At the risk of being overly simple, the Game 3 formula for the Cleveland Cavaliers was pretty clear: play better. They needed to play better defense. They needed their shots to go down on offense. They needed to get back to being themselves.
With a 120-90 win Wednesday night, it looks like they did just that.
It started with Kyrie Irving raining fire all over the court in the first quarter. He lit the Warriors, and Steph Curry in particular, up for 16 points in the game’s opening period and put Cleveland up 33-16. His shots weren’t very different from ones he took in Games 1 and 2, but they went down.
The Warriors employed their patented brand of small-ball to cut the deficit in the second quarter and got back in to the game. For at least a little while, Quicken Loans arena was apprehensive. Then LeBron happened.
James came out of halftime and did something we’d been waiting all playoffs for: He rediscovered his jumper.
All series the Warriors had been sagging off LeBron and walling off the paint. It successfully stalled Cleveland’s offense and won them two games. But Game 3 was different.
LeBron finished with 32 points, 11 rebounds, six assists, two blocks and a steal, but going 14-26 from the field was his most important stat. Hitting his midrange jumper forced the Warriors to play closer to him and opened driving lanes. There had been little Cavalier ball-movement in the first two games-LeBron’s jumper being a weapon created drive-and-kick opportunities that helped everyone on the Cavaliers.
Take J.R. Smith, for example. He scored just eight points combined in the first two games and largely looked absent. He made five threes and scored 20 points Wednesday night.
In addition to helping the Cavs’ offense finally remember it was playing in the Finals, LeBron was also very good on defense. Tyronn Lue made a key adjustment, shifting LeBron over to Draymond Green, and that slowed Golden State’s offense a great deal. Steph Curry struggled with his decision making anytime he saw LeBron at the other end of a screen.
However good LeBron was in Game 3, Curry was the complete opposite. He failed to look aggressive at all until early in the fourth quarter, when the game was mostly out of reach. He hit a couple of threes near the end to make his final line look better, but had more fouls than points for most of the contest. His six turnovers were also a big problem.
Steve Kerr was also off in his first road game of this series. The Cavaliers exploited the Warriors any time one of their big men was in the game, be it Andrew Bogut, Festus Ezeli or even Anderson Varejao. Going small to start the second quarter immediately ignited a 6-0 Warriors run and it eventually cut a 20-point deficit to eight.
Despite the blowout, Cleveland remains a long way away from winning this series. They still will have to win at least one game at Oracle. And the decision on what to do with Kevin Love in this series will now be even harder.
Love sat out Game 3 in the league’s concussion protocol and Richard Jefferson started in his place. Jefferson wasn’t the reason the Cavs won, but his effort and energy definitely helped. The Cavaliers lose some size playing him, but he doesn’t create the same kinds of unfavorable mismatches that Love does. I would not be surprised if Love comes off the bench in Game 4, if he even plays at all.
They say you don’t really know a series until one team loses a home game. We’ll see if the Cavs continue to hold serve in Cleveland Friday night.