After the stockings were emptied. After the presents were distributed. There was still one delivery to make on Christmas afternoon.
Durant led the Warriors (27-7) with 25 points one game after being a non-factor on offense. But more importantly led the team defensively, swatting five shots, which included swallowing up a last second James drive, knocking it off of him to seal the game.
Draymond Green said that Durant’s loves for playing defense has become clear this season:
“I always say defense is just about wanting to do it and he’s bought in to just wanting to play defense. … This is just part of his evolution, he’s become a much better defender. And that makes our defense tough.”
Durant’s block party has raged on for almost three-straight weeks and has vaulted him to the top spot in blocks in the NBA this season.
And he’s been on a roll in that department of late. You would have to go all the way back to Dec. 4 to find the last game in which Durant finished with fewer than two blocked shots.
“When you got your small forward protecting the rim the way he does — usually he’s always the weak-side man — that’s stifling for an offense.”
After their shooting woes last game, the Christmas spirit rejuvenated Durant and Klay Thompson’s shooting strokes. The duo would finish a combined 16-of-34 from the field and 7-of-16 from deep, a game after finishing just 12-of-38 from the field and 1-of-15 from 3.
Jordan Bell drew another start, even with usual starter Zaza Pachulia healthy and active. Time will tell if this is a sign Steve Kerr is finally ready to throw the rookie into the starting lineup or if this was a simple one-off.
Pachulia will be back in the starting five will be back in the starting lineup Wednesday, according to Kerr, and will almost assuredly finish the year there. But the mere decision to start Bell over him — if only for one day — shows that Kerr is more willing than ever to play the matchups, and would be willing to start the rookie when it matters most.
As for his play on the court, Bell’s engine revved too hot at times, but he showed nice vision and patience on numerous opportunities. He also absolutely shut down the paint with Durant and Green.
Kerr said was impressed with the youngster following his primetime effort:
“He was great. I think he learned a lot tonight. Obviously it was a national TV game and Christmas, LeBron and Cleveland and all that stuff. And you could see there were times he made some rookie mistakes, but this is all part of the experience and part of the development, and he’s really growing.”
The Warriors held the Cavs (24-10) to just 13 made field goals inside the 3-point line, shooting a dismal 25 percent.
Thompson offered all the credit for that effort to Durant and Green:
“It helps when you have guys like KD and Draymond back there to clean up your missed assignments. They’re so good at contesting every shot in the paint, blocking shots and they play with such great toughness. They really put us over the top.”
But on the flipside of the same coin, the defensive shortcomings came when tasked with closing out on Cleveland shooters — namely Kevin Love time-and-time again.
Love lit up the Warriors for 31 points and 18 rebounds, going 6-of-11 from 3-point land. But Love got no help from the rest of the Cavs, as James and company were borderline invisible on both ends of the court.
While James refused to switch onto Durant to stop the Warriors best option, Durant absolutely forbid anyone from switching onto James on the other end. Even waving off switches from Andre Iguodala late, the man who won a Finals MVP based significantly on his guarding James.
And that’s all thanks to Durant’s new defensive mentality Green said:
“You would always see over the years, he would make some defensive plays but he never really cared. He had never really bought in to it. … I think at the beginning of last year he kind of started off just like, ehh. And then we sat down and talked about it, like hey, we need you to lock in on defense. And from that point on, he’s just been getting better and better.”
And Durant backed it all up. He loaded up his pack and dished out one big present for all of Oakland and the Bay Area.
The Warriors get a day off before they start a tough stretch of three games in four days, and sixth game in nine days end 2017. It kicks off Wednesday when they take on the Utah Jazz (15-19) in a playoff rematch.
This win improves the Warriors record on Christmas to 12-15 all-time. This is the seventh time the Warriors have played on Christmas in the last eight years, and the third straight meeting between these two franchises. The first time two teams have played on Christmas three straight years since 2004-06 when the Lakers and Heat matched up.