallen to 9-20 because Davis needs some help.
One thing the Bulls' 105-96 win over the Thunder made clear is the fact that both of these teams have the talent to make noise but need to figure out some things first.
The Bulls have been starting Nikola Mirotic at small forward recently, which has the added benefit of freeing up minutes at the big man slots. Once Mike Dunleavy Jr. returns, however, their frontcourt will get crowded and trade rumors have already started to emerge. Determining whether a move is necessary and figuring out the right combinations will be key. With a defined and effective rotation, Chicago could challenge Cleveland for the East's crown.
Similarly, the Thunder have the star power, the athleticism and the positional flexibility to match the Warriors. They just need to either set up an offense that doesn't depend so heavily on Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant to score, or stagger their minutes so that one of them is on the court at all times and with the right teammates. If they do that and start getting more from their supporting cast, they could eventually surpass the Spurs as Golden State's biggest threat.
The talent is certainly there. If both squads find better ways to harness it, they could meet in the NBA finals, with a few breaks going their way.
Will the real Houston Rockets please stand up?
The Rockets who beat the Spurs 88-84 on Christmas looked like the Rockets we expected coming into this year. At their peak, Houston is a weird team, who defends better than it seems like they should and somehow hides their over-reliance on James Harden with timely contributions from their veterans. That's the team we saw on Friday, frustrating the Spurs throughout (although San Antonio's execution was partially to blame, too) and then getting a couple key three-pointers from Harden to close out the game.
Houston hasn't looked like this all year. Maybe J.B. Bickerstaff is finally getting through to this talented squad, because certainly they looked much more locked into defense throughout. If these Rockets are the ones we'll get going forward, then it's at least worth keeping an eye on them in 2016.
Kobe's final Christmas Day game is magical ...
... and he had nothing to do with it! Well, that's only partially true. The only way* I can explain the Lakers' 25-4 run to open the fourth quarter is that the Basketball Gods knew this was Bryant's farewell party. It was a gift, you know, a parting moment. This was the Basketball Gods saluting Bryant's many long years of sensational service. The Lakers still lost 94-84 -- even Gods have limits; this is the Lakers we're talking about -- but the fourth-quarter burst led by D'Angelo Russell and Marcelo Huertas turned a boring, predictable blowout into a wheels-off, entertaining final Christmas for Bryant. It's a shame he couldn't sub in one last time when Los Angeles trimmed their deficit to only seven in an attempt to gun the Lakers back into it one last time, but we'll happily take this either way.
*OK, so the real reason is that the Clippers' bench is still godawful, but it's Christmas and we're trying to be jolly so let's worry about that some other time.
Play of the night
There are a finite number of players who would even attempt this shot, much less make it so easily. Stephen Curry is not of our world.
So many fun things
If you only click one: This Warriors fan sitting courtside called LeBron a crybaby. She didn't realize LEBRON WAS STARING AT HER. C'mon.
Important: The NBA ran anti-gun violence PSAs that featured some of their stars during each game. Here's why they did it.
The jerseys: These were so nice after several years of duds. Great job, NBA.
Very bad fast breaks: The Bulls ran the worst 5-on-2 fast break ever.
... Except, this 4-on-1 fast break by the Lakers might be worse. They don't even get a shot off!
Heat vs. Pelicans: Chris Bosh is the most polite trash talker ever.
Bulls vs. Thunder: Jimmy Butler got nothing but net on a 35-foot buzzer-beating rainbow jumper.
Warriors vs. Cavaliers: This full-court Draymond pass ... wow.
A fan had a "Fire Steve Kerr" sign, which is, at best, a very poor attempt at humor.
LeBron dominated for 90 seconds. That block, though!
Matthew Dellavedova got TWO piggy-back rides for Christmas!
Rockets vs. Spurs: Weird Dwight Howard wishes ref "Happy Hanukkah."
Clippers vs. Lakers: Celebrate Kobemas with the ultimate Kobe Bryant mixtape.
Larry Nance Jr. tipped in a rebound on his own basket from 10 feet away. This is honestly impressive.