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The Cavs Lost Game 3 in Four Minutes and 49 Seconds

A possession-by-possession breakdown of when the comeback dream died

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

The Cavaliers played the game we’ve been waiting for all Finals long — all playoffs long, really. In Game 3, behind spectacular performances from LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, a team finally stood up to Golden State. A win would not have made this series competitive, but at least it would have given the NBA hope that somebody could beat these Warriors, at least for one night.

The Cavs had the lead late, and the game in their hands. And then in about 150 seconds, Golden State played flawless basketball to grab the win. Kevin Durant scored seven straight points by himself, reminding us why the 73-win Warriors actually did need to add one of the NBA’s top players. The Cavs didn’t score at all, thwarted by their own failures and the Warriors’ excellence. Golden State scored 11 straight to end the game, giving them a 3–0 series lead — and no team has ever rallied back from a 3–0 deficit. (Last year we assumed 3–1 leads were unloseable — this year, Golden State got extra dynamite to blow the hole even deeper.)

But the game might not have been close in the fourth if it weren’t for an earlier stretch. With 1:49 remaining in the first quarter, the Cavs subbed out LeBron James — and in those 109 seconds, the Warriors scored 10 straight points, turning a three-point deficit into a seven-point lead.

What happened in these two flash floods of buckets from Golden State? Here is a possession-by-possession breakdown of the two sections of play where the Warriors did everything they wanted and the Cavaliers lost themselves the game.

First Quarter

1:39 Steph Curry hits a 3 over Kevin Love

The Warriors are committed to killing memes. When Steph saw Love in his sights here, he remembered.

1:24 Iman Shumpert takes a 16-foot step-back 2

Shumpert gets the ball with an open look for 3! He dribbles out of it and takes the shot the Warriors want him to take.

1:15 Steph Curry hits a 3 over a double-team

We can’t act like LeBron James would have stopped this:

The Warriors will make miraculous things happen regardless of who is on the court. The difference with LeBron out is they can’t stop the non-miraculous things and also can’t muster any sort of offense.

0:52 Richard Jefferson throws the ball to nobody

Here’s a good look at Cleveland’s offense without LeBron James. First, Kyrie Irving tries to drive, and gets nowhere:

Eventually the ball gets to Jefferson, who goes nowhere, but jumps while doing so, and is forced to randomly hurl the ball.

0:43 Shaun Livingston dunks

Let’s look at this possession and the last one together. They have a common theme: awful mistakes by Richard Jefferson. A bad turnover followed by an unforgivable miscommunication over a simple screen in transition.

It is nice that Richard Jefferson is still healthy at the ripe old age of 36, but he probably shouldn’t be playing a big role in an NBA Finals game. I love the podcast, though!

0:40 Kevin Love sets an illegal screen

0:35–0:30 Steph Curry misses a 3, gets his own rebound, misses a layup

Golden State doesn’t score here — its only wasted possession in this two-minute span — and it’s still a good possession. Steph misses a 3, and gets his own rebound. Curry has the second-most offensive rebounds in this series, and more rebounds per minute than Tristan Thompson. The series is lost, but Thompson has to come out in Game 4 gunning for every board to keep this from holding up.

0:19 Iman Shumpert bricks an open 3

Shumpert went 8-for-17 from 3 in the first three rounds of the playoffs, considerably higher than his 34 percent career average. He’s now 1-for-7 from 3 (and 3-for-15 from the field) in the Finals. Read more about this concept here.

During the game, Mark Jackson criticized Shumpert for not holding the ball — the Cavs could’ve had the last shot, but instead Shump opted to take the open 3. It’s hard to tell any semi-decent player not to take an open look like this, but yeah, it backfired.

0:05 Draymond Green gets an easy dunk off botched pick-and-roll defense

Another massive defensive breakdown:

James would not have scored on every possession had he played during this stretch. He would not have stopped every Golden State basket. But it’s hard to overstate how critical he is to this team. The best thing the Cavs offense can muster without him is a decent look for Iman Shumpert; their defense suffers the sort of miscommunication errors committed by five random guys playing pickup. James is their rudder; without him they are lost.

James played for 45 minutes and 37 seconds, 95 percent of the 48-minute basketball game. In those minutes, the Cavaliers outscored the Warriors 113–106. In the two minutes and 23 seconds he sat, the Cavs were outscored 12–0. Russell Westbrook weeps.

And now let’s fast-forward to the fourth quarter — Cleveland has a 113–107 lead with about three minutes to go. This time, they have LeBron James, but fail just the same.

Fourth Quarter

3:00 Kevin Durant misses a wide-open 3!

Golden State wasn’t perfect at the end of the game — it was just extremely close to perfect.

2:34 J.R. Smith misses a 3. Cleveland rebounds.

2:25 Kevin Love throws a ball into the bottom of the rim

Here is your LeBron James Doesn’t Have Good Teammates meme:

Boy, looks like LeBron’s pass got to Love when Love was too far under the rim to do anything with it. I guess you could say he …

(•_•) ( •_•)>⌐■-■ (⌐■_■)

… found Love in a hopeless place.

Just kidding, it was a great pass and Kevin Love has to finish.

2:20 Steph Curry with an easy transition layup

No defense for this defense:

Kyle Korver is not exactly a great transition defender.

1:57 Kyrie Irving goes iso, shot rooolllllls on the rim and falls off, he gets the board

Kyrie Irving had such a spectacular game scoring around the rim. He had 38 points with no 3s and just six free throw attempts. Considering his size, he’s possibly the best finisher in the world in terms of degree of difficulty. He was 13-for-16 in the paint, with most of those looks contested, which really shouldn’t be possible for a 6-foot-3 guy. Here’s one of those three misses:

This shot needs to go in the deeply Unsatisfying Video. It’s a much different ballgame if it falls, and thanks to some weird physics, it doesn’t. Maybe the world is flat. But Kyrie got the board.

1:31 LeBron James misses a fadeaway

This is the worst thing LeBron did down the stretch. He has a step on Andre Iguodala, but gets comfortable posting up on him and misses a fadeaway.

I’m a basketball expert, and I believe he should have hit the shot instead.

1:15 Kevin Durant gets a switch onto Tristan Thompson, easily drives for a bucket

The Warriors called a timeout before this possession, and the Cavaliers used that as an opportunity to substitute Tristan Thompson into the game for defense. Golden State exposed him:

LeBron made no attempt to fight through Draymond Green’s screen, as if the plan was to have Thompson switch onto Durant in this situation. I don’t know why they would want this — James is much better suited to guard Durant. KD easily rushes to the rim and gets up a shot he’s comfortable with; Thompson isn’t in position to contest it and tries to block the shot at its high point with his off hand.

After this, the Cavs called a timeout to get Thompson out of the game for the next offensive possession, meaning the defensive substitution backfired massively. Not only were the Warriors not afraid to go at Thompson, they specifically targeted him and exploited his weaknesses to get a good look.

0:55 Kyle Korver misses a wide-open 3

Wiiiiide-open.

Call me crazy, but I think this was the single-biggest play of the game. If Korver hits this 3, the Cavs go up 116–111. Everything else could have gone exactly the same, and the Warriors would’ve found themselves down 116–114 with about 20 seconds left, needing another basket to tie the game. Instead, they took the lead on the next possession and never relinquished it.

Some have criticized James for passing. It’s utterly ridiculous. Michael Jordan made passes such as this on multiple occasions throughout his career — you might remember one such pass to the current coach of the Warriors. The other option was LeBron trying to finish a layup over Green and Durant, which is a low-percentage proposition.

Few players can demand such intense defensive attention, and few players can execute a pass this perfect out of it. You don’t have LeBron James on your team so LeBron James can score on every single possession — you also have him on your team so he can create an opportunity as good as an open corner 3-pointer for Kyle Korver.

Korver is the best spot-up shooter in the NBA. He has the seventh-best career 3-point percentage of all time, and the only active player higher than him is Curry, who could hardly be considered a spot-up shooter. You could say that the Cavs acquired him to hit this exact shot; but more accurately, the Cavs acquired him to hit a really high percentage on 3-pointers. And he’s done that!

But as hard as he has tried, and as much as he has succeeded, Korver has not become perfect. Even at his best — and his best is better than just about anybody’s best in recorded history — he’ll miss over half of his 3s. As precise as he has gotten, there is a lot of randomness in shooting from 23 feet away. If Korver hits this shot, he’s 3-for-6 from beyond the arc, a great night, and the Cavs likely win. He missed, and went 2-for-6, and they lost. This is basketball, the dumb sport we love: Sometimes you throw the big brown ball in the little orange hoop, sometimes you don’t.

0:45 The KD shot

Kevin Durant’s Instagram handle used to be "Easy Money Sniper." Yeah, checks out:

This was an iconic play: Down two, plenty of time left, and Durant knew this 3 was his. LeBron tried to play it off in his postgame presser like his lax defensive stance was a matter of strategy — he said Durant likes to fade forward on his shots, so he knew he could lay back a bit. It seems more like he got caught off guard by the shot.

The thing about Kevin Durant is that he’s a 7-footer, and even a 6-foot-8 human of unreal physical capabilities like LeBron can’t always successfully contest Durant’s shots from a flat-footed start.

0:26 Kyrie Irving dribbles for 18 seconds

This play by Kyrie Irving is basketball malpractice. Something bad can happen without necessarily being an act of negligence, like how Korver missed that 3 and I chalked it up as a matter of chance. But Kyrie acted maliciously here, a wrongheaded, awful possession that he should take heat for.

After KD scored, there were about 45 seconds left. Some argue a team should go two-for-one here, maximizing its opportunities to score. Others say a team should get the best possible look.

Instead, Irving dribbled for 18 seconds and settled for a step-back 3 over the airtight defense of Klay Thompson. He ruined the chance for a two-for-one without getting a good look. That accomplishes neither of the things! Most of Irving’s success on the night was going toward the rim — to this point, he was 0-for-6 shooting from beyond the arc — and yet he settled for a 3 here. He did not pass, even though LeBron James is his teammate, and LeBron James is very good at basketball.

0:13 A foul

The game is now lost — they are trailing, and have to foul either Steph Curry or Kevin Durant to do anything about it, and there is a roughly 0 percent chance of either missing a free throw.

About 45 seconds earlier, the Cavs had the game in their hands.

0:11 Andre Iguodala blocks LeBron’s shot

Remember what I said about killing memes?

Honestly, I’m surprised the Warriors didn’t let the Cavs build a 3–1 lead just to erase that. Or lobby voters to ensure LeBron got elected unanimous MVP.

Without enough time to drive, the Cavs called for a quick 3 for LeBron, which isn’t ideal. In that scenario, he can’t use his size or speed or strength on a play where he just needs to get a shot up. But that doesn’t make Iguodala’s ability to get all ball any less incredible.

0:09 Another foul

Steph Curry hasn’t missed a free throw in these Finals. He might never miss one again.

0:02 J.R. Smith dribbles aimlessly, Kevin Love hoists a prayer

And thus, the Cavs went down 3–0.

The Cavaliers were not a train wreck in the final minutes of this game. There was one exceptionally bad offensive possession, and the NBA’s generational talent took only two shots, neither of which was a great look. That’s damning on LeBron and his teammates. But they did get a lot of good looks that often lead to buckets, they hustled hard to get a pair of second-chance opportunities, and they often defended well. For most of the final three minutes of this game, they played smartly and with effort. They could have won if they had hit just one more shot or had made just one more stop.

The ultimate story here is one about the god-level Warriors. One of the best players in NBA history played an exceptional game for 43 minutes. In the five minutes when he was either absent or less than exceptional, Golden State dominated so thoroughly that it won. You can be excellent, and the Warriors will be excellent right alongside you. And if you stop for even a second, they will blow past you while you sputter.