As the Cleveland Cavaliers get ready to take on the best team in the NBA on Thursday night, many have already dubbed this game a must-win for LeBron James and his rejuvenated teammates. While that is the picture many will paint, this game is more about seeing just how far the Cavaliers have come since the last time these two squared off this season.
Rewind to January, where Golden State took the Cavaliers to the woodshed with a 112-94 victory in the confines of their home arena. In that game, Golden State shot the lights out—as they usually do—with a 50 percent performance from the floor. Though the Cavaliers were without James, the team still had no answer for the Splash Brothers (Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson) as they combined for 47 points in 65 minutes of action.
This time around, the Cavaliers are clicking on all cylinders—but will still have to find a way to stop the Warriors’ dynamic duo. Winners of eight of their last 10, and 17 of their last 19, the Cavaliers have come a long way since the team that lost six straight during that span when they last faced Golden State.
The importance of James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love is easy to state, but newcomers J.R. Smith and Timofey Mozgov have been key cogs in the team’s resurgence during that time period. Since joining the Cavaliers, Smith looks like a completely different player as he is averaging 12.6 points per game on 42.1 percent shooting from the field and 35.9 percent from three-point land. Smith’s dedication to the game of basketball since joining the team has been a breath of fresh air, and eliminated the need to chase after guys like Ray Allen.
While Smith’s resurgence has been great to watch, the complete turnabout created by the acquisition of Mozgov has been incredible. Since joining the team, Mozgov is shooting nearly 10 percent higher from the field (60.1 percent, up from 50.4 in Denver), averaging two full points higher at 10.5 per game and his rebound numbers are up from 7.8 to 8.1. His defensive presence is being felt in a big way as well, as he is blocking 1.7 shots per night.
Mozgov’s importance to the Cavaliers team—both offensively and defensively—can be seen on a nightly basis. With a true post presence on the defensive end of the court finally, Cavaliers defenders can focus on defending the perimeter. This will come in handy in a big way on Thursday night, as Curry and Thompson are both in the Top 20 in three-point field goal percentage in the league. They are also the Nos. 1 and 6 players in the league in three-point attempts on the season, which means the Cavaliers cannot let up outside the arc all 48 minutes of the game.
Though he is averaging just 21.9 minutes per night, do not be surprised if Iman Shumpert sees extended playing time on the wing on Thursday night thanks to his length and defensive prowess. He may be chipping in just 7.3 points per night, but his quick hands (1.27 steals per game) and relentless could be enough to disrupt Curry or Thompson’s flow.
At the end of the day, this game is certainly just one drop in the regular season bucket for both of these teams. But with all national eyes on this game as a potential NBA Finals matchup, you better believe both teams will bring it when the lights are shining brightest at 8 p.m. on Thursday night.