Both the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors are dealing with injuries heading into the holidays.
The highly anticipated rematch of last year's Christmas Day game and the last three NBA Finals will be dulled down this time around, as both teams will be missing their star point guards when they meet at Oracle Arena on Christmas Day.
The Cavaliers made it official that Isaiah Thomas won’t be making his debut alongside LeBron James on Christmas against the Warriors, while Steve Kerr said he was 99.99 percent sure that Stephen Curry wasn’t going to be able to give it ago.
Still, more than 10 million people watched or streamed last year’s Christmas Day doozy between these two teams and this year’s matchup will feature plenty of captivating storylines.
Here are a few things to watch for when the Cavs take on the Warriors on Dec. 25, 2017:
1. Kevin Durant vs. LeBron James
2. 2018 NBA Finals Preview
3. High-Intensity Rivalry
When Durant strolled up the court in Game 3 of the 2017 NBA Finals and hit that infamous game-winning three-pointer over the outstretched hand of LeBron James, many NBA fans – including Durant himself – felt like it signified a changing of the guard.
Durant told the Washington Post earlier this year; “It felt like he was passing the torch to me.”
James probably didn’t take too kindly to that sentiment and doesn’t appear ready to relinquish his death grip on the title as the best basketball player in the world.
LeBron is arguably in the middle of the best season of his 15-year NBA career and is one of the frontrunners for the MVP award this season.
He’s averaging 28.4 points, 8.2 rebounds, 9.2 assists, 1.5 steals, and 1.1 blocks per game this season, while shooting a ridiculous 57.0 percent from the field and a career-best 41.1 percent from three-point range.
James also leads the NBA in PER (31.42), box score plus/minus (11.1), value over replacement player (4.1), and estimated wins added (12.8) this year.
With Curry and Thomas both out, this particular Warriors-Cavs game stands out from the rest, as it highlights the individual battle between two players trying to distinguish themselves as the best at their craft.
Durant has the Warriors riding an 11-game win streak ahead of their Dec. 23 matchup against the Denver Nuggets. The 29-year-old small forward is averaging 32.3 points, 9.6 rebounds, 6.6 assists, and 3.0 blocks per game since Curry last played on Dec. 4.
This matchup will be about the game within the game, so to speak.
Most NBA fans believe that this Christmas Day battle will be a preview of the 2018 NBA Finals.
While this year’s Finals would have a different feel to it with IT in place of Uncle Drew, a fourth straight Warriors-Cavs Finals would be historic on a number of levels.
Before last season, no two teams had ever played each other to decide the NBA Championship in three consecutive seasons.
According to ESPN’s Kevin Pelton, we’d expect to see the same Finals matchup three years in a row about once every 32 years and four times in a row just once every 185 years.
It also mark James' eighth straight NBA Finals appearance and the fourth consecutive for the Warriors' dynasty.
The Cavaliers are better equipped to compete with the Warriors come June. The team improved its bench and added some versatile two-way players in the offseason.
Thomas’ impending return will give them another potent off-the-ball scorer and a secondary playmaker to compliment LeBron, while offseason additions like Jae Crowder and Jeff Green can help defend Durant and lighten the load on James defensively.
Needless to say, this is an NBA rivalry for the ages.
If there was one thing in particular that stood out in last year’s Christmas day game, it was the overall intensity from everyone on the floor.
The Cavaliers won last year’s matchup after Kyrie Irving hit another dagger against the Warriors – this time a tough turnaround jumper with Klay Thompson draped all over him.
Even though Irving won’t be on the floor in this game, it’s been evident for a couple of years now: these teams don’t like each other.
While both sides will likely downplay the significance of Monday’s Christmas Day rematch, don’t expect anyone to exhibit a lack of effort on either end of the floor.
Oracle Arena will present a crazy, playoff-like atmosphere for the potential 2018 Finals preview and there’s no doubt that the Warriors will be looking to avenge last season’s heartbreaking loss.
And don’t forget about the rivalry between Durant-LeBron.
James has owned the head-to-head regular season matchups with Durant throughout his career, but Durant split their battles in the playoffs with last year’s 4-1 Finals win.
Christmas Day 2017 could go down in history as a defining moment that cements an argument for either player as the NBA’s best modern day player.