In the fawning over Kevin Durant's 43-point scoring night and the Warriors landing on the brink of a sweep in the NBA Finals, there is sure to be a simple fact that is glossed over as we wait for Game 4 and the presumed cessation of the Warriors' hostility toward the Cavs and the rest of the league: Cleveland should have won Game 3, as it should have won Game 1.
This one, which ended in a 110-102 win by the Warriors, who now have a 3-0 lead in the series, did not have the drama and feeling of wasted opportunity that Game 1 did. But so much went right for the Cavs over the course of the evening that they should have been able to seal their first win of the series and given a glimmer of hope to their fanbase hoping to see a series.
"I think this one hurts more because it was at home," Cavs guard J.R. Smith said. "We had a lot of lapses on the defensive end trying to switch and guys getting layups and dunks. I think my guy had three or four of those. This one takes the cake, for sure."
To be fair, what makes the Warriors such a difficult matchup is that they cut down their opponents' margins for error to such narrow gaps that no one can play with the discipline and attention to detail required to take advantage of those gaps four times in seven games. But the Warriors allowed the Cavs to play within that margin of error for Games 1 and 3, and Cleveland could not exploit it.
Consider the how-to-beat-the Warriors checklist, and how many items on that list could reasonably be marked off in Game 3:
Corral Curry and Klay. The Cavs defence did this admirably in Game 3, holding the Splash Brothers to a combined 7-for-27 shooting from the field and 3-for-15 from the 3-point line. The pair scored just 21 points, though the rotten shooting was offset by Curry, who made two of the most important plays of the game, a flip layup off a feed from Draymond Green with just under three minutes to play, and a 3-pointer seconds later that gave the Warriors a 101-97 lead.
STEPH SPLASH! pic.twitter.com/jMrNqT4G18- Golden State Warriors (@warriors) June 7, 2018
The D played on the two Warriors stars did add some sting to this loss.
"They're all disappointing," Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said. "But I thought our guys did a great job of fighting and sticking to the game plan outside of a couple breakdowns here and there. But like I said, to hold Steph to 11 and Klay to 10, we did a good job in that regard. But we've got to do a better job on K.D."
Top two options. Opponents need to have their best players operating at a high level to knock off Golden State. The Cavaliers had that tonight, with Kevin Love working well in the post and finishing with 20 points. That helped boost the 33 points from LeBron James, who added 10 points and 11 rebounds. The two were not terribly efficient but still shot 46.3 percent from the field.
Get a third option going. If knocking off the Warriors is the goal, a stroke of luck is required. That luck showed up in Game 3 in the person of Rodney Hood, the guard acquired by the Cavaliers in February, but who quickly tumbled out of the playing rotation as his shooting got increasingly erratic. Hood played 4:12 of garbage-time basketball in these Finals before Game 3, and was shooting 15.0 percent from the 3-point line. But Hood re-emerged on Wednesday, posting 15 points on 7-for-11 shooting. For a Cavs team desperate for a spark, Hood sure appeared to that guy.
Offensive rebounding. Cleveland can beat the Warriors on the glass, and they did just that in Game 1, getting 53 rebounds to just 38 for the Warriors. They did it too, in the 2016 Finals, when they held a 307-279 rebounding advantage over the Warriors, including an 82-72 edge on offensive rebounds-that edge was critical to the Cavs' championship. Their edge in rebounding waned as the game went on (at one point, the Cavs were up, 27-12 in rebounds) but in Game 3, the Cavs had enough of a cushion that they should have taken better advantage of it.
The Cavs had a rebounding advantage of 47-37 and led in offensive rebounds, 15-6. That was why Cleveland was able to take 11 more shots on the night, valuable possessions when trying to upset Golden State.
Clutch play. One reason the Cavs are still standing at this point in the season is that they have been excellent in crunch time, winning seven of 10 playoff games that the NBA deems as clutch (within five points with five minutes to go). At plus-2.1 points, they have the second-widest scoring margin in those situations. Yet, in Game 3, it was the Warriors who controlled the final minutes.
Cleveland took a lead on two free throws by Kevin Love with 3:11 to play, but the team played like it was out of gas from there. The Warriors' offence came too easy, a symptom of slow switches and only mediocre closeouts on GSW shooters. The Warriors made five consecutive shots to close the game, plus two free throws by Stephen Curry. The Cavs, on the other hand, were just 2-for-7 for five points in the final three minutes of Game 3.
"I think we lacked a little bit of communication and started to have a lot of slips," Cavs center Tristan Thompson said. "A lot of easy buckets for [Andre] Iguodala and Klay [Thompson] to the rim. This has been our game plan the whole series and we failed to do that in the fourth quarter."
Of course, after running through the checklist of phenomena required to beat the Warriors, it just still might not be enough. For James, who could be heading into his final NBA game as a member of the Cavaliers, this one will sting for the coming day or so.
"For me, tonight will be tough," James said. "Tomorrow I'll replay some plays and some moments and things of that nature. When I wake up Friday morning I'll be locked in on the game plan of what needs to be done to help our team win. That's just who I am. So the rest of the night will be tough. I'm not sure what time I'll end up getting to bed. Tomorrow we'll come in and watch film, so it will replay in my mind throughout the day. But Friday morning when I wake up, I'll be locked in and ready for Game 4."
It will be 3-0 when that game comes around. But it could easily be 2-1-in favour of either team.
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