The stakes aren’t nearly as high as last year’s Finals. But there’s always excitement whenever LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers play Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors. (Courtesy Eric Drost/Flickr)

Warriors-Cavs Christmas delight promises entertainment — if not redemption

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — There’s nothing wrong with a little indulgence on Christmas Day. That applies to regular season NBA games as well as extra helpings of dessert.

After weeks of the Warriors rolling over opponents, fans have a reason to celebrate today as Golden State will play its first game against the Cleveland Cavaliers since blowing a 3-1 lead in last year’s NBA Finals.

Depending on who you ask and when, the game ranges from just another regular-season tilt between teams that aspire for much more than pre-April success to a “special game” with a spotlight that shines a little brighter than on others.

“You always look forward to certain games against the best teams,” Steve Kerr said after the Warriors beat the Detroit Pistons on Friday. “It doesn’t mean anything for later, for whatever happens down the road. But it’s always a fun time to play on Christmas and fun to play against a great team.”

The rivals have assumed their positions atop their respective conferences: The Dubs carry a 27-4 mark, and the Cavs are 22-6. They’re both within the top five of net rating — a predictive stat that measures point differential per 100 possessions — and LeBron James is still putting up numbers that validate his kingly status. Through 25 games, he’s averaging 25.5 points (while shooting 51.4 percent from the field), 7.8 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game.

But fans don’t need numbers to know these are the two best squads in the league.

For the most part, things between the Warriors and Cavs are as similar as they’ve been over the last two seasons — when they were the indisputably best teams in pro basketball. But the primary departure from the norm stands anywhere from 6-foot-9 to 7-foot, depending on who you ask.

“We feel a little comfortable going into this matchup, having Kevin Durant on our team,” Kerr said. “It’s been a great rivalry, obviously, the last couple years. LeBron is so good, so big, strong, smart — he’s a phenomenal player. It’s nice to be able to go back with Kevin. Obviously, they’ll guard each other quite a bit.”

With J.R. Smith recovering from a fractured thumb and expected to be out for a few months, the Warriors won’t be facing a complete version of the leading threat to derail their quest for a second title in three years. Under more meaningful circumstances, a competitor like Draymond Green would be disappointed to face a shorthanded rival. But that’s not the case today.

“This game don’t matter. It’s not like we’re playing them in the Finals and J.R. is out,” he said. “It’s a regular season game. At the end of the day — we beat them, they beat us — it’s one loss in the loss column. Whoever’s on the floor is on the floor. It ain’t like it really matters at this point.”

The unfortunate development of Smith’s injury won’t lessen the most interesting subplot, though: How the Cavs defend Durant and if Kerr will alter the way his team defended James over the years.

It was James who inflicted the most damage in last season’s playoffs as he unleashed his unique mix of size and skill so effectively in the last three games of the Finals. He was able to turn the tables on Stephen Curry and do his best to make the visitors locker room at Oracle Arena have a lingering scent of champagne.

“Every time I play against LeBron James, it’s been a huge game,” Durant said.
“You bring it when you play guys like that: Somebody that I’m chasing, somebody that I admired coming up and somebody that I’m competing with, he brings the best out of you.”

The game today won’t answer any questions definitively — that’s reserved for the postseason — but it will represent the most intriguing contest the Dubs have played in weeks, and will hold that throne until the Cavs come to Oakland on Jan. 17.

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