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The Warriors Flipped the Switch, but They Still Haven’t Peaked

Golden State has a commanding 3–0 lead in the NBA Finals against Cleveland, and is on the brink of a perfect postseason. Yet while the Cavs may have wasted their best shot, the Warriors have room for improvement.

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

Firepower.

Powerhouse.

Juggernaut.

Those are three of the words LeBron James and Kyrie Irving used to describe the Warriors after the Cavaliers suffered a demoralizing 118–113 Game 3 loss Wednesday night to fall into a 3–0 hole in the NBA Finals. "Before the series even started we knew what we was dealing with," LeBron said after the game. "I played against some great teams, but I don’t think no team has had this type of firepower. So even when you’re playing well, you got to play like A-plus-plus, because they’re going to make runs and they’re going to make shots and they got guys that’s going to make plays."

The Warriors made plays, all right. Klay Thompson heated up faster than a toaster, and played lockdown defense. Draymond Green filled the gaps and excelled defensively, per usual. Stephen Curry is nearly averaging a triple-double in the Finals with 28.7 points, 9.7 rebounds, and nine assists — and he still might not come close to winning Finals MVP because Kevin Durant has been transcendent on both sides of the floor.

And yet, the team on the brink of going 16–0 in the playoffs still hasn’t played a perfect game against the Cavs. In Game 1, the Warriors missed a handful of open shots and still won by 22. In Game 2, they turned the ball over 20 times and still won by 19. In Game 3, they turned it over 18 times while the Cavs penetrated the rim with ease, and Golden State still won on the road by five. "All the talk that we had going into it is just not getting complacent, find a way to have energy, try to play a smart game," Curry said. "There’s some things we can even do better and clean up."

All season long, the conversation focused on whether the Cavaliers could flip the switch. But Golden State has a switch, too, one that the Warriors have flipped intermittently, like during the end of Game 3 when their defensive intensity ramped up and Durant ripped the still-beating heart out of the Cavs’ collective chest. But the Warriors still haven’t had a full Finals stretch where they’re all systems go. They have yet to reach their peak. That’s the scary part.

Put it the way Green did to Durant: "I said, ‘Hey, my friend. To be honest with you, we don’t really need you that much in the regular season. But you know when those NBA Finals come around we’re really going to need you to play big for us,’" Green said. "He was like, ‘Ah, all right.’ He’s been playing big for us, so I guess I’m a genius." Since the Warriors can distribute minutes and workload, their stars are able to sustain their high level of play. They’re not being strained with too many responsibilities. Golden State is steamrolling due to its individual talents, but since their stars enhance each other over the duration of the match, they’re full of energy in end-of-game situations when fatigue would normally start setting in.

Meanwhile, LeBron needs to worry about defending Durant and running the offense and scoring and providing leadership. It’s taxing. He admitted as much after the game. "It’s physically and emotionally draining because I give everything to the game and want to put myself and my teammates in a position to be successful," LeBron said. "I lay it all on the floor, and I did that tonight, gave everything that I had, both mentally and physically. So obviously I’m drained right now, ready to get home."

No play better symbolizes Cleveland’s fatigue than this one:

The Cavs led by six with 2:25 remaining. Then the floodgates opened with Curry’s coast-to-coast sprint. Kevin Love, who hurt his leg earlier in the quarter, looked 69 years old jogging back on defense. No one stopped the ball; J.R. Smith got out of the way, again. The Cavaliers looked like they were playing on tired legs, because they were. The Warriors looked like they were fresh, because they were. "We just kept telling the guys, ‘They’re going to get tired. Stay in front of them. Force them into outside shots, if you can. Fatigue will play a role,’" Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said after the game. "I think when you get guys playing 45, 44 minutes, basically attacking one-on-one the whole game … you hope eventually it’s going to take its toll."

The Cavaliers likely played as close to a perfect game as they can, especially with the rest of the roster now dearly departed. And they still lost. The King and Kyrie played as well as Tyronn Lue could’ve asked for: LeBron logged 39 points in 46 minutes, and had a plus-7 in a game they lost by five. Irving scored 38 points in 44 minutes and seemingly was using cheat codes to score at will in the paint. It wasn’t enough and it’s hard to envision what more they can possibly do.

The Warriors talked after the game about how they didn’t feel pressure. They’re battle tested. They’re experienced. They’ve been here before. It also helps that no one is stretched too thin. "All five guys trying to just find a way to get a stop so we can have the opportunity to seize control of the game and get over that hump," Curry said. "The timeouts and even those dead-ball periods, everybody — there’s no panic. It was kind of — I don’t know, kind of peaceful, really."

Peaceful? It looked like it was anything but calm for the Cavaliers. When your team is a juggernaut, I suppose you can relax. Then, when the time comes, you can find that extra gear. In Game 4 on Friday, with 16–0 on the line, if the Warriors want to extinguish the souls of the Cavaliers, there’d be no better time for them to flip all the switches.