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This Was As Good As It Gets for the Cavaliers, and They Still Lost

Two huge star performances and solid defense from their role players. Everything was going according to plan. Right until the end. Is there any hope left?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

With just under a minute remaining in the third quarter, after LeBron James emphatically pulled down his sixth rebound of the game on a Steph Curry miss, there was a brief moment of tranquility — of control — in a series unbearably lopsided in the Warriors’ favor. Kyrie Irving had just scored on one of his physically impossible pinball dervishes to the hoop, absorbing and unbounding like a human Super Ball. Both James and Irving unloaded the mental slack on their shoulders and exhaled. Relief, at last. The Cavs had a seven-point lead then — 94–87, their largest in a series where they’ve lost the first two games by an average margin of 20.5 points. Perhaps it was selfish — these Warriors are the most blink-and-you-might-miss-it team ever; to savor any moment is to issue a death wish. But there they were. This was the best the Cavs had played all series. For all they knew, that was the best it was going to get.

It was.

The lead would never balloon any further, and despite holding the lead for nearly all of the fourth quarter, the Cavs would manage to lose, 118–113, in heartbreaking fashion. Despite a first half that was played at a faster pace than either of the previous two games, by the fourth quarter the game had slowed to a (relative) crawl — something that most saw as the Cavaliers’ only hope of making this a series. When the game slows down, leads solidify — or at least that’s the illusion that longer possessions can conjure. But a seven-point lead can change in the course of a minute’s time against the Warriors — we’ve seen it happen time and time again over the past two years.

Considering the stakes, this was one of the best games of the postseason, a game that gives hope that, should this trilogy enter a further-prolonged-sequel factory, things might not be so bad after all. But it’s disappointing all the same, after a game like this, that the Cavs weren’t able to pull it off. Before the game, LeBron brushed off the notion that he was tired from guarding Kevin Durant, and proved it on Wednesday night, forcing Durant out of his comfort zone and getting the ball out his hands. When he wasn’t on Durant, J.R. Smith and Richard Jefferson were, serving as sacrificial lambs placed at the altar of a supremely confident god — they lived with Durant feasting in the post, and blitzed and trapped when they could. It’s not ideal, but few things are against this team. It was one way to slow the game down at certain points. Game 3 was Cleveland’s most considered defensive display of the series by far, and Kevin Love (? … !!!) was the exemplar. Love stretched his iconic Curry Defense into a full 37-minute clinic for all the laterally challenged kids at home who have been told they’d never be able to play good defense. Love was a monster in both a tangible and an intangible sense — he had six steals, but more impressive was the way he played the pick-and-roll and darted back to recover on the interior. But unlike Game 7 last year, his heroics couldn’t swing the game this time around.

It took a mental error from LeBron with 45 seconds remaining — going under on a screen for Durant from Draymond Green, which led to a straight-away 3 from KD — for the Warriors to reclaim a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. It also took Andre Iguodala’s quick hands on LeBron, who was ready to tie the game with a corner 3, but instead was blocked before he could even leave his feet. James and Irving combined for 77 points on 55 percent shooting. After days of waiting, they finally got themselves a positive J.R. Smith experience. This was about as good a performance as the Cavs could’ve hoped for, and they couldn’t pull it off. Could there possibly be anything left in the reserves for Game 4?