The Cavs gave the Warriors their best shot in Game 3 of the NBA Finals, and it still wasn’t enough. Cleveland bounced back Wednesday with a much better effort on its home court. In the first two games, the only time the Cavs held a lead in either game was in the first quarter; on Wednesday they were in control for most of the night. They were up by six points with a little over three minutes left in the fourth quarter. All they needed was one more stop or one more basket, but they couldn’t get either, instead giving up an 11–0 run that essentially ended the series. No team has ever come back from a 3–0 deficit in the Finals, and it’s hard to see the Warriors losing one game, much less four in a row.
Almost everything went right for the Cavs. LeBron James and Kyrie Irving put together incredible offensive performances reminiscent of the last few games of the 2016 Finals, with LeBron going for a near triple-double of 39 points, 11 rebounds, and nine assists while Kyrie chipped in 38 points on 16-of-29 shooting. Kevin Love’s shot wasn’t falling, but he had one of his best defensive performances against the Warriors, with 13 rebounds and six steals. Their role players were much better at home as well, most notably J.R. Smith, who had 16 points on 5-of-10 shooting after scoring only three points in the first two games.
Golden State didn’t get much from its supporting cast in Game 3, but its stars were so good that it didn’t matter. Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, and Klay Thompson combined to go 15-for-27 from behind the 3-point line, with many of those looks coming with a hand right in their face. The Warriors seemed to hit a big shot every time the Cavs threatened to pull away, and they were able to keep it close until the final few minutes, when their advantage in offensive firepower and late-game execution proved decisive. They are now only one game away from going 16–0 through the playoffs, a run that would put them squarely in the conversation for the best team of all time. And when people talk about this Golden State team, Game 3 will be the signature one they remember.
Here are seven takeaways from an instant classic, a 118–113 victory for the Warriors that will go down in the history books:
1. The Warriors Are Pretty Good in Crunch Time, Too
If there was one lingering question about Golden State, it was how the team would fare in the closing minutes of a tight game. Before Wednesday, the Warriors had won by double digits in every game in the postseason except Game 3 in the first round against the Blazers and Game 1 of the Western Conference finals against the Spurs, and the latter came with Kawhi Leonard sitting out for most of the second half with a season-ending ankle injury. The Cavs had beaten them by one point on Christmas Day, with LeBron and Kyrie showing much more synergy in crunch time of that game than Curry and Durant, who were still figuring out how to share the ball and play with each other.
Durant was the best player on the floor in the first two games of the Finals, but he was relatively quiet through the first three quarters of Game 3, settling for a lot of tough jumpers and not making as big of a defensive impact. However, with the game on the line, Durant put the ghosts of some poor fourth quarters in last season’s Western Conference finals behind him, scoring seven points in the final 1:15 of the game and effectively wrapping up the Finals MVP award. The kill shot came with 50 seconds left, when Durant pulled down a defensive rebound, brought the ball up the court, and drilled a pull-up 3 in LeBron’s face:
The Cavs had several chances to put the Warriors away, including an open 3 from Kyle Korver off a drive from James immediately before Durant’s game-winning basket. For as good as LeBron and Kyrie were Wednesday, they both came up short in the final minute. Andre Iguodala stripped LeBron and prevented him from getting off a shot when the Cavs were down three with 12 seconds left; Kyrie missed an almost impossible step-back 3 in the possession before. The parallels with Irving’s game winner in Game 7 of last year’s Finals were inescapable, except this time he had Thompson rather than Curry guarding him:
2. The Cavs Couldn’t Compete Without LeBron
One of the reasons Golden State was so much better in crunch time is that Steve Kerr was able to give his stars breathers over the course of the game, a luxury Tyronn Lue didn’t have. LeBron was plus-7 in 46 minutes in Game 3, and the two minutes and change he spent on the bench were too much for the Cavs to overcome. Cleveland had Irving and Love on the floor for most of that stretch, and it was still minus-10. While LeBron has been far from perfect in the Finals, his presence on the floor still makes life much easier for his teammates, and the mistakes they make on both sides of the ball are magnified without him.
Cleveland’s defense, both off the ball and in transition, has been terrible the entire series, and the team has given up way too many easy baskets to the Warriors. The Cavs’ margin for error without LeBron in the game isn’t big enough to give up a wide-open layup to Shaun Livingston on a back cut. They haven’t played good enough team defense to consistently force the ball to Golden State’s supporting cast on the perimeter, which would give them their best chance of winning. There’s no excuse for giving Curry any space to shoot when he’s playing next to nonshooters like Iguodala, Livingston, and rookie Patrick McCaw:
The Warriors have distributed offensive responsibility much more efficiently than the Cavs have in the Finals. To win at this level of the game, everyone in the rotation has to know the types of shots they are supposed to take within the flow of the offense. Iman Shumpert has consistently taken difficult shots off the dribble without success in the Finals, and he took two egregious ones when LeBron was resting Wednesday: a missed step-back jumper with a hand in his face, and an open 3 early in the shot clock. Shumpert is one of Cleveland’s best perimeter defenders, but he played only 12 minutes in Game 3 because Lue couldn’t trust him to understand his role in the offense:
3. The Warriors’ Supporting Cast Was Exposed
The flip side of resting your stars is that it forces you to dig deeper in your rotation, and Kerr’s belief in strength in numbers nearly cost his team the game. Every active player on the Golden State roster appeared in Game 3, and 10 played at least four minutes. (McCaw was six seconds off.) Role players tend to play worse on the road, and that was the case for the Warriors bench Wednesday. The Cavs did a much better job of finding their weak spots on both sides of the ball, and it’s something they can build on in Game 4 if Kerr doesn’t shorten his rotation.
The Warriors went small and benched their centers in each of the last two Finals, and they would almost certainly have to do something similar if the Cavs were able to put any pressure on them in this series. Golden State was minus-7 in the 30-plus minutes one of its centers was on the floor in Game 3, as Zaza Pachulia wasn’t able to make Cleveland pay for not guarding him, while JaVale McGee and David West struggled to hold their own on defense. The Warriors are better with Durant and Green at center, but they might wear down if they’re forced to bang with the bigger Cleveland players the entire game.
The other problem for Golden State when it slides Durant and Green to center is the lack of perimeter shooting in its supporting cast. Ian Clark is the only role player for Golden State that Cleveland has to worry about from beyond the 3-point line, and he has been a huge liability on defense in this series. While Curry has held his own whenever the Cavs have involved him in ball screens, Clark has been a sieve, with the worst net rating (minus-4.5) of any player in the Warriors rotation in the first three games of the Finals. Golden State doesn’t have any true 3-and-D players off the bench, and Cleveland was able to take advantage of that through the first three quarters of Game 3.
4. Draymond Green Kept Things Close by Committing a Lot of Silly Fouls
Green scored only eight points on 3-of-9 shooting, but he was plus-14 in 33 minutes Wednesday, by far the best rating of anyone on the Warriors roster. He’s the connective glue that holds everything else together, and he did a little bit of everything in Game 3, going for a near triple-double with eight rebounds and seven assists while also being everywhere on defense. He’s the front-runner for the Defensive Player of the Year Award for a reason: Golden State’s defensive rating in the Finals skyrockets from 95 when he’s in to 114 when he’s out.
The biggest issue for Draymond in the series has been staying on the floor, as he’s averaging 4.7 fouls per game in only 31 minutes. None of his five fouls in Game 3 were necessary: He bumped Smith while guarding him 30 feet from the basket, set an illegal screen on Shumpert when he was ball-hawking Klay Thompson in the backcourt, reached on a drive from Richard Jefferson that was going nowhere, knocked LeBron out of bounds on a fast break, and committed an over-the-back on Jefferson while going for an offensive rebound. Discretion is the better part of valor sometimes, and Green is too important for the Warriors to take himself out of the game by making plays like this:
5. Tristan Thompson Was a Nonfactor Again
One of the biggest differences for the Cavs in this year’s Finals is how ineffective Tristan Thompson has been. He’s gone from averaging a double-double in the 2016 Finals to barely being able to stay on the floor in 2017, averaging 2.7 points and 3.7 rebounds a game on 36.4 percent shooting. Cleveland’s only chance in this series was to dominate on the glass, and it’s been outrebounded by 19 in the past two games. Maybe the most mind-blowing statistic from these Finals is that after three games, Curry has grabbed 18 more rebounds than Thompson has.
Thompson has always been a fairly limited player on offense, so it’s hard for him to make much of an impact when he’s not generating extra possessions on the offensive boards. The Warriors have done a great job of keeping a body on him all series long, and they have forced him to be a playmaker by trapping the ball handler whenever he sets a screen. Thompson can make basic reads on the move, but he’s not capable of making the split-second decisions necessary to take advantage of the tiny cracks in the Warriors defense when they are rotating. He has to find Love spotting up in the corner when he gets the ball rolling to the basket in this sequence, not try to go up through two defenders:
On the other side of the ball, Golden State has negated one of his biggest strengths as a defender by repeatedly attacking him off the dribble whenever he switches a screen and guards either Curry or Durant. They are two of the best isolation scorers in the NBA, and even Thompson has little chance of guarding them when he’s left on an island. One of Durant’s baskets in the final two minutes came when he got Thompson switched on him. The Cleveland center is doing the best he can, but this is just too easy with the game on the line:
6. J.R. Smith Remembered How to Play Basketball
After playing like he was on the back of a milk carton in Oracle, the Cavs’ mercurial shooting guard regained the form he had showed during most of the playoffs in Game 3. Cleveland just doesn’t have enough firepower to hang with Golden State when Smith isn’t knocking down 3-point shots, and he seemed to shrink from the moment in the first two games, giving the Warriors defense a free pass by hesitating on open looks. He went 5-for-10 from deep Wednesday, and he has to continue making shots like this for the Cavs to have any chance in Game 4:
Just as important is Smith’s effort on defense, which was sorely lacking in the first two games. He’s the best 3-and-D player on the Cavs roster, and he’s the only member of their wing rotation who can hold his own against his man one-on-one, while also being enough of a threat to force the Warriors to guard him when he’s off the ball. Smith still gave up points off the dribble to Golden State’s stars, but he was much more active off the ball. Kerr loves to run Thompson and Curry off multiple screens, so Smith has to communicate with his teammates while also sprinting all over the floor to contest their shot. He did a much better job Wednesday than he did in the first two games:
7. The Warriors Won the 3-Point Battle
In a game where two teams combine to take 77 3s, the team that knocks down more open shots from deep will have a huge advantage. Golden State went 16-for-33 from 3 in Game 3, while Cleveland shot only 12-for-44. Love and Irving were 1-for-14 from 3, and neither one is good enough on defense to make up for not punishing the Warriors from deep. LeBron has been incredible throughout the Finals, averaging 32 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 assists on 55.4 percent shooting, but Cleveland’s other two All-Stars have alternated great offensive performances. The Cavs need all three clicking at the same time if they are going to steal a game from the Warriors.
An earlier version of this piece stated that Cleveland was minus-10 in the two minutes LeBron James was off the floor in Game 3; the team was minus-12 overall without James, but minus-10 in the portion that Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love were on the floor without James.