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How two uneasy moments made Cavs better equipped for Warriors

Prior to a Jan. 16 clash in Oakland between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors, the defending champion Cavs had beaten their cross-country rival four straight times, including a historic NBA Finals comeback and a Christmas Day thriller -- a game in which Golden State coughed up a 14-point fourth-quarter lead and ultimately lost by a point.

Even with the Warriors' highly publicized addition of Kevin Durant, Cleveland still found a way to extend its winning streak over Golden State.

In the days leading up to the January contest, something about the Cavs' demeanor didn't sit right with GM David Griffin. It's still unknown whether he suspected overconfidence or complacency with his group, but management felt that a humbling experience against the Warriors might be necessary for the team's growth moving forward.

And like clockwork, an embarrassing 35-point loss ensued, Cleveland's worst defeat of the season.

LeBron James and Kyrie Irving shot a combined 12-for-37 from the field. They each had six turnovers. James had a plus/minus of minus-32, the lowest in the game. Kevin Love shot 1-for-6 and scored three points.

"I played like s---," James said while walking out of Oracle Arena. "I didn't have it tonight."

Griffin saw the concern on his guys' faces after the game. That's exactly what he wanted to see. Doubt had reappeared. Further comments by Jamescame a week later.

In New Orleans on Jan. 23, after the Cavaliers' fifth loss in seven games, James told a group of local reporters that he hopes the franchise isn't satisfied with the collecting of one ring. He also had harsh, blunt critiques about the construction of the roster.

"We top-heavy as s---," James said. "It's me, [Irving], [Love]. It's top-heavy."

There was some uneasiness within the locker room after James' candid rant. Players were awkwardly left wondering whether they were part of the problem or part of the solution.

Griffin fired back the next day, calling James' remarks "misguided."

Despite the internal conflict, with the liberty of hindsight, the front office now believes James was brilliant in lashing out and considers it one of the turning points of the Cavs' season.

James hoped such a bold controversial assessment might galvanize the team. It appears that may be the case. Cleveland is 11-4 since and appears ready for a third straight push to the Finals.

The Warriors continue to be the ultimate motivator for the Cavaliers. It's been that way the past few years. Former Cavaliers coach David Blatt was fired partly because of the belief that he couldn't get the team past Golden State.

On a great day, the Warriors can go nine-deep in their rotation by inserting reserves Andre Iguodala, JaVale McGee, Shaun Livingston and David West. If the Warriors add veteran point guard Jose Calderon, he would be an insurance policy.Golden State is widely considered the pound-for-pound king of the NBA.

The Cavs, with recent additions of Kyle Korver, Derrick Williams and Deron Williams, who signed with the team Monday, can argue that their hats belong in the ring.

When J.R. Smith and Love return to full health, Cleveland will be capable of going up to 11 deep with subs Korver, Derrick Williams, Deron Williams, Channing Frye, Iman Shumpert and Richard Jefferson. And if a newly bought-out Andrew Bogut chooses to join the Cavaliers, that rotation could shoot to 12.

It has the makings of the deepest roster James has possessed during his career. The Cavaliers' best lineup in recent weeks has centered around James, Korver, Jefferson, Derrick Williams and Frye. It's a cerebral roster with flexibility and versatility.

James has the help he called out for, and Griffin has a sense of urgency back in his locker room.

Regarding the team's shift, Griffin told ESPN "it's joyful to watch." And speaking of watching, the Warriors and Cavaliers monitor each other throughout the season very closely, although they won't admit it. Each transaction is discussed and made with the other in mind.

These two powerhouses desperately want a third consecutive Finals showdown. In 2015, Love and Irving were sidelined with injuries and the Warriors won in six. In 2016, Draymond Green was suspended for Game 5 and the Cavaliers came back from a 3-1 deficit to capture their first championship.

Cavaliers-Warriors III would be something special, especially if each side is whole for the duration of the Finals. Health isn't promised, but barring a disastrous turn of events, a much-anticipated Round 3 looks to be on its way.

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