Kevin Durant put Golden State in this position with a magnificent performance in Wednesday night’s 110-102 victory, scoring a playoff-career high 43 points while adding 13 rebounds and seven assists. His last basket, a pull-up 33-footer with 49.8 seconds to play, gave Golden State a six-point lead and evoked memories of a similar Game 3 dagger last year that, like this one, effectively ended the NBA Finals.
It was the second time in three games in this series the Cavaliers had a chance to steal a game, though unlike Game 1, the Warriors won it thanks to Durant’s transcendence as opposed to the Cavaliers losing it. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson combined for just 21 points, Curry averaged 25.8 points and Thompson 20.6 entering Game 3, and made seven of 27 shots overall, though Curry contributed five key points late, including a clutch three-pointer after he missed 13 of his first 14 shots.
The Warriors are now one win away from becoming the first team to win back-to-back NBA titles since LeBron James accomplished the feat with the Miami Heat in 2012-13. All three titles in this four-year run will have come at the expense of James and the Cavaliers, and they have a second straight opportunity to sweep Cleveland, though James and his teammates sent the series back to Oakland last June with a 137-116 thrashing in Game 4.
James was once again sublime in defeat, totaling 33 points, 11 assists and ten rebounds as he set a single postseason-career high with his fourth triple-double. Unlike his 51-point virtuoso in Game 1 that put Cleveland in position to win, he got plenty of help as Kevin Love added 20 points and 13 rebounds while Rodney Hood chipped in 15 points off the bench in his first meaningful minutes of this series.
Yet the inspired 22-plus minutes of basketball they played in the first half in which they raced out and held a double-digit lead until Durant had two key buckets before halftime to cut it to six showed just how fine a line Cleveland have walked the entire series despite having the best player of their generation.
Love had only five points in the second half and J. R. Smith three while Golden State role players JaVale McGee and Shaun Livingston along with rookie Jordan Bell made vital contributions while Durant shined and both Curry and Thompson struggled.
Though James rallied the Cavaliers from deficits of 2-0 and 3-1 to win the 2016 NBA Finals and erased a 2-0 deficit to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals, history is directly against him as no NBA team has ever overcome a 3-0 series deficit. James also is trying to avoid being swept in a series for just the second time in his career, with the other coming against the San Antonio Spurs in his first NBA Finals appearance in 2007.
Should Cleveland win and extend the series, it will shift back to Golden State for Game 5 on Monday night.
Five keys to the game
Kerr appreciating the moment - With the unprecedented nature of the Warriors and Cavaliers meeting in the NBA Finals for the fourth consecutive year as well as the impending firestorm that will come with James' eventual courtship of teams as a free agent, this could be the last time these teams meet at this level, and it is not lost on Warriors coach Steve Kerr he's watching two of the best players in league history performing at such an elite level.
"It really is shocking when you see the talent," Kerr said at Thursday's media session. "I was telling our staff after the game last night, I played in five Finals, I don't think I ever saw anybody make a 30-foot shot in the middle of the game, much less four of them, which K.D. did last night, I believe, and which Steph did multiple times the game before, which LeBron did multiple times in Game 1.
"It's gotten so tough. You have to have so much versatility, and size and speed and strength to be able to survive on the floor because of this incredible skill level. Because these guys can make shots from 30, 35 feet without blinking."
Cavs refuse to go out meekly - There is little difference between 4-0 and 4-1 on the line in the sports almanac, especially since the term "gentlemen's sweep" has now entered the lexicon in part due to the dominance of both teams over the last four years, but there is still the matter of pride. It may be wounded pride because the Cavaliers could be up 2-1 in this series with the right set of breaks, but they are determined to put up a fight and try to send this series back to the West Coast.
"We've given ourselves a chance," Love said. "I know that we'll come out in Game 4 and really compete. We're not going to give in. ... There were a lot of things last night that we did well, but there were a couple of blown coverages, a couple of missed shots and timely shots that didn't go our way that led to them winning the game.
"So there's been Game 1, Game 3. I know that Game 2 got away from us a little bit. But those are games that we're right there."
Golden State finally unleashes third-quarter flurry - After the Cavaliers did a good job blunting the Warriors' momentum in the first two games of the NBA Finals, it finally came undone in Game 3 when Golden State finished plus-eight and hit 13 of 23 shots. The Cavaliers hit eight of 20 in the quarter but were two for nine from three-point range, and those misses were the ones that sparked the Warriors' lethal transition game.
"I thought in the third quarter last night we took some bad shots, and that led to transition for those guys and they got easy baskets," Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said. "Our shot selection is what hurt us in that third quarter. The first two games we were better than they were in the third quarter, so ..."
Can there be co-NBA Finals MVPs? - Much of the narrative focused on Stephen Curry winning his first Bill Russell Award as NBA Finals MVP after he set a finals record with nine three-pointers in Game 2. Then Durant stepped up Wednesday night to emerge as a contender to win the award for a second straight year. So if Golden State complete the sweep Friday and both score 25 points and make other all-around contributions, who claims the trophy?
And for perhaps the last time this season, your statistical reminder LeBron James is REALLY good at playoff basketball - James passed Michael Jordan for the most 30-point postseason games in his career with No. 110 on Wednesday night, and he also set an NBA Finals record with his tenth career triple-double. Of those ten triple-doubles, James has scored 30 points in five of those contests. In the rest of NBA playoff history, only four other players (Curry, Jerry West, James Worthy and Charles Barkley) have accomplished the feat, and each of them have done it only once.
James has also recorded ten straight NBA Finals games of at least 25 points, eight rebounds, and eight assists. No other player has done that in back-to-back contests let alone ten in a row. The only downside to this stretch in which he has averaged 34.9 points, 10.6 rebounds and 10.4 assists with four triple-doubles while shooting 53.6 percent is that Cleveland have gone 3-7 in those games.
Matchup to watch
LeBron James vs the Golden State Warriors - While this space in the first three games has focused on some matchup that deals with James in an individual setting, let's be real for a minute. This could be James' last game of the season as well as his last game with the Cavaliers depending on what he wants to do with the next portion of his career.
That means he will stop at absolutely nothing to extend this series. This is not a slight at his teammates, this is what James does. This series will only go back to the West Coast if James has a performance for the ages. There will forever be arguments about his methods of getting there (read as: the occasional moments he passes up a potential game-tying or game-winning shots to an open teammate who missed said shots), but it can never be said he has failed in the effort to put his team in a position to win.
James has never had a clunker in these games, and he has had plenty of these games. This will be his 22nd contest when facing elimination, and he is 12-9 while averaging 34.1 points, 10.8 rebounds and 7.3 assists. James has recorded four triple-doubles and nine double-doubles in those contests, topped 40 points on seven occasions and been held under 25 just twice.
He got help in Game 3, mainly in the form of Love and Hood, but Cleveland were also still able to get favorable switches in which James would be left alone with Curry and then decide his offensive adventure. Andre Iguodala's return created a new wrinkle because it gave Golden State the defensive flexibility to sic Draymond Green on James, but even that was not overly effective because Green was a net minus-2 in his 40-plus minutes while Iguodala was a plus-14 in his 22 minutes.
His career stat line in elimination games is probably the bare minimum of expectations, but a triple-double with at least 45 points may be needed to force a fifth game in this series. As a point of reference, James had 31 points, 11 assists and ten rebounds in last year's Game 4 win.
Golden State Warriors projected starting lineup
PG - Stephen Curry | SG - Klay Thompson | C - JaVale McGee | SF - Kevin Durant | PF - Draymond Green
Cleveland Cavaliers projected starting lineup
PG - George Hill | SG - J. R. Smith | C - Tristan Thompson | SF - LeBron James | PF - Kevin Love
Durant made it 13 for 13 in 25-point games in the NBA Finals with his 43-point effort Wednesday night. He continues to be nightmare fuel for the Cavaliers, averaging 33.9 points, 9.0 rebounds and 5.9 assists in eight NBA Finals games while shooting 47.4 percent from 3-point range and a sizzling 55.7 percent overall. Durant also has made 58 of 62 free throws in those eight games.
While the "Hamptons 5" were reunited in Game 3, it has been the "Non-Hamptons 3" of Livingston, McGee and Bell who have been unsung heroes for Golden State. The trio have combined to make 34 of 41 (82.9 percent) in the three games, and about the only thing they have done wrong offensively is miss three of seven free throws among them.
James notched his second triple-double in ten postseason home games Wednesday night and is averaging 37.6 points, 8.5 rebounds and 8.5 assists. Despite shooting 46.4 percent, his overall shooting percentage at Quicken Loans Arena in these playoffs dipped to 57.2 percent.
Love has totaled at least 20 points and ten rebounds in all three games of this series, his longest such postseason streak in his career. He now has eight double-doubles in 20 career playoff games, averaging 15.0 points and 10.3 rebounds.
The Warriors have been established as 4.5-point favorites as they bid to complete a sweep of the Cavaliers, though the line has moved one point in Cleveland's direction since its opening. Golden State have covered in back-to-back contests and are now 8-3 against the spread in their last 11 games against Cleveland.
The Warriors improved to 6-14 versus the number in their last 20 road games against teams with an above-.500 record at home and 5-13 in the last 18 when that winning percentage is above .600. Golden State, though, are also just 2-5 against the spread in their last seven games versus Central Division opponents and 4-10 in their last 14 versus Eastern Conference rivals.
Wednesday night's loss marked the first time in five games the Cavaliers failed to cover at home and the first time in six at home versus teams with a road winning percentage above .600. Cleveland are also 5-16 against the spread in their last 21 games versus Pacific Division teams.
The Cavaliers are 7-3 against the number in their last ten Friday games.
The over/under has already slipped one-half point to 215.5, and Wednesday's game marked the first time in the last seven NBA Finals games between the teams the under hit. The under, though, is 7-1 in Golden State's last eight road games and 7-1 in their last eight on the road versus teams with a winning home record.
The under is also 12-5 in Cleveland's last 17 home games versus teams with a winning road record and 10-3 in Golden State's last 13 games overall.
This space has a genuine hope that when the Warriors complete this sweep (spoiler alert!), the media will afford James the opportunity to exhale about the disappointment of losing the NBA Finals over the course of the post-game press conference before breathlessly speculating about his impending free agency tour that will become a month-long three-ring circus of rumors and innuendos before the eventual finality of a "Woj bomb" or a first-person article in The Players Tribune from James himself.
This is wishful thinking, of course, because someone (ESPN's Mark Schwarz is the current frontrunner given the back-and-forth he has had with James on two occasions in the finals) will ask him about his future while he's on the dais.
It's like Abe Simpson yelling at the cloud, but it's also because should the Warriors win this game and complete the sweep, they should be afforded the spoils befitting the victors. That means being feted for their accomplishments, praised for their team play, conversations started about their all-time place into the sport and even loathed for being a super team.
Three titles in a four-year span has not happened since the Los Angeles Lakers had a "three-peat" from 2000-02, and at the moment, that is the more newsworthy story than James and his future. Though it is also fair to take a moment and laud James for getting this far with this particular team, being swept or otherwise.
As for the game itself, it is hard to imagine a scenario where Golden State does not put together their "A" effort for an extended period similar to Game 2, which they won going away. Curry or Thompson may struggle through a second straight poor shooting effort, but not both. Durant may not score 43 again and hit 11 of 15 jump shots, but he will be good for at least 25 points because no one has stopped him from hitting that mark in the NBA Finals yet.
And what might be the secret ingredient of Golden State's offense is that Cleveland's defense has yet to cut off everything consistently, evidenced by Livingston, McGee and Bell providing unexpected offense besides the minutes of rest they afford Durant, Curry, Thompson and Green. Somewhere there's a breakdown on the pick-and-roll up high that leads to a back-door layup. Somewhere there is a switch that leaves Love isolated against either Curry or Durant.
James said it best after Game 3, there can't be "my faults or my bads" guarding the Warriors because Cleveland's margin of error is too small. Yet the real truth is Golden State are just too good. Look for the Warriors to complete the sweep with a 119-105 victory and lift the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy once more.
The game will be televised nationally on ABC and nationally in Canada on SportsNet. Tip-off time is 9 pm EDT.
Want to share your opinion? Why not Write For Us?