OAKLAND, Calif. — The Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers renewed hostilities at Oracle Arena on Monday afternoon for the first time since the Warriors claimed their second championship in three seasons on this court in Game 5 of the 2017 NBA Finals.
It's December, not June, but this game felt every bit like a continuation of that series.
In the centerpiece of the NBA's five-game slate on Christmas, the Warriors and Cavaliers didn't disappoint, playing with an energy and intensity rarely seen during the regular season and delivering a thriller that ended with Golden State prevailing, 99-92, in a battle that could precede as many as eight more showdowns between these basketball giants.
"It's just fun to be a part of," said Kevin Durant, who led the Warriors with 25 points. "When you think back on the game afterwards, you don't want to say, 'I wasn't involved in this possession' or 'I wasn't mentally all the way in on this possession.' You just want to inject yourself into the game and just play."
This game featured a little bit of everything. Kevin Love had a monster day for Cleveland, putting up 31 points and 18 rebounds. For the Warriors, Draymond Green had a triple-double (12 points, 12 rebounds, 11 assists), and Durant added to his defensive highlight reel with two steals and five blocks, although he was just one example of the hellacious defense being played on both sides.
And perhaps most importantly to the league and its decision-makers, there was plenty of drama late in a game that was tied at 92 with just under two minutes to play.
While Klay Thompson closed the game with the final seven points to give Golden State the victory, the head-to-head battle between Durant and LeBron James, the best players in the sport, will be analyzed and dissected most.
Twice in the final two minutes, James tried to drive past Durant. Both times, James lost the ball out of bounds, resulting in Cleveland turnovers that essentially iced the game for Golden State.
Replays left the impression that both plays could have been called fouls, though James only took issue with the second one — when Durant blocked a shot off James's hands and out of bounds, giving the ball back to the Warriors after a replay review with 24.5 seconds left. Durant's play prevented Cleveland from getting a shot at tying the score.
"I lost it on the left wing," James said. "He got me a little bit, but I lost that one. But obviously the overturned one, he fouled me twice. But whatever. What are you going to do about it?"
Durant, not surprisingly, saw it a bit differently — particularly the debate about whether he fouled James that was ongoing on social media in the moments after the plays.
"It felt clean," Durant said. "It's probably the same play a bunch of those dudes on Twitter are probably arguing about in 24 Hour Fitness, that it wasn't a foul. They've been in that position before but just not on Christmas at the Oracle Arena.
"So they know, they know if they ain't call it, it's not a foul. But I'm sure if they get that call at 24 Hour Fitness, they're going to be pissed they called it a foul."
Then Durant paused, and as he started to get up from the podium in the interview room, he turned back to the microphone.
"So keep that s--- on Twitter."
It was a lighthearted moment at the end of a day in which both teams could take away a similar perspective. There was little doubt this game meant more than a typical regular season contest to everyone involved. But it also was one both teams played with the knowledge that the more important games between these teams are the ones that are still to come.
The absences because of injury of Stephen Curry for Golden State and Isaiah Thomas for Cleveland loomed large. There were, though, impressive contributions from newcomers on both sides. Golden State's rookie center, Jordan Bell, got a surprise start and made the play of the game by grabbing a key offensive rebound to set up Thompson's go-ahead three with 1:33 remaining. Cleveland forward Jae Crowder provided both the floor spacing (15 points) and defensive versatility that made him a key part of the package the Cavaliers got from the Boston Celtics for Kyrie Irving in this summer's blockbuster trade.
Three weeks from now, these teams will meet again in Cleveland on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. By then, Curry and Thomas should be back, providing a better sense of where this rivalry stands. But even that game is only a precursor to the ones that will really matter: when these teams could square off in the NBA Finals for the fourth consecutive year.
"It was a feel-out," James said. "It was a great game, I think, for our fans and for both teams to see where they are. Both teams were missing very, very key pieces, obviously, but the game was great.
"I know it wasn't as efficient as our fans would have loved to see. But they look for a competitive game, and we gave them one."