Monday night in Quicken Loans Arena, the people of Cleveland realized that the road to a long-sought professional sports championship will be more difficult than they anticpated at the start of this NBA season.

The Cleveland Cavaliers were the majority choice to win the NBA title in late October. In the middle of January, they’re not… to put it mildly.

The Cavs will very likely make the 2016 NBA Finals, of course — no one in the Eastern Conference has stepped up to challenge them — but they could not have been more distant from the Larry O’Brien Trophy during their return game against the Golden State Warriors.

If this was a movie, it had a name and a subtitle:

Monday’s game was a laugher for the Warriors, but the genre for Cleveland fans certainly wasn’t comedy; this was a horror flick on a holiday evening. The smell of champagne filled the building.

A curious note flowed from Stephen Curry’s seemingly innocent (at least in the sense that it wasn’t meant to throw shade at his opponent) remark: Some members of the Cavs reportedly took exception to it.

Well, they had a chance to show as much on the court. They showed nothing.

It’s a surprising plot twist, this evisceration of the Cavs by the visiting Warriors. Just three and a half weeks ago in Oakland, Cleveland played the Warriors even and fashioned the tempo of a Christmas Day game to its liking. The Cavs executed well but simply didn’t hit enough open shots. They played a lot of the game — maybe even most of it — on their terms. Golden State walked away with the satisfaction that it could play Cleveland’s style of game and still prevail, but the Cavs had to think that their defense and work ethic could grind down the Warriors in June, in a Finals rematch. That defense certainly made the 2015 Finals a lot closer than many suspected.

Let’s briefly touch on those 2015 Finals, if only for a moment. The one strong, even airtight, argument Cleveland fans could make about the balance of power between their team and the Warriors was that if Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving were healthy, the Finals would have been different. Golden State, playing in its first Finals, felt the weight of the moment for much of the series. Had Kyrie and Love been around for the ride, the Cavaliers might have had enough options on offense to supplement a defense which contained the Warriors through the first three games.

When Cleveland continued to bottle up Golden State’s offense on Christmas Day, with Kyrie just beginning to come back from injury, the Cavs — quietly confident — had to think this game would be theirs. When Golden State got whacked by 18 in Detroit on Saturday, the Cavs — a 3.5-point favorite — had to like their chances even more.

Then the game started.

One could sum up this game in a million different ways from a million different vantage points, but the simplest numbers offer the most brutal truths: The Warriors outscored the Cavs by at least 11 points in each of the first three quarters. Up by 26 at halftime and up by 37 after three, the Dubs just kept pushing. They were still winning 50-50 balls when leading by more than 30. They ran past the Cavs in transition and they outshot them by a considerable margin as well, but they also played this game with a ferocity and relentlessness which revealed their competitive mastery:

The Cavaliers lost their cool, with LeBron James getting a technical foul and J.R. Smith being ejected for excessive force on pushing through an attempted screen. Impotent first of all, deflated as the game wore on, and unhinged in several instances, Cleveland showed nothing at the start, did nothing in response, and took nothing positive away from this game.

Golden State, in one swift stroke, silenced all the doubts about its primacy in the NBA — relative to the Cavs, yes, but more centrally, in relationship to the San Antonio Spurs.

Guess who plays the Warriors next Monday night at 10:40 Eastern on NBA TV?


The Warriors figure to be ready for that game, too. They know they have to beat the Spurs in order to earn a Finals rematch with Cleveland.

After Monday night — with no more meetings between the teams in the regular season — the Warriors and Cavs know who would enter the month of June as the favorite, if this reunion does indeed come to pass.

About Matt Zemek

| CFB writer since 2001 |