With LeBron James taking more and more of a responsibility on offense with each passing game, Golden State has concurrently devoted greater attention towards how to deal with the most unstoppable force in the NBA. To start, the Warriors slotted in Harrison Barnes to guard LeBron–the natural fit considering the starting lineup–and the results were disastrous. Twelve seconds into the game, James dismantled the small forward on the low block and turned around for any easy layup. The notion of a mismatch increasingly crystallized, as despite forcing a few unnecessary jumpshots, LeBron dominated Barnes in going 3-6 from the field and 3-5 near the rim.
However, that immediately changed upon Andre Iguodala’s entry into the game at 6:48 in the first quarter for Barnes. Finding the same success in this matchup as in the last two games, Iguodala effectively shut down James and importantly warded him off taking over offensive possessions. On the first possession since his arrival, Iggy induced a travel call on LeBron, after which James became much more passive on the court. When he returned to a dominant offensive role, James missed two shots in the paint and one from three-point territory while guarded by Iguodala for the remainder of the quarter. His passing became disrupted too, as LBJ commited a turnover and another errant pass that should have had the same result. In the one moment that a switch took Iggy of LeBron, James was able to hit a driving layup while guarded by Draymond Green in the early second.
On the other end of the court, Iguodala complemented his excellent defense with key offensive contributions. Through the 19 first half minutes he logged in–second highest on the team–Iggy led the Warriors in scoring with 10 and chipped in four assists and four rebounds to complete the all-around effort. A few vicious dunks and passes that led to makes for teammates helped Golden State stay afloat on offense during the first 24 minutes.
Yet the initially suffocating defensive approach did not deter LBJ from resuming his scoring output. First drawing a shooting foul on Iggy in the high paint area, LeBron ferociously blew by Iguodala shortly after for a dunk. James continued to attack with aggression and as a result found a way to shed his defender Iguodala on these drives to the rim. It no longer seemed that Iggy alone could stymie LeBron, raising the question and necessity for greater help defense entering the next quarter. At the end of the half, James still struggled with his shot on 6-17 shooting, but managed 13 points and ended a rebound shy of a double-double, along with three assists.
On Cleveland’s first possession of the third quarter, Draymond Green opened as the defender on LeBron, which translated to a blazing drive and finish at the rim that left Green in the dust. Later, in addition to mainly sticking Iguodala on him, the Dubs also experimented with Shaun Livingston on LeBron, which at one point created a short fallaway jumper for James that dropped through the net. Unlike the last two quarters, the third one hardly brought the same success for Golden State in limiting James. As a part of a broader 28-point explosion and crowd-galvanizing 12 minutes of play, LeBron rocketed to 13 points, doubling his scoring production for the game, and added three assists which all resulted in three long-range makes and thus an extra nine points.
Sloppiness then defined James’s early performance in the fourth quarter. Perhaps complacent with a 17-point lead–minutes after a 20-point edge, the largest in the series–LeBron committed two turnovers and a foul, as well as posted a 1-4 shooting mark and a missed free throw. In part, this momentary dropoff allowed the Warriors to storm back in the game. Yet it was short-lived, as James returned to dominance and carried the Cavs on his back–perhaps the most operative use of this worn-out sports cliche–to a 2-1 series lead. As the Dubs began to close in on Cleveland’s lead in the final minutes, LeBron brought the ball up the court, used a Tristan Thompson screen to create some separation, and hit a three-point dagger in the face of Iguodala off the left wing. After extending the Cavs’ lead to seven with this shot, James proceeded to convert on all six of his free throw attempts under the one-minute mark–a late-game facet he’s often struggled with–in guiding his team to the 96-91 win. In either final end-of-game shots or during closeout stretches as with this situation, LeBron has cemented–especially in these last six Finals runs–time and time again his status as a premier clutch performer, a feat once many thought inconceivable for him.
Cleveland’s supporting cast
King James finished the contest with 40 points–setting the record for most points through the first three Finals games with 123–on 14-34 shooting and two assists away from a triple-double. But for not the offensive support of a few key members of his supporting cast and at crucial points in time, a Game 3 win would likely have been out of reach. First and foremost, grit-personified (he chases loose balls like he’s still playing on a 10-day contract) Matthew Dellavedova backed his Game 2 defensive masterpiece by going toe to toe with Stephen Curry on the offensive end Tuesday night. While erratic with five missed shots out of seven, the Australian instantly assumed an aggressive offensive disposition in the first quarter, netting four of his team’s first 10 points.
But his greatest damage would come later in the third quarter, during which he fueled a critical run–perhaps without it, Cleveland would not be able to stave a furious GSW comeback a quarter later. From 11:23 to 2:51 in the third, the Cavs fired off a 24-9 run–at one point a 12-0 stretch–to leap ahead 68-48. Dellavedova had a huge hand in this momentous surge, racking up 10 points that included two three-pointers, and furthermore assisted on a LeBron trey and 15-footer.
For a moment, Delly looked like he returned to a scrawny no-name player after getting his shot blocked by Leandro Barbosa, missing a 20-foot runner, and committing a foul all in the first 1:04 of the fourth, consequently getting yanked from the game. But after reentering as the fourth quarter wounded down, he provided us with perhaps his most remarkable play. With 2:45 left on the game clock, an increasingly hot-shooting Stephen Curry had just drained a three–with Dellavedova naturally right up against him–to cut the margin to 81-80, the closest since the early minutes of the second quarter. Then, as if he had the audacity to undertake a PG duel with the league MVP, an “anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better” shootout heretofore reserved for sparring NBA superstars, Delly, with the opposing floor general glued onto him, stumbled towards the free throw line area after a pass from LeBron, an inch or two from completely losing control of the ball, released a wild shove towards the basket that mildly resembled a basketball shot attempt. It, to the glee of a zealous Quicken Loans Arena, somehow banked off the backboard into the rim, and in the process Dellavedova drew a foul from behind off Curry. Video of the play shows even Delly himself, having ended up sprawled on his back, slightly shaking his head in disbelief–mirroring the reaction of every basketball fan watching. The inevitable converted free throw made it 84-80, and effectively impeded the fourth quarter Golden State comeback surge at its apex.
In total, Dellavedova scored a playoff-high of 20 and tacked on four rebounds and five assists. In addition, the point guard who has (almost) made Cleveland forget about Uncle Drew posted the highest plus minus (+13) of all players–outside of David Lee, who participated in a quick 13-minute Dubs burst–and only three players on the court played more minutes than he did. This may just be as incredible as it is unsustainable, but Dellavedova, even aside from his unwavering motor and yes, grit, has legitimately become one of the best two-way players in this Finals series.
Consistency, balance, and an essential three-point efficiency when playing on a team with LeBron (it does wonders for spacing) characterized the contributions by the rest of the supporting cast. By the end of the first half when the Cavs built up a 44-37 advantage, five different Cleveland players reached at least five points, four at least seven–and that’s with LeBron already at 13. James’s teammates in the backcourt and on the wing all developed a nice shooting touch far from the basket that continued throughout the game: J.R. Smith, James Jones, and Iman Shumpert collectively went 7-13 from the floor and most importantly hit five threes. Nearly all of the connections from deep also carried additional significance: either extending Cleveland’s lead beyond one or two possessions or facilitating game-changing runs. And that’s not to mention the game-to-game extraordinary work on the boards by Tristan Thompson, who has averaged 14.0 rebounds through three Finals games–almost seven more than the next closest Warriors player–and had a game-high 13 rebounds on Tuesday–four on offense, his lowest total this series but significant nonetheless–with 10 points.
Warriors’ shooting woes
The biggest concern for Golden State heading into Game 3 was how to improve its shooting–particularly from three-point land–that dwindled so sharply in Game 2. Some regression to the mean would be in order as well, as the Dubs deviated heavily from their average shooting percentages as seen below:
But for however much creativity in developing their shot early on, the Warriors still could not regain their usually unparalleled shooting form. Screens around the perimeter, pull-up shots, switches by the defense that carved out space, or even relatively open looks did not return substantial gains. While Curry converted on a three within two minutes of the opening whistle, the MVP would not see another ball go down from long range for more than half an hour of playing time. The shot also marked the only three for the Dubs out of the seven taken in the first quarter, and 2-9 team shooting from beyond the arc in the subsequent quarter brought the overall three-point percentage to a miserable .188 mark. Four players took at least three attempts, and the Splash Brothers went a combined 1-7.
Led by Curry and Thompson, the Warriors started to show some signs of life from the floor in the third–somewhat of a harbinger of things to come–by going 2-4 from three. Yet the poor overall shooting was still there, and as a result Golden State could not keep up with Cleveland’s most formidable quarter of play that produced a +10 margin. As noted on the ABC Finals broadcast by Mike Breen, the Warriors failed to reach 60 points through three quarters for the second straight game, marking the only two times it occurred all season–a fact simply astounding, but perfectly representative of the hopeless stagnancy the Dubs had showcased the prior seven quarters.
Yet the tides soon changed: in what was at the same time an unprecedented development and eerily familiar of a team that once throttled everything in its path, Golden State emerged in the fourth quarter down 17 with its back against the wall, but revitalized. With Steve Kerr slotting in David Lee into the lineup to start the quarter–who provided a pivotal boost of energy and offensive resourcefulness in tallying nine points, four rebounds, and two assists after his entry–the Warriors jumped out on an 8-0 run sparked by two three’s in less that two minutes that cut the deficit to single-digits.
Of course what really catapulted the Dubs back into contention was the awakening of Stephen Curry. After adding a three and a few midrangers to raise his scoring total to 10 in the third quarter, the MVP looked like the Curry of old (i.e. before Game 2) in developing a hot three-point stroke. Here’s his offensive progression from quarter to quarter:
From the 7:24 mark in the fourth onward, Curry nearly stole Game 3 for Golden State in making five three-point jumpers, some within the Warriors offensive system and others in a stroke of individual brilliance, and knocked down three different shots during this span that brought his team one possession away from the Cavs. Apart from a Lee two-pointer with 40 seconds left, Curry was the only Dubs player to score in the final six minutes of play–take out Lee entirely and no other teammate recorded a point inside the nine-minute mark.
Yet for all of Curry’s efforts, the Warriors shooting machine–in the form of its key part–rumbled to life far too late on Tuesday. LeBron and Dellavedova did enough on the other end to negate Golden State’s offensive incursion, which had it fully developed perhaps a quarter earlier, might have tremendously affected the game’s result. But that doesn’t preclude an eventual full regression to the shooting mean for the Warriors. This series has at least two remaining games and at most four, and despite the extent to which the most recent events can cloud our vision, it’s almost a near certainty this team will soon return to its shooting prosperity. Cleveland deserves credit for its defensive approach to muck up and slow down the game, as well as tightly stick to and unsettle Warrior shooters. Still, Golden State has also uncharacteristically missed several open looks around the perimeter, exuding a sense of an “off touch” for the Splash Bros & Co. these last few games. Simply put, that this series is far from over is directly related to the fact that the Warriors are far from likely to stay this cold from the floor. Expect regression, and expect a team that has rightfully caught the fascination of the entire NBA community to fight back–much like they did in similar circumstances against the Memphis Grizzlies in the Western Conference semi-finals a few weeks ago.