CLEVELAND -- When was it over?
Considering the Golden State Warriors had won 54 straight games (including the playoffs) when they held a 10-point lead coming into Monday, this one was finished a mere 2 minutes and 11 seconds after tipoff. That's when the scoreboard already read 12-2 in their favor.
If only the Cleveland Cavaliers could have cried uncle right then and there. The Cavs waited seven long months to get the defending champions back on their home court only to be thoroughly outplayed in every facet imaginable in a 132-98 drubbing from the Warriors.
“Tonight was an example of how far we’ve got to go to get to a championship level,” LeBron James said after what could be classified as the worst loss of his career. James has played in 1,127 games in his 13 years in the league all told, taking into account the postseason, and Monday was the first time a team of his ever trailed by as many as 43 points, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
It was the type of loss that makes you question everything the Cavs supposedly had built up this season in their quest to return to the NBA Finals and avenge their loss to Golden State after being shorthanded.
Cleveland had a healthy Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in the fold for this one, but you hardly would have known it with their missed shots (they combined to shoot 4-for-16) and failed defensive assignments (this clip says it much better than I can).
The Cavs came into the game feeling “disrespected,” according to Cleveland.com, by Stephen Curry’s rather innocuous comment that he hoped the visitors’ locker room at Quicken Loans Arena still smelled like champagne from the Warriors’ championship celebration last summer.
But you wouldn’t know it from the way Cleveland played.
If anything, it was Curry who looked like he was disrespected by James recently suggesting that Irving was on his level, sharing the title as the best point guard in the game. Not only did Curry overwhelmingly settle that debate, if you could even call it one, by outscoring Irving 35-8, but he also scored as many points in the first quarter (16) as James did for the game, creating more supporting evidence for those who contend Curry already has wrestled “best player in the world” status away from The King.
But this isn’t about which team is better between the Cavs and the Warriors. At least for now, the answer is quite clear that Golden State -- which has beaten Cleveland five games straight and has a 38-4 record compared to the Cavs’ 28-11 mark -- holds the edge and then some. Sure, the Cavs won’t always be 34 points worse than the Warriors when they play -- as evidenced by Cleveland's much-better effort at Oracle Arena on Christmas Day -- but comparing them to the league’s elite at this point is an exercise in futility.
“Against the top teams, you want to play well, and we haven’t done that,” James said after his Cavs lost to Golden State and the San Antonio Spurs in the matter of five days. “We’re 0-3 versus the top two teams in the West. We’re 0-1 against the Bulls so far. We’ve got to play better basketball. We’ve got a long way to go.”
When you’re going somewhere, it helps to know where you’re starting from. Coach David Blatt said the Cavs “never gave ourselves a chance to win,” and he took the blame for not getting them mentally prepared.
“We’ve got to face up to that and use that as a new starting point to improve ourselves,” he said.
There were issues under the surface with this Cavs group that were masked by their winning ways as they came into the night on the heels of a 5-1 road trip. But now there is no ignoring them.
For instance, why is J.R. Smith showing up to the game just 48 minutes before tipoff? “I was not aware of that,” Blatt said when informed that Smith arrived at the end of the pregame media session, muttering something about the snow outside. “So if that’s true or not, I don’t know. If it is, that’s not a good thing, that’s for sure.” (And why isn’t that something Blatt keeps tabs on?)
More important, when is Smith going to prove he can be consistently reliable in a big game? While he went 6-for-9 against the Warriors, he also was ejected in the third quarter for picking up a flagrant foul 2 after he rammed into Harrison Barnes. “That does concern me,” Blatt said. “That’s not a situation that he can allow himself to get into.”
Does Cleveland have any semblance of a team offense other than going to James and Irving in iso situations. "Isolation basketball wasn’t going to be the answer tonight," Irving said. "They were living with a lot of our drives, but also packing the paint when me and Bron were coming off our pick-and-rolls."
And what is Love’s role in Cleveland after he scored just three points on 1-for-5 shooting on Monday? “I really don’t know how to answer that,” Love said, when asked that very question. It was his lowest output since joining the team and emblematic of his shrinking offensive game for the last month or so.
Of course, to peg this just on Love would be unfair, as Blatt and, well, Love both pointed out.
“We have a lot of things to get better at,” Love said. “That’s going to take a lot of guys looking themselves in the mirror, and it all starts with our leader over there and dwindles on down.”
The “our leader” comment was made as Love nodded his head in James’ direction while the Cavs’ captain got dressed in front of his locker.
And that was the type of moment that makes you question not only if what Cleveland has accomplished so far amounts to diddly-squat, but also if more than just X’s and O’s need to be adjusted.