CLEVELAND – Before continuing the debates about whether the Golden State Warriors could defeat the Showtime Lakers, Shaquille O’Neal’s Lakers, Michael Jordan’s Bulls, Larry Bird’s Celtics, or any of the NBA’s all-time great teams, let’s try to remember one thing: They still have to defeat the Cleveland Cavaliers.
In a dire situation that LeBron James deemed “do-or-die,” the Cavaliers reminded everyone set to prematurely crown the Warriors with back-to-back titles that there is still a playoff series going. With James and Kyrie Irving leading the way in the absence of Kevin Love, the Cavaliers announced their arrival to the NBA Finals in resounding fashion with a 120-90 victory in Game 3 at Quicken Loans Arena.
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“We weren’t ready to play,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “Obviously they just punched us right in the mouth right in the beginning. We’re turning the ball over like crazy. Soft, we were extremely soft to start the game, and then they set the tone with their intensity.”
Cleveland snapped a seven-game losing streak to the Warriors dating to last postseason. And, in the game’s final minute, a few suddenly confident Cavaliers fans started to shout, “Cavs in six!”
The Warriors lead the best-of-seven series 2-1.
A change of venue and a few days to stew over their shellacking in Oakland, Calif., proved to be enough to finally get an inspired performance from the Cavaliers. Irving got the Cavaliers started by scoring 16 of his 30 points in the first quarter, and James took over from there, defying gravity with breathtaking dunks and discovering a jumper that had abandoned him for much of this postseason. The Cavaliers’ All-Star duo needed to take on more responsibility with Love forced to remain in concussion protocol after absorbing a Harrison Barnes elbow to the back of the head Sunday.
The Warriors dominated the Cavaliers in the first two games without getting their usual spectacular performances from two-time MVP Stephen Curry and his All-Star backcourt mate Klay Thompson. That should’ve served as an encouraging sign for Golden State as the series shifted to Cleveland, but the inability of their two best players to get going in Game 3 was more disconcerting. Curry finished with 19 points but only had two points at halftime. Thompson missed his first five shots, was forced to head to the locker room in the first half after bumping knees with Cavaliers reserve Timofey Mozgov, and finished with just 10 points.
The series that NBA fans have been anticipating all season has yielded three blowouts, with home court appearing to be the ultimate advantage. The Cavaliers improved to 8-0 at home this postseason, while the Warriors continued their struggles in the third game of a playoff series, losing their first road game for the fourth time this postseason. Golden State had an easy excuse for losing to Houston and Portland because Curry was out with injuries to his ankle and knee, respectively, in those series. On Wednesday, the Warriors had Curry in body only as the Cavaliers continued to make it hard on him with physical, smothering defense.
James was unusually passive in the first two games and drew some criticism for failing to inspire his teammates, who seemed overwhelmed after a relatively easy waltz through the Eastern Conference. He had no such problem leading on Wednesday as he made his presence felt on both ends of the floor. In the third period, James hounded Curry at the top of the key, deflected a pass then leaned down to recover the loose ball. After gaining his balance, James zipped the ball ahead to Irving then elevated high above the rim to catch a poor lob pass and throw down a ridiculous dunk.
It hasn’t been the classic Finals matchup many anticipated, but the teams will have another chance to provide a compelling contest in Game 4 on Friday.