The Cleveland Cavaliers Have a Chance to Spoil Klay Thompson’s Return and Assert Their Position as a Legitimate Contender

Few expected the Cleveland Cavaliers to make any noise in 2021-22. Finishing with an appearance in the play-in round might have been enough to satiate Cleveland’s loyal fan base. Yet at 22-17, the Cavs are within striking distance of a top-four seed in the East, a previously unheard-of thought for a franchise that has missed the playoffs every year since LeBron James departed in 2018.

Sunday night, the Cavaliers will visit the Golden State Warriors in an NBA Finals rematch of 2015-18. And they’ll see a familiar face in the process, as Warriors sharpshooter Klay Thompson is expected to make his long-awaited season debut. But you can expect the Cavs to do everything they can to spoil Thompson’s return and stake their claim as a title-contending club worth respecting.

A fierce defense has carried the Cleveland Cavaliers into contention

Cleveland’s defense has long been a struggle. Dating back to 2017-18, the Cavs’ defensive rating has ended the year ranked 29th, 30th, 29th, and 25th.

This season? Cleveland enters its matchup against Golden State ranked third.

Only the Warriors and Phoenix Suns, the two teams sitting atop the NBA standings, have a better defensive rating than the Cavaliers. And only Golden State is allowing fewer than Cleveland’s 102.5 points per game.

A lot of the credit can be attributed to head coach J.B. Bickerstaff. The veteran coach replaced John Beilein during the 2019-20 season and has gradually guided Cleveland toward defensive competence. Now, Bickerstaff oversees a roster that has become one of the best lockdown teams in the league. And it’s earned him a nice extension through 2027 in the process.

One of Bickerstaff’s best moves was creating the 7-footer lineup. The combination of fifth-year vets Lauri Markkanen and Jarrett Allen along with rookie Evan Mobley has given Cleveland a mammoth advantage in size against other teams. Allen and Mobley have been especially impressive, ranking fourth and sixth respectively in defensive win shares.

The Cavaliers have a chance to spoil Klay Thompson’s highly-anticipated return to action

The Warriors are earning oodles of adulation thanks to a 29-9 record and the MVP-caliber performance of Stephen Curry. But both will take a backseat to Thompson when Sunday night’s game tips off.

It’s been some time since the five-time All-Star Thompson appeared in a game. The 3-point marksman tore his ACL during Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals, a series Cleveland was watching from home after going 19-63. Then with the 2020-21 season just weeks away, Klay tore his Achilles during a workout, keeping him sidelined for the second campaign in a row.

Thompson’s return is a heartwarming story every basketball fan can root for. That being said, the Cavs should do everything in their power to crush Golden State’s good vibes.

June 9, 2017. That’s the last time the Cavaliers defeated the Warriors in any game. Thanks to a combined 71 points from LeBron and Kyrie Irving, Cleveland avoided the sweep with the Game 4 victory at home. As for the last regular-season victory? How about Christmas Day of 2016, when Irving’s game-winning shot with three seconds left gave the Cavs a one-point win.

The point being, it’s been a long time since Cleveland got the best of its most-recent rival. But if there’s a team that can finally hang with one of the league’s best, it’s this year’s Cavaliers. And not the Cavs who Golden State saw on November 18 without Allen, Mobley, or Markkanen. Instead, the one who at full strength can challenge any team with size and defense.

A win against the Warriors would prove the Cavaliers are no fluke

Should the Cavaliers pull off the road upset against Golden State, there may be some overreactions. Are the Cavs a dark horse title pick? Are they a no-doubt playoff team?

Perhaps assuming either is a bit presumptuous. Though a win would confirm the surprising Cavaliers are more than a feel-good first-half story.

Cleveland is one of nine teams to rank within the top half of the league in both offensive and defensive rating. The eight other teams each occupy one of the top-four seeds in their respective conference. So at this point, the Cavs beating anyone shouldn’t come as much of a shock.

From an individual standpoint, Allen has looked like a legitimate All-Star and Mobley a Rookie of the Year favorite. But that’s not even getting to Darius Garland, who leads the team with 19.9 points per game, as well as Kevin Love, whose resurgent season is giving Cleveland much-needed depth. Even with season-ending injuries to Collin Sexton and Ricky Rubio, the Cavs’ balanced roster helps solidify their rank as a team to be reckoned with.

The Cavaliers bandwagon was far from full when the season tipped off. But it’s going to fill up soon, so you better get a spot while you can.

All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.

RELATED: In 12 Years, Rajon Rondo Went From Convincingly Ending LeBron James’ Cleveland Tenure to Now Joining a Revitalized Cavaliers Squad