January is typically a quiet time in the NBA. It's the period between the unofficial start of the season on Christmas and the crazy, unpredictable stretch that leads up to the trade deadline in February. This year, however, January will offer fans the three biggest games of the regular season.
The Warriors, Cavaliers and Spurs have only played against each other once (the Warriors-Cavaliers game on Christmas Day). That will change very soon, as they will all play each other in a de facto round robin over the next two weeks.
Those three teams are clearly a step above the rest of the league. The Warriors have lost just three of 39 games and are on pace to break the record for most wins in a season. San Antonio's excellent play was overshadowed by the Warriors' historic start earlier in the season, but the Spurs are not flying under the radar anymore. They have won the last nine games and boast the league's best point differential. The Cavaliers, meanwhile, amassed the best record in the East despite missing Kyrie Irving for most of the season, and now they are healthy.
Yet all three haven't really been tested against elite opposition. That will soon change.
Thursday, Jan. 14: Cavaliers at Spurs (8 p.m. ET, TNT)
Thursday's game is the toughest the Spurs have faced so far. They've had a soft schedule, so beating the Cavaliers would be a great way to silence the critics. Something similar has happened with Cleveland, which has not looked as dominant as the West's contenders. A win against the Spurs would make the statement that they are every bit as good as teams with more impressive records.
The matchup to watch is obviously Kawhi Leonard vs. LeBron James. Leonard has done as good a job as anyone guarding James in the past and now has the offensive tools to go at him on the other end as well.
Yet as fun as that duel will be, how San Antonio's vaunted defense handles Irving could determine the outcome of the game. Last season, the Cavaliers point guard dropped 57 points in an overtime win against them. Tony Parker will clearly have his hands full.
Monday, Jan. 18: Warriors at Cavaliers (8 p.m. ET, TNT)
Just four days after facing the Spurs, the Cavaliers will have their second showdown of the season against the defending champions. In their first matchup after last year's Finals, the Warriors prevailed in a close, ugly game on Christmas. Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving struggled greatly to score, while James couldn't be as efficient as he typically is. The good news for the Cavaliers is that the Warriors were at the top of their game at that time. They continue to look dominant, but not quite as unstoppable as they were then.
These two teams know each other well, but have so much depth and lineup versatility that they can find new ways to create favorable matchups. They can both trot out big and small units and go 10 deep if needed. The benches could have a big impact, with Shaun Livingston being the X-factor for Golden State and Tristan Thompson potentially giving the Warriors some trouble with his offensive rebounding and defense. It's the last time these two teams will meet in the regular season, so both will be looking for the win in this potential NBA Finals preview.
Monday, Jan. 25: Spurs at Warriors (10:30 p.m. ET, NBATV)
This is the matchup everyone wants to see, so it's fitting that it comes last. The Cavaliers have been terrific and seem like a lock to come out of the East, but in the West, things are not as clear. The Warriors have a better record and had the best start in league history, yet the Spurs are just 2.5 games behind them and have a better point differential. Golden State has the third-best offense in the league since 2000, while San Antonio boasts the third-best defense of the millennium.
But only one of them can make the Finals. While the Warriors are the favorite, no one would be shocked if the Spurs dethroned them.
Last season, San Antonio was the only team that won its season series against the Warriors and one of two that beat them at Oracle Arena. Yet this is a different squad now that LaMarcus Aldridge is on board. Will they be able to stay big or will they be forced to match Golden State's deadly small-ball unit? Can they survive cross-matching Leonard on Curry without getting destroyed in transition?
Since these two clubs amazingly haven't played against each other yet, we don't know the answers to those questions. We might after they actually play.
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Records and point differentials are nice, but the difference between the very best teams comes down to very small margins. Since these three teams have only played against each other once so far this season, we don't really know how they actually match up. Over the next 11 days, we'll actually find out.
Finally, the most exciting stretch of the regular season is here.
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