Who’s Fresher Than the Warriors?


Perhaps that sentiment didn’t fully apply on this occasion, since the showpiece matchup on the N.B.A.’s five-game Christmas slate — even with Golden State’s Stephen Curry and Cleveland’s Isaiah Thomas both unavailable to play — represented perhaps the most anticipated event on the regular-season calendar.

“Definitely didn’t feel like just another game,” said the veteran guard Dwyane Wade, who jumped into the league’s foremost rivalry for the first time, as the first player off Cleveland’s bench.

In the grand scheme, though, Green nailed it. The Warriors convened for training camp in late September as such overwhelming favorites to win a third title in four seasons that the focus was bound to drift to the chasing pack, all part of the collective strain to determine if a worthy challenger to Golden State can emerge before the playoffs begin in April.

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The Warriors’ Kevin Durant blocking a shot by Cleveland’s Kevin Love in Monday’s game.

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Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The problem for all the chasers is that the Warriors — routine as some might find their persistent success — don’t exactly look stale. They now have the league’s best record (27-7) after outlasting the Cavaliers in Monday’s testy tussle at Oracle Arena and, of greater concern to the Clevelands and Houstons out there, appear to be building their most well-rounded team yet.

A string of recent injury absences, affecting the likes of Zaza Pachulia, Shaun Livingston and Green in addition to Curry, has forced Warriors Coach Steve Kerr to roll out 13 starting lineups already this season — compared with just 14 all of last season. Through that experimentation, Kerr is finding an increasing level of trust in the rookie big man Jordan Bell, as well as in the free-agent signee Omri Casspi and the second-year guard Patrick McCaw, which has created a more versatile and dynamic bench than he could lean on previously.

The result: Curry has missed the past nine games because of a sprained right ankle, but the Warriors are a tidy 8-1 in that span.

To some around here, it’s reminiscent of what happened last February, when a tangle with Washington Wizards center Marcin Gortat sent Pachulia careening into Kevin Durant’s left knee. Without Durant, Golden State lost four of its next six games but then found a groove that led to a 13-game winning streak and, ultimately, a more complete team for Durant to rejoin just before the start of the playoffs.

“We went through a similar stretch like this year when K.D. went down, and I thought we were better for it,” the Golden State forward David West said. “I think we’re on that same trail in terms of our team just growing and getting better.”

If so, that’s a scary prospect given how menacing the Warriors’ core four stars continue to be. With Curry stuck behind the bench in a sports jacket on Monday, rebuffed in his pleas to Kerr to return to the lineup on the big Christmas stage, Durant (25 points and 5 blocked shots), Green (12 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists) and Klay Thompson (24 points and 7 rebounds) made up for his absence with forceful two-way play.

James appeared to have a worthy case to publicly question the lack of a whistle against Durant when he blocked a shot by James on a drive to the hoop in the final 30 seconds — while the game was still up for grabs. But afterward, James focused instead on the Cavaliers’ almighty struggle to score inside the 3-point arc (13 for 52 shooting on 2-pointers against Golden State’s stout resistance) and the Warriors’ decisive 33-9 edge in fast-break points.

“They kicked our butts in transition,” said James, who went on to assert that the absences of Curry and Thomas made this game no more than “a feel-out’’ for down-the-road encounters.

Thomas’s looming return from the hip trouble that has plagued him for months enables the Cavaliers to believe that some semblance of the growth and improvement that West mentioned is in their future, too. The burden that James and Kevin Love currently carry is massive; we’ll see if Thomas can finally start to fill the gaping void in Cleveland’s offense created by Kyrie Irving’s departure to Boston.

Green, for one, made it clear he certainly won’t mind if the prevailing response to these two rivals’ latest duel is to put the proverbial microscope right back onto the Cavaliers.

“Not at all,” Green said. “We don’t mind flying under the radar. We’ve been on top three years now. To kind of get out of that spotlight for a minute is cool.”

Correction: December 25, 2017

Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article misstated the number of N.B.A. games scheduled for Christmas Day. There were five, not four.

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