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Jefferson's presence solves Love's absence in Game 3

With Kevin Love out, Tyronn Lue's decision to start Richard Jefferson over other possible options proves to be key

POSTED: Jun 9, 2016 8:07 AM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner

NBA.com

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Cavaliers forward Richard Jefferson gave Cleveland a different spark with Kevin Love sidelined in Game 3.

— The Cleveland Cavaliers' so-called Big Three has been the source of points, resilience, victories and matchups domination all season, and nothing changed in their blowout victory over Golden State Wednesday in Game 3 of the 2016 Finals.

Staring into the potential abyss of a 3-0 deficit, the Cavaliers flipped the script and breathed life into this championship series because their three stars outplayed and outscored their Warriors counterparts. It was 35 points from Stephen Curry (19), Klay Thompson (10) and Draymond Green (six), compared to 62 from LeBron James (32), Kyrie Irving (30) and Kevin Love (0).

Uh, that's right. Love scored as many points as you and I did, because he spent the night in street clothes back in the Cleveland dressing room, deactivated from Game 3 when he failed to pass the NBA's concussion protocol in time to be cleared to play.

And the Cavaliers not only survived, they thrived, recovering from a 33-point beatdown Sunday in Oakland to administer one at Quicken Loans Arena that nearly mirrored it.

The Cavs' ability to plant their heels on their home court and send the defending champs scurrying for answers and adjustments was a testament to James' talent and leadership status within their ranks, a reminder of Irving's deadly repertoire when hot ... and an odd commentary on Love's value against the Warriors specifically and in Cleveland's overall scheme generally.

Love was hurt, sidelined through no fault of his own (it was Harrison Barnes' errant elbow in the second quarter of Game 2) and based on multiple voices among his Cleveland teammates, mighty ticked off that he wasn't able to participate in Game 3. But the bottom line was that the three-time All-Star with the max-salary contract was replaced in the starting lineup by a 36-year-old man who last started a Finals game (June 2003) when James was a senior in high school.

Jefferson -- who already refers to himself as being 36, though he doesn't actually turn that age until June 21 -- started in Love's spot, scored nine points, grabbed eight rebounds and was part of Cleveland's solution, not its quandary.

The first thing he did, he looked at me and was like, 'Give me a hug. Give me a hug, way to play!'

– Richard Jefferson on encountering Kevin Love after the game

With Jefferson slipping into the small forward role and James shifting to power forward, where he matched up and messed up Green, the Cavaliers were quicker and more aggressive at both ends. Some of that was the result of the urgency they felt down 2-0 -- only three of 31 teams in Finals history ever have come back from that hole and none has recovered from 3-0. But some of it was due to Jefferson, who is more mobile than Love and, at this stage of his career, less offensively focused or dependent.

"Putting Richard Jefferson in the starting lineup, I just think he gave us speed," Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said. "I thought he gave us the physicality on Harrison Barnes, and that we were able to slide LeBron over to Draymond Green, which helped us out a lot. We were able to switch pick-and-rolls and things like that. So just being able to get up the floor offensively, pushing the ball, pushing the tempo, and RJ's aggressiveness on the defensive end."

Said Jefferson afterward with a straight face: "I'm gonna be honest, I felt like I was the four and LeBron was the three, because I'm just a little bit bigger and stronger than him."

Warriors vs. Cavaliers: Game 3

LeBron James scores 32 points, Kyrie Irving adds 30 and the Cavaliers hammer the Warriors 120-90 in Game 3 on Wednesday night to pull within 2-1 in the NBA Finals.

Then the 15-year veteran who has played for seven teams, including the New Jersey crew that reached the Finals in 2002 and '03, stopped kidding around. "It's a lineup that we've gone with over the course of the season," Jefferson said. "And Coach Lue, you give him credit, he wanted to keep big bodies out there. I'm an old man, I'm just trying to do whatever I can to help these guys."

Jefferson's insertion into the starting lineup over other possible replacements such as Channing Frye, Iman Shumpert or Timofey Mozgov helped at both ends. He scored five of his points in the first quarter and if it's possible for a game-changing shot to come just 2 1/2 minutes after tipoff, the right-corner 3-pointer he drained might have been it. James in particular looked like the most excited person in the building when Jefferson's 3-pointer made it 9-0 and sent the Warriors retreating to a timeout.

"I just think he wanted me [to get going]," Jefferson said. "[It was good] for him just to see me knock down a shot early. I think that was the first three I've taken this series. He just wanted everybody to get some shots [and] feeling good."

Cavaliers On Game 3 Victory

The Cavaliers speak to the media following their Game 3 victory in the NBA Finals.

James obviously was the Cleveland's MVP in Game 3, setting a tone with his pregame message to the others and then backing it up. Asked what the franchise guy means when he tells them to "follow his lead," Jefferson said: "That means he's going to play harder than anybody on the court. He's going to get his teammates involved. He's gonna play defense, he's gonna attack, he's gonna make the right play. He's not going to take any challenge personally. He's just going to go out there and try to win the game. And for everybody else to fall in line."

Irving wasn't far behind, tormenting Golden State's players with his slick handle and arsenal of moves. He scored 16 of his 30 in the first quarter, doubling the displeasure for the likes of Thompson and Curry, who already were stinging from their combined 0-for-8 start at the other end.

But Jefferson's work, pressed into heavy duty on short notice, contributed mightily. He felt the 33 minutes and said that even someone on the Golden State side "whose name rhymes with Ruke Ralton" teased him about all that playing time for old bones.

Still, Jefferson was glad for the chance. And from the sound of it, Love was glad for Jefferson.

"The first thing he did," Jefferson said of encountering Love after the game, "he looked at me and was like, 'Give me a hug. Give me a hug, way to play!' That's what it is. It's not about him, he wants this for the team. He wants to be out there and help. And I'm a 36-year-old man and I hugged him back. 'Hey, you just get healthy. You get right. And we're going to be right here with you.' "

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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