The NBA's Greatest Rivalry
They are the NBA's version of the Hatfield's and the McCoy's, the Jets and the Sharks, or Ali vs. Frazier. With all due respect to the Boston Celtics in the East and the Houston Rockets in the West, the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers see each other as their biggest -- and only -- rivals, standing in between themselves and an NBA Championship trophy
And that's why, even if it's just a relatively-meaningless game smack-dab in the middle of the NBA season, anytime these two teams square off -- like they will on Monday, January 15th -- it automatically becomes "must-see" television. Regardless of who's streaking, who's slumping, who's soaring, and who's nursing an injury, when these two teams see each other on the court, they reach deep down and dig out not only best in themselves, but the best in their opponents in the process.
Let's start with the main character in this story. Ignore the fact that LeBron James has 14-plus years and 1100-plus regular season games on his professional odometer, or that he admitted this week to beginning to see the proverbial light at the end of his professional basketball tunnel. At 33 years old, James is averaging 27.2 points (good for third in the NBA as well as James' highest average in over seven years), 9.0 assists (a career high), and 8.2 rebounds (the second-best mark of his career) per game right now. In other words, he's not only playing as well as he has at any point in his career, but he's still, without dispute, the most singularly dominant player in the NBA today.
For a team who is well-versed in saving their mileage for the postseason, who started off the year losing two of its first three games, and who has been without the services of one of the five or six best players in the NBA for one-third of this season, the Golden State Warriors are in the top three in the NBA in offensive rating (#1) and defensive rating (#3), and on pace to win more than 64 games this year.
Kevin Durant, who might be neck-and-neck with Houston's James Harden in this year's MVP race, has added a consistently devastating defensive game to his god-given ability to make buckets like few players in the history of the league. Stephen Curry has missed 14 of the Warriors' 42 games this year, but he still leads the team in scoring right now (27.6 ppg) and is on pace for the second-highest player efficiency rating (PER) of his career. Draymond Green, the rabble-rouser extraordinaire and reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year, leads the team in rebounds and assists per game and is also on pace to finish with the second-best PER of his career. And Klay Thompson? All he's doing is ranking among the top five in the NBA in three-point shooting (a career-high 45.3%).
With the arrival of Isaiah Thomas, who has finally entered the Cavaliers' lineup after recovering from the hip injury that bothered him since even before he was traded by the Celtics, the Cavaliers third-ranked offensive efficiency should only get better. But as James has publicly lamented over the last few weeks, Cleveland's biggest problem isn't about getting buckets; it's about stopping the opponent from doing so. The Cavaliers are allowing teams to shoot a 47.1% field goal percentage against them (seventh-worst in the NBA), and their overall defensive rating is 27th in the NBA.
Those are ominous numbers against a team that has three of the best pure scorers the league has to offer. But, again: when these two teams meet, you almost have to throw out the stats and the record books. The history between these two teams and the players on them is not lost on any of them. As competitors, these are types of games that help them break up an otherwise long and sometimes monotonous NBA season.
It's like starting a new chapter in a great book. You've gotten to know the characters. You've seen their journey so far. And now, you're excited to see how the rest of the story unfolds, starting on Monday evening.