For a team as historically great as these Warriors have been, they have an extremely wide range of possible outcomes. At times they have an array of interchangeable wings with length, and at others they look every bit a team with only two legitimate three-point shooters. Sometimes bench cogs like Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston have a huge impact on the game, while sometimes they look like complete offensive liabilities. When their shots go in, they appear to be a team supremely confident in hitting tough looks, and when they don’t, it’s easy to get the impression that they’re out of sync and pressing.
The Warriors looked like the lesser of all those scenarios in Tuesday’s 96-91 Game 3 wire-to-wire loss in Cleveland, yet also showed signs, just as they did in Game 2, of being the juggernaut that can rapidly erase large deficits.
Until late in the third quarter, Golden State looked fairly shook. Whereas their slow start in Game 1 was more about nerves, the larger portion of this contest saw the Cavs playing with more intensity and assertiveness. That’s not to say the Warriors were soft, or other narrative-based terms that verge on Hot Take status, but it did seem as if someone needed to splash some cold water or clap in their faces.
Their usual source of that in-the-moment energy is Draymond Green, except they surely weren’t going to feed off him, as he had yet another dreadful game. He has no confidence in his shot, as the Cavaliers are wisely gambling more on Green beating them offensively and it’s working, at least for now.
Much of the attention for Golden State’s languishing on offense has gone to Stephen Curry, which is more than fair considering he’s the MVP and has not played up to the standard he’s set. For instance, he got the Warriors on the board with a three to begin the game and then didn’t score again for the rest of the half. If Marreese Speights‘s missed dunk at the end of the third quarter summarized Game 2, Curry’s layup that was waved off at the exact same point in the game served as a similar omen. No team is going is survive their superstar disappearing in the Finals. However, the fact that his poor play relatively submarines the entire Warriors offense highlights that they need him to be great because offense isn’t going to come from other sources.
Klay Thompson came back to Earth after his sublime Game 2, posting just 14 points on 6-16 shooting. Green, Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut are contributing nothing, as Barnes was 0-8 from the field and Bogut obviously isn’t a threat on offense. They weren’t much help on defense either. Barnes was helpless against LeBron James and the Cavs built their early lead with a steady diet of attacking the rim unabated. Both were buried on the bench in favor of Iguodala, Festus Ezeli and David Lee, who was dusted off as Steve Kerr’s “break in case of emergency” option, as opposed to the usual small lineup with Green at center.
In a run equally impressive and frustrating (because it’s what they’re capable of when playing well), Curry and Lee led a run to trim the deficit from 20 to single digits. A Curry three made it 77-73, and another one had the Warriors within one at 81-80, but a familiar foe, Matthew Dellavedova (20 points), hit another improbable shot as a part of a three-point play immediately after, and the ensuing possession saw Curry’s behind-the-back pass roll out of bounds when Green rolled to the rim, a decision likely impacted by the loss of confidence in his range.
LeBron effectively shut the door on the next trip down the floor, nailing a three for an 87-80 advantage that capped off another masterful and historic performance (40 points, 12 boards, eight assists, four steals over 46 minutes). Curry hit a trio of three-pointers in the final 90 seconds to finish with 27 points on 10-20 shooting, including 7-13 from downtown, but it wasn’t enough as the Cavs hit their free throws to seal the first home playoff victory in franchise history.
The fourth quarter was somewhat of a win-win, as the Cavs held on while Curry finding his game suggests Golden State should be just fine, even in the face of all its problems. Every team has to make sacrifices when building their roster, and the subtle flaw of the 2015 Warriors is that the cost of all their defensive flexibility is that they’re extremely dependent on Curry to create offense. They have a surplus of able and willing passers, but those passing sequences become harder to pull off in the playoffs amid fatigue and opponents that know where the ball is headed (just ask Atlanta).
That’s the gift and curse of having a superstar: he can render the play of the rest of the roster relatively moot, for better or worse. No player illustrates that better than LeBron, who has played both roles in letting down Miami in 2011, then carrying Cleveland this postseason. Now Curry is at the crossroads in a series where his caliber of play could very well decide which team brings home the trophy.