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CLEVELAND — If the Cleveland Cavaliers are serious about winning a title, this can’t be the finished product.
That’s the main takeaway from Monday’s 118-108 loss to the visiting Golden State Warriors.
It’s true the Cavs (26-17) played well for most of the night. It could be argued that the first half was their best half of the season. But Kevin Durant and the Warriors were just … well, better.
The Warriors are better than a lot of teams, or all of them to be precise. The only opponent they truly worry about is the Cavs.
But right now, as the Cavs are currently constructed, the Warriors don’t need to worry.
The Cavs lost at Golden State, they lost at Cleveland, they’ve lost four in a row overall. Including The Finals, they have lost six of the last seven to Golden State. In the fourth quarter Monday, they fell apart, unable to knock down a shot, unable to get a key stop.
The answer is easy. Again, it’s because the Warriors (36-9) are just better.
LeBron James (32 points, eight rebound) was fantastic — and as Warriors coach Steve Kerr said before the game, James gives the Cavs a chance against anyone, anywhere, anytime. He’s right about that one, the lone exception perhaps being Kerr’s own team.
Also, Isaiah Thomas very clearly must find his legs after missing the early part of the season with a hip injury. When Thomas is all the way back, the Cavs should be able to compete with the Warriors a little more. But that doesn’t mean the Cavs will beat them in the seven-game series.
Today, that feels like it will never happen.
The Cavs have not been good defensively. They haven’t been tough enough, they haven’t played smart enough. They have not consistently done the things needed to win a title.
Maybe some of it is effort. But more of it feels like a lack of personnel.
Prior to the game, Cavs coach Tyronn Lue talked confidently about his team. He admitted the Cavs may not be the best team in the East right now, but quickly added, “we will be.”
That’s hard to argue, given the fact James is still in Cleveland and the Cavs have played badly before, and then went on to win the conference title.
But this team’s main goal isn’t just to reach The Finals. While this LeBron-led window is open, the Cavs want to win it all.
The Cavs are getting next-to-nothing from starting shooting guard J.R. Smith, who has suddenly stopped shooting 3-pointers, once the entire reason he was on the floor.
Now, it’s hard to figure why he’s out there, though Lue clearly has his reasons. Smith played 38 minutes Monday and attempted (and missed) one 3.
So, why is Smith out there? Only Lue seems to have a clue.
Obviously, Smith alone isn’t to blame. He’s just an example that the Cavs are lacking in certain crucial areas. At least, they sure are when compared to the Warriors.
Along with Durant (32 points), the Warriors have Steph Curry (23), Klay Thompson (17), and Draymond Green (11 points and 16 rebounds). They also have a coach in Kerr who manages games and who gets it right, night after winning night.
There is no talk indicating “it’s only January” coming from the Warriors’ locker room. Regardless of the opponent, regardless of the time of year, they aim to rip out your basketball heart.
And Kerr doesn’t pamper, he doesn’t sugarcoat anything. You perform, or you don’t play. End of discussion.
As for the Cavs, well, it’s hard to understand some of the thinking behind the starting lineup and rotations. They had won 13 straight and 18 of 19. Then the rotation changed, with Tristan Thompson replacing Channing Frye right after the streak.
It wasn’t broken, so why the need to try to fix it? Or more accurately, why mix things up when things are going well?
Part of the struggles have to do with Thomas’ return to action — as several analysts accurately predicted the Cavs would struggle after Thomas debuted. It is a undoubtedly an adjustment, especially with Thomas struggling to make shots.
But it’s more than that.
The Cavs were counting heavily on the likes Smith, Jae Crowder, Kyle Korver and more. None have been able to get it going against the Warriors.
Right now, it’s pretty much LeBron and and maybe Thomas (19 points, but 8-of-21 shooting) and Kevin Love (17 points) trying to do it all against the defending and highly favored champs.
Cavs general manager Koby Altman and owner Dan Gilbert have to see that the Cavs need more than that. The Cavs still need help. They still need a trade to bring in someone new, someone to give them a jolt of life against the defending champs.
The clock is ticking, as the Cavs have between now and the Feb. 8 trade deadline to make something happen. Otherwise, let’s be honest, they can forget about beating the Warriors when it matters most.