King's pressure reveals Warriors' fault lines

CLEVELAND -- Nearly a week after thrashing reigning champs, the Golden State Warriors died by a different king's decree. In a hyped matchup between two MVP candidates, LeBron James completely obliterated the NBA's top-ranked defense for 42 points in a comfortable 110-99 Cleveland Cavaliers victory over the dragging Warriors. Stephen Curry had one of his lesser games, as happens on occasion. That it happened on national TV won't help his MVP case, but the Warriors have other, more pressing concerns.

A defense that was unbreakable earlier this season is starting to show cracks. "Our defense as a team has slipped the last four or five games," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after the loss. "We're allowing teams to shoot in the high 40s instead of the low 40s, fouling a lot." Some of that is the nature of the long NBA slog, and how every team has its rough patch. There's also the element of the types of lineups Golden State uses as it makes its final playoff push, a storyline that's a little less arresting than a collision of MVP hopefuls.

Earlier this season, with David Lee out, the Warriors relied on Marreese Speights off the bench, flanked by a lot of length. Speights had something of a breakout beginning, scoring at a "Sixth Man of the Year" rate. Defensively-talented Justin Holiday was ahead of Leandro Barbosa in the rotation, augmenting an already fearsome array of never-ending arms. Shaun Livingston was the team's backup point guard -- a long, wing-sized post-up player with a playmaker's responsibilities. In summary, the team's defense had almost no weaknesses -- Speights excepted.

Lee came back and rounded into good form as Speights slumped. Barbosa impressed offensively, pushing Holiday out of the rotation and reducing Livingston's role. As the Warriors make their playoff push, their bench has gone from a defensive unit to an offensive-focused one. When Draymond Green gets two quick fouls, as he did against the Cavs, there's less certainty that Golden State will squelch an offensive onslaught. What is certain, in any game, is that Andrew Bogut will get a fair amount of necessary rest, leaving Warrior units vulnerable to attack.

And man, did James attack on Thursday, targeting Speights so viciously with drives that Kerr had to pull him after seven minutes. James then scorched Golden State on an array of ridiculous, off-balance jumpers -- shots the Warriors will live with, but shots that happened to kill them on this particular evening.

The way LeBron did it seemed less striving than a casual decision to dominate as only he can. The Warriors are long on length, but there's no one quite large enough to contain the post moves LeBron displayed early in the game. If we're comparing LeBron to Curry, the latter has been better this season, but a performance like this was a reminder that "better season" doesn't necessarily mean "better player."

Green described LeBron's evasion of some spirited Andre Iguodala defense with, "Once he [gets] going, that's why he's arguably probably the best player in the world."

Curry, who also has a fair "best in the world" argument when he gets going, started strong but struggled to get involved after the Cavs frequently trapped him in the second half. He missed some shots he usually makes, especially down the stretch. On the subject of the background MVP race, he said, "Well I hope it's not based on this game," adding, "If you just look at tonight, then I lost, obviously."

Fortunately for Curry and the Warriors, a lot of winning preceded that loss. One of their pressing issues right now -- that their bench has a lot of intriguing players whose varied skill sets aren't completely matched up yet -- is a first-world NBA problem.

Still, it's a tough loss for an upstart contender looking to measure itself against the best. Ideally, this East road trip would showcase the mastery Golden State and Curry have mostly exhibited after the Eastern seaboard has gone to bed. Instead, the trip has displayed a team still working out kinks as it prepares for the playoffs. If an eventual slump costs Curry an individual award, it might at least get the Warriors wise to whatever needs fixing. Kerr and the players keep repeating their goal isn't so much about wins and losses, but about getting better.

In an 82-game season, improvement always includes detours. That's the hope after a night in which LeBron made defensive efforts seem hopeless.