With three-and-a-half minutes remaining in the second quarter, LeBron James had his Cavaliers 14 points behind the Warriors. Cleveland recovered from their largest first quarter deficit of the season by slowing the game to a grind and stubbornly parking themselves at the free throw line. The Warriors got that lead by running and shooting; the Cavaliers cut into it by slowing the game down. The turning tide of the game at that point was reminiscent of the Cavs’ Christmas Day victory over the Warriors, but rather than building on that whiff of momentum, the Cavs got the door slammed in their faces and the Warriors dispatched them for good in the next few minutes.
In the process of slamming that door, the Warriors put together as violent and delirious a sequence as any they’ve had all year: a defensively adrift Steph Curry picked James’s pocket, read the scrambling defense correctly, and passed Klay Thompson open for a three; Klay then stuffed Kyrie Irving and Curry found Kevin Durant for a strong dunk; the Cavs tried to chill things out with a timeout, which didn’t work, as Curry and Durant tossed in back-to-back jumpers; the already-fervent Warriors crowd finally blew their tops when Durant followed up his previous jam with an even more emphatic dunk on a break. LeBron James hit a much-needed standstill three in there at one point, but the Warriors were clearly on their own planet and they ended the half up 78-49 after Curry sniped one at the buzzer.
The Warriors—obviously motivated to make a statement in their final matchup with the Cavaliers until this summer’s inevitable rubber match in the Finals—kept trying to stomp any life out of a Cavaliers comeback in the second half, and neither Curry’s unconscious three nor Durant’s dunk ended up as the highlight of the game thanks to this rude Durant block on a James drive.
Golden State took the rest of the third quarter off, going over seven minutes between field goals at the end of the third and start of the fourth, but they still put a royal whooping on the Cavs and won handily, 126-91. Curry was buzzing all over the court and very nearly took the top off the Cavs a few times, Draymond Green was brilliant and ended up with a triple-double, and Klay Thompson led all scorers with a very efficient 26, but Kevin Durant was the Warriors’ best player on the night.
He had those two dazzling highlight plays, of course, and they hint at the sort of all-around dominant night he had. Durant spent a ton of time on LeBron James and he helped hold him to 20 quiet points on 6-of-18 shooting and six turnovers. Durant finished with 21 points, five assists, three steals, two blocks, and some of the best passes of the game. He’s obviously a terrifying shooter, but he looks like such a natural fit in the Warriors hyperkinetic offense, zipping the ball around the perimeter and picking the right interior passes. The logical preferred outcome when the Warriors went to their smallball lineup of death last year was a contested Harrison Barnes corner three. Replacing Barnes with Durant not only seals up any cracks in the Warriors’ late-game strategy, it adds a handful of new dimensions to an already-potent offense. He’ll only mesh more as the season progresses.
The Cavs, however, were slow and predictable all night. Losing Kevin Love for the second half certainly screwed them, but the Cavs looked unprepared for the Warriors’ ceaseless swarming. Kyrie Irving had a stretch in the third quarter when he took it into the teeth of the Warriors defense and scored a few in a row, and LeBron’s steady diet of second-quarter free throws almost turned the game, but the Cavs never managed to find anything that consistently gave the Warriors problems. They could use J.R. Smith’s ballhandling and itchy trigger finger right now, because their inability to create through any players besides LeBron and Kyrie is concerning. A healthy Kevin Love helps that, but to beat the Warriors, the Cavs will need to have their floor spacers shooting well and keep James’s defenders honest.
It’d be hasty to draw too much from this one game, and it’s not as if LeBron James isn’t still the best player in the NBA when he turns it on. The Warriors got theirs, the same way the Cavs did in December, and the truly important meetup goes down this summer (probably, unless you really really believe in the Rockets or Spurs or you’re Canadian and a little delusional). However, if you were to draw a conclusion about the state of this rivalry after a brief regular season split, it’d be that the Warriors have improved since last year’s 3-1 meltdown, while the Cavs don’t have the complete mental edge over the Warriors that they did when they were on the other end of that meltdown.