Late in the third quarter of Game 3 of the NBA Finals, a huge lead had it looking like the first contest of the series that wouldn’t need overtime to be decided, but the crooked number hanging on the scoreboard belonged to the underdog.
The Cleveland Cavaliers were actually the ones with a huge lead––the largest of the series for either team––when they put the Golden State Warriors down 20 points on a Timofey Mozgov dunk with a little less than 15 minutes remaining in the game. On their home floor, the Cavs looked ready to zip up the game and a 2-1 series lead.
Like the first pair of Finals games, though, an easy win wasn’t an option, and Golden State immediately bounced out of its 20-point basement to make it a nerve-racking fourth quarter for Cleveland, who saw the lead trimmed to one point before surviving for a 96-91 victory.
Instead, it’s LeBron James, in his first year back in Cleveland, who has the Cavs just two wins away from their first NBA title. LeBron has put together one of the most controlling individual Finals performances ever through three games, including a 40-12-8 performance effort in 46 minutes in Game 3. He managed to stifle the Warriors’ tempo again in Game 3, alternately posting up, running pick-and-roll or even deferring to his teammates, all under the umbrella of a lurching half-court offense that revolves around James even when he’s not holding the ball. It’s not pretty, but it’s purposeful, and it managed to mess with the Warriors’ rhythm again on Tuesday night.
When Golden State finally found its rhythm, which they certainly seemed to during the fourth quarter, LeBron and the Cavs were able to come up with just enough of an answer to keep the game out of reach, including an absurd three-point, bank-shot play from Matthew Dellavedova while Cleveland was clinging to a one-point lead with 2:27 remaining in the game. Stephen Curry followed that with an unforced error on a behind-the-back pass, and LeBron followed that with a dagger three-pointer to put the Cavs up seven with 1:44 remaining.
While it was another stout and sound defensive performance from the Cavaliers, the Warriors helped them out, and the Dubs looked a little shell-shocked throughout some of the game. Golden State was blowing layups and clanging wide-open jump-shots despite improving some of its decision-making and ball-movement from the first two games––it looked like Cleveland had just sort of knocked them on their ass a bit, especially Curry, who was still rushing half-open looks from 20 feet to try to get going in the second half.
Then, once the deficit hit 20, everything changed: the Cavs got a bit tentative playing with a lead, and Curry, suddenly in “f***-it” mode, started lighting things up, and the league MVP went 6-9 on threes in the second half, helping boost the Warriors’ offense in the process.
The Cavs struggled to counter the decisive David Lee, who got run while Draymond Green nursed a tight back and killed them out of pick-and-rolls with Curry when he’d make the quick play to pass or prod, then react to what Cleveland gave them. He had nine points and two assists in the second half, and he was an instrumental wrinkle in breaking down the way Cleveland was defending Curry off screens to help free his jumper, a role Green has struggled with so far in the Finals as his jump-shot has disappeared.
That stuff happens from game to game in the playoffs, however, and the Cavs will surely have adjustments for Lee in Game 4. The larger concern is the fact that the Warriors looked far more comfortable down the stretch of Game 3, with Curry getting some very difficult shots to fall and the rest of his teammates staying patient and finding good shots. A team as talented as Golden State is going to get theirs on offense over the course of 48 minutes; Cleveland just has to continue to make it tough on them.
Now, James, David Blatt and the Cavaliers will try to take a commanding 3-1 series lead at home in Game 4. It’ll be quite the challenge for this team, but they’ve shown to be up for any type of challenge throughout this postseason. Can they do the same against a desperate Golden State team?
At this point, it would feel foolish to doubt Cleveland, especially with the way the world’s best player is playing right now.