Overshadowed by reigning champion Golden State’s record-busting streak and overall dominance, the Cleveland Cavaliers (27-9) and San Antonio Spurs (34-6) have quietly gone about their business this season and Thursday night’s showdown at AT&T Center might remind NBA fans of how difficult it will be for the Warriors to repeat.
Cleveland, riding an eight-game winning streak and entering its longest road trip of the season, sits atop the Eastern Conference and stand as the last team to beat the Spurs on the home floor. San Antonio’s enjoying a streak of its own, beating 32 straight opponents at home.
But Cleveland’s also welcomed point guard Kyrie Irving back from a knee injury just in time. The 23-year-old Irving returned on Dec. 20 and but played in only three of the Cavs next five games. However, upon the start of the new year, Irving’s reclaimed his role as LeBron James’ best running mate with 18.8 points, 3.7 rebounds, and 4.8 assists on 45.4 percent shooting, helping Cleveland remain perfect in 2016.
And it’s no coincidence James’ play has improved thanks to Irving’s comeback. James has improved his scoring, rebounding, playmaking, and defense while putting up three double-doubles in the Cavs last four games.
Cleveland’s also enjoyed improved rebounding from power forward Kevin Love, who’s putting up 16.2 points and 10.2 rebounds with 2.5 assists and is on pace to average a double-double since his final season in Minnesota.
The Cavs outstanding trio, as well as San Antonio’s newfound core of forwards Kawhi Leonard and first-year Spur LaMarcus Aldridge, with Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Tim Duncan still working the court, the star power on hand may overshadow each’s stellar work on defense.
The matchup pits the Spurs No. 1 ranked defense against Cleveland’s No. 3 unit, and with due respect to the Warriors, San Antonio’s looked far more balanced. Pairing Leonard’s 20.2 points with 2.0 steals per contest, the Spurs are holding opponents to 89.7 points and 42.7 percent shooting from the field and own the best average margin of victory in the NBA at +14.1 points.
Both sides have also managed to stay healthy, almost guaranteeing each will be at full strength in what could be a NBA Finals preview. Parker missed two games earlier this month due to a sore right hip, but he just lit up Detroit for 31 points on Tuesday.
However, the Cavs will likely miss reserve guard Mo Williams. The 33-year-old veteran reportedly did not travel with the Cavs to San Antonio due to family reasons after already missing Tuesday’s matchup with Dallas, according to Cleveland.com. Williams, though, had been out of the rotation for four straight games before the matchup with Dallas. He’s netting 11.2 points and 3.6 assists over 25 games this season
Betting Odds: San Antonio -6.6
Over/Under: 197 points
Tip-off: 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: TNT
Live Online: TNT Overtime
Prediction: San Antonio over Cleveland, 100-98