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Injury-riddled Warriors-Cavs game is the gift you didn’t know you wanted

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Injuries are limiting both rosters, giving viewers a chance to see Kevin Durant play top dog against the Cleveland Cavaliers. (Stan Olszewski/Special to S.F. Examiner)
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The Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers meet today in a woulda-coulda-shoulda Christmas Classic that is neither an NBA Finals rematch nor an NBA Finals preview. The Cavs’ offseason reload and a rash of injuries on both sides make this game and its outcome irrelevant in terms of reminiscence or projection.

Happy Holidays, basketball fans.

Nobody wants guys to be hurt, but this game — and the injured state of the Warriors and Cavs overall — actually is a gift. A cornucopia of gifts, even.

Saturday’s loss to the Nuggets notwithstanding, the Warriors’ play in the absence of Steph Curry — not to mention the intermittent absences of Draymond Green, Shaun Livingston, Andre Iguodala and Zaza Pachulia — should be plenty to convince you that there’s nothing to worry about in terms of regular season slippage. The Warriors are so very, very good that they would probably have to lose all four of their all-stars for a significant period to truly struggle.

More to the point, the Warriors’ current injury troubles give the team a unique opportunity to confront their only real concern. I know it sounds ridiculous, but it really is true: the Warriors are too dang deep, and that’s truly an issue (though obviously a good one to have).

Bob Myers and his merry band of cohorts have managed to add talent at such an impressive rate that there are not enough minutes for all of the players on the Warriors roster. This is by design to some degree, and works well for veterans — Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston, for instance, are happy to limit regular season minutes and can feel free to take a game or two off whenever the aches and pains of aging are hampering them.

The unfortunate downside of remarkable depth, though, is lack of opportunity for young talent. Patrick McCaw, Kevon Looney, Jordan Bell and Quinn Cook are all under 25 and appear to have the talent to play at the NBA level. We haven’t even really seen Damian Jones, who is 22 and was a well-regarded prospect coming out of Vanderbilt. Developing these prospects may not be critical to this year’s title run, but it is certainly an important part of the franchise’s long-term health.

What is critical to this year’s title run, though, is finding the missing two players for the playoff rotation. Steve Kerr played a 10-man rotation in last year’s trip to the ‘ship, and two of those men were Ian Clark and Patrick McCaw, both of whom played double-digit minutes per game in the postseason. McCaw is still on the team, but whether he fills that role remains to be seen.

Although both of those guys are guards, the Warriors’ depth and diversity of talent actually allows those minutes to be filled by virtually any of the aforementioned youngsters, or by veteran additions Nick Young and Omri Casspi. That’s five-to-seven players (depending on whether you include Jones and Cook) who coaches need to get a good look at before May.

You can plainly see that McCaw has been adversely affected by a drop in quantity and consistency of playing time. Looney and Bell have both excelled in their opportunities, but both remain exceedingly raw and will benefit from more time. Young and Casspi have been good soldiers despite picking up the occasional DNP-CD but show their value more when regular minutes come their way.

Before this is all over, at least a couple of those guys will have to make an impact in the playoffs, and that number would obviously increase with any long-term injury to a more principal player. Beyond that, the physical and mental toll of playing into June for three consecutive seasons is real and a mid-season break probably brings its own benefits to guys like Steph and Draymond.

The Cavaliers have none of this luxury — unlike the Warriors, they made a major change to their core in the offseason and won’t get a look at it until Isaiah Thomas returns some time in January. They’re putting undue stress on 33-year-old LeBron James, who has played the last game of the season for seven consecutive years and presumably does feel some effect from that.

Which brings us to today, when all of these things come together to provide NBA fans with peak entertainment.

If you’re a Warriors fan, you don’t necessarily need to see more of Steph right now. No shade to the Babyfaced Assassin, but we know what him torching the Cavaliers looks like. Getting to watch young guys in their first big Christmas Day game against their likely Finals opponent is much more interesting due to its novelty.

The really big box under the tree here is something else, though. The last eight games of Curryless basketball have given us an opportunity to witness a truth we may have forgotten — Kevin Durant is the second best player in the NBA, and he’s probably closer to LeBron than to whoever is number three.

In the absence of the two-time MVP, the Finals MVP has been unbelievable — scoring over 30 points per game on 46.4-percent shooting (despite a dip in three-point percentage) while delivering 9.1 rebounds, 5.9 assists and nearly three blocks per game. He has continued to dominate both ends of the floor despite added responsibility, and regularly boggles the mind with his finishing ability.

Over a similar but longer stretch, LeBron has made sure his place atop the league is unquestioned. The Cavaliers have lost just twice in the last 21 games, with James averaging 27.9 points, 8.9 rebounds and 9.4 assist per game, plus 1.5 steals and a block, all while shooting 55 percent from the field and 43 percent from three-point range. Fifteen years into his career, there is nothing he’s not doing at an incredible level.

I don’t know your life, and to be fair I’ve never had a Christmas tree and have trouble conceiving of the excitement of a Nintendo wrapped in a box covered with fallen bits of tinsel, but it’s hard for me to imagine being more excited than I am for what hits my television at noon today.

The top two players in the NBA, at the peak of their powers and with added responsibility on their plates, squaring off in the loudest building in the league on the biggest day of the season’s first half. It’s the sort of gift that will keep me smiling all the way through my traditional Christmas movie and Chinese dinner.

Happy Holidays, basketball fans.

Matt Kolsky is a sports media professional (or something like that) and lives with an aging Shih Tzu/Schnauser mix in Berkeley. You can hear his podcast, The Toy Department, on iTunes or wherever else fine podcasts are free. Find him on Twitter @thekolsky to share your personal feelings about this article or any other topic, he will respond to most tweets that do not contain racial slurs.

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