INDEPENDENCE (92.3 The Fan) – Many assume that when the Cavaliers host the Golden State Warriors Monday night it’ll be a preview of the fourth consecutive meeting between the 2 teams in the NBA Finals come June.
It won’t be.
“Because IT [Isaiah Thomas] isn’t where he will be when playoff time hits,” LeBron James explained Monday morning following the team’s shootaround at Cleveland Clinic Courts. “Obviously Steph has been playing exceptional basketball since he came back. He had the one little mishap, I believe he hurt his ankle in shootaround, but he’s been playing great basketball.
“It’s going to take a little longer to get to where we need to be. We’re not the team we would like to be when the postseason starts. Playoffs can start tomorrow for them and I think they’d be ready to go. For us, I don’t think we’re ready to go right now.”
The Cavs and Warriors have become the NBA’s premiere rivalry thanks to the Finals showdowns that have seen the Warriors win 2 titles and the Cavs 1, which came in 2016.
“It’s exciting,” Thomas said. “A high intense game. Guys really care about that game.”
But the reality is that the Cavs aren’t ready for the Eastern Conference playoffs, let alone the Warriors.
“We’re just in a rough patch and hopefully we can get up out of this soon,” James said. “Tonight is an opportunity for us to go out and play some good basketball versus the best team in the NBA right now.
“We want to defend, we want to try and make shots, obviously, we want to try and right the ship especially after a tough road trip.”
Cleveland has fallen on hard times of late having lost 8 of their last 11 games – including a 99-92 setback on Christmas day at Golden State – after rolling off 18 victories in 19 games in November and December.
It won’t get any easier Monday night, even if they’re back at The Q where they’ve won their last 13 on the home hardwood.
“You can be in a rut and be facing the team with the least amount of wins in the league and you go out there and not play well and they’ll beat you too, so it doesn’t matter,” James said. “Like, I was asked the other day, ‘what is the challenge that Golden State brings you with the way you’re playing right now?’ And I said, ‘Listen, you can win 100 straight games in a row and play Golden State and the challenges do not change. They’re as great as a team as you’re going to face. It doesn’t change, no matter what, no matter if you’re playing well or you’re not playing well when you face them.’”
Golden State rolls into town with the NBA’s best record at 35-9, a game ahead of the Eastern Conference leading Celtics, who are 34-10, while the Cavs are third in the East at 26-16, 3.5 games behind No. 2 Toronto and just 1 game in front of Miami.
“I know it’s a big game, but at the same time it’s just another game,” Thomas said. “We gotta treat it like that.”
Cavs coach Tyronn Lue is also trying to figure out his rotation with both Thomas and forward/center Tristan Thompson healthy again. Regardless of whatever funk the Cavs are trying to work through following a 1-4 road trip that saw them lose by 14 in Boston, 28 at Minnesota, 34 at Toronto and a 2-point loss at Indiana that saw them blow a 22-point lead, Lue is confident they’ll show up Monday night.
“I think so. We gotta get up. If not it’ll be embarrassing,” Lue said. “The guys are ready to play. We know they’re the defending champs. They’re a tough team, they’re a good team and we’re ready to play. We gotta be up to the challenge.”
Thomas has only played in 4 games since being activated after recovering from a right hip injury and the results have been mixed. Thomas scored 36 points on 13 of 25 shooting in his first 2 games combined but in his last 2 outings he has shot just 5 of 26 from the field and scored 13 points.
“I’m excited about getting the opportunity to get back to playing again after getting a few days off,” Thomas, who was given Friday night’s loss at Indiana off to rest, said. “And also trying to just figure out how to get a win. We’re in that mode right now where we just need to win to get that confidence back and get our mojo back.
“It’s a great opportunity to go against a really good team and we’ll be ready.”
Thomas thinks he’ll need a month before returning to his old form. He’ll need every ounce of agility and energy he can spare Monday night because he’s expected to draw the assignment of guarding Steph Curry.
“It’s an opportunity to compete against the best,” Thomas said. “He’s one of the top guards in the world. Even going back to when I used to play with the Kings, we always used to battle, so it’s fun playing against really great competition. He’s a hell of a player. It’s tough playing against him but at the same time he gotta guard us too.”