The Cleveland Cavaliers looked like a completely different team in Game 3 of the NBA Finals on Wednesday, blowing out the Golden State Warriors to make it a 2-1 series. They took a 20-point lead in the first quarter and withstood a Warriors run and scored 38 points in the third quarter en route to a 120-90 win at Cleveland.
LeBron James led the way with 32 points, 11 rebounds, six assists, two blocks and a steal. Kyrie Irving added 30 points, four rebounds, eight assists and a steal. More on them in a bit.
In the first two games, it appeared the Cavaliers had no answers for Golden State. They were not a great defensive team in the regular season, and they stormed through the Eastern Conference by firing 3-pointers, not by locking down opponents. The Warriors are one of the best offensive teams of all time, and Cleveland just doesn't have the length or versatility of, say, the Oklahoma City Thunder.
This time, though, the Cavs did plenty to bother Golden State. The first thing people will point to is the absence of Kevin Love, who is not a great pick-and-roll defender and struggles when switching onto smaller players. Richard Jefferson started in Love's place, and this undoubtedly made Cleveland quicker on defense. Love's absence doesn't explain Irving and James being sharper and giving better effort.
As a team, the Cavs did a much better job of closing out to shooters and dealing with the Warriors' off-ball movement. James said they finally got back to playing their game. They had to do that, or their season would have been essentially over.
Golden State coach Steve Kerr hates when his team turns the ball over, and he was visibly upset during several points of this game. In the first half alone, Cleveland scored 21 points off 10 Warriors turnovers -- the most they have given up in a single game this postseason, per Warriors PR. The Cavs finished with 34 points off turnovers, and that will be a category to watch going forward.
"We weren't ready to play," Kerr said. "Obviously they just punched us right in the mouth right in the beginning. Turning the ball over like crazy. Soft. We were extremely soft to start the game. And they set the tone with their intensity."
2. The Big 2
This was far and away the best that James and Irving have looked in the Finals. Part of that is the aforementioned defense, and part of it is that they looked a lot more comfortable with the ball in their hands. Again, there will be those who say that having Love out simplified things for Cleveland's two best playmakers. There is probably some truth to that, but the three of them all appeared to make each other better against other teams earlier in the playoffs.
In any case, James and Irving dominated. When they checked out of the game with 4:41 left, they had combined to take 51 of Cleveland's 82 shots and shot a combined 51 percent. The Cavaliers didn't get a single bench point through three quarters.
James had five turnovers and looked sloppy early on, but his energy was there throughout. When he saw a couple of jumpers go in during the third quarter, he got even more aggressive. Irving had 16 points in the first quarter, equaling Golden State's total, and for the first time this series appeared to be completely locked in. Cleveland needs much more of this, and coach Tyronn Lue singled out Irving's decisiveness.
"No one can stop Kyrie one-on-one when he has the basketball," Lue said. "We just have to attack quicker and keep them on their heels."
3. The Most Valuable Player was not that valuable
Stephen Curry had his worst game in a while, even though the numbers -- 19 points on 6-of-13 shooting -- weren't that bad. Kerr saw that Curry wasn't his usual self, so he pulled him out in the second quarter to give him a quick pep talk. Curry said he would have done the same thing.
"In the first half I had a couple lapses where I didn't follow the game plan," Curry said. "And Kyrie gets an easy layup, gets his confidence going, a couple switches where I didn't hear the guy behind me talking."
Curry said he had to be quicker with his reads and sharper, adding he is sure Kerr's message will carry into Game 4. The way the Cavs are pressuring him when he has the ball it makes sense that he only took 13 shots, but he had six turnovers and made defensive mistakes he did not make in Oakland.
Given the way that he usually responds after losses and subpar games, you should probably expect a different Curry in a couple of days. He was clear that this performance not live up to the standard he sets for himself.
"I'm disappointed that I didn't do anything to help my team win tonight," Curry said.
4. More death lineup?
In Game 4 of last year's Finals, the Warriors decided to start the "death lineup" before it was so termed. They might want to think about doing that again. As effective as Andrew Bogut has been as a rim protector, Golden State was outscored by a whopping 21 points in the 12 minutes that he played, including giving up a 9-0 run to start the game and a 7-0 run to start the third quarter with the Cavs going small.
To be clear, Bogut does not deserve all the blame. The Splash Brothers combined to score 29 points on 26 shots, going 4 of 16 from deep. Draymond Green followed up his 28-point performance by scoring six points on 2-of-8 shooting. The Warriors did not look like themselves on either end, nor did they play with the same desperation Cleveland did most of the game. The beginning of the first and third quarters stood out, though, and there is a pretty obvious move for Golden State to make.
Kerr, though, said he did not consider changing things up at halftime, and it didn't sound like he is planning to do it Friday, either.
"We didn't feel like we had to match what they were doing because of their change to their starting lineup," Kerr said. "We can always make a quick substitution. I don't think that had anything to do with losing the game. It wasn't lineups. It wasn't substitution patterns. It was we just got our tail kicked."
5. Welcome to the Finals, J.R.
Much was made of Cavs guard J.R. Smith taking only nine shots in 69 minutes at Oracle Arena. Most of that was Golden State's defense, some of that was Cleveland stagnating and some of it might have been what happened to his hand:
This is what happened to J.R. Smith's hand while diving to the floor for a loose ball in Game 1. pic.twitter.com/fQHJsKGhrR— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) June 8, 2016
Unlike the first two games, Smith managed to move into open space and get good looks. He said being back at Quicken Loans Arena was like a "clean slate," and he made all the people who called him an X-factor look smart, scoring 20 points on 7-for-13 shooting, including 5-for-10 from 3-point range. The Warriors will be mad at themselves when they look at the tape and see how they allowed him to find his rhythm.
6. Tristan Thompson earned his money
Here's a stat: Cleveland had 17 offensive rebounds, and Tristan Thompson had seven of them. This game was exactly why the Cavaliers couldn't afford to let him go in free agency last summer, electing to give him a five-year, $82 million deal. To beat Golden State, you need to be physical and dominate the glass. Thompson's work on the inside gave Cleveland a chance.
In addition to his 13 rebounds, Thompson had 14 points on 5-of-6 shooting in 31 minutes. While Kerr called his Warriors soft, Lue raved about his team's toughness. The Cavs outscored Golden State 54-32 in the paint and 23-3 in second-chance points. All of that starts with Thompson.
"He's the heart and soul of our team," Lue said.