CLEVELAND -- Five things we learned from the Golden State Warriors' 118-113 Game 3 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2017 Finals Wednesday at Quicken Loans Arena:
1. Fatigue (gasp!) does make (whew!) cowards: The full quote -- “Fatigue makes cowards of us all” -- frequently gets attributed to Vince Lombardi, the fabled Green Bay Packers coach (when not attributed to Gen. George S. Patton). You don’t hear it much these days, since Lombardi worked at a time when drinking water on the practice field purportedly was for wimps, too. Now, “cowards” might be disputable in the context of Game 3, 2017 NBA Finals, but the idea that Cleveland didn’t have the oomph it needed at the end was very much in play.
In fact, to hear Golden State coach Steve Kerr tell it, waiting for LeBron James and Kyrie Irving to tucker themselves out was his team’s primary strategy down the stretch. “We just felt like the way they play, Kyrie and LeBron had it going the whole game, but that's pretty taxing to go one-on-one the whole game,” Kerr said. “Both those guys were amazing, 38 and 39 [points]. But that takes a lot out of you. 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. And I think when you get guys playing 45, 44 minutes, basically attacking one-on-one the whole game, it's -- you hope eventually it's going to take its toll.”
James and Irving didn’t really cop to fatigue as a factor, although the former eventually agreed with one questioner: “But you're going against a team like this and you put together a game like we had where we had an opportunity, it's definitely draining.”
Can’t really blame Cavs coach Tyronn Lue, either, for trying to reach the checkered flag by cheating on a pit stop or two for his stars. When James sat down with 1:49 left in the first quarter, it was as if a trap door got opened under his team -- Golden State ran off 10 unanswered points to close the period. So in the second half, Irving played the full 24 minutes and James played all but 34 seconds.
It probably doesn’t hurt for Kerr to plant the fatigue seed, either, as a little gamesmanship heading into Game 4, just to remind James and the Cavs how high the hill is they now have to climb.
“Those guys had to do so much for them,” Klay Thompson said, “and they were doing it tonight, and they got better contributions from their bench, but I think we have an advantage in our depth. ... Didn't seem like they got tired, but they might not show it, but it's hard to do that for 48 minutes.”
2. Warriors aren’t just front-runners: One of the very few boxes left unchecked by Golden State this season was its ability to close out or come back in close games. Reason? Small sample size.
Prior to Game 3, the Warriors were 2-0 this postseason in games decided by 10 points or fewer. That means their other 12 victories against increasingly difficult competition were officially blowouts. In the regular season, they were 5-6 in games decided by five points or fewer, and just 1-2 after the All-Star break. That means they played 71 games (going 62-9) settled by wider margins.
Also, the Warriors were 5-9 when they trailed entering the fourth quarter -- which they did Wednesday, 94-89. They were 62-6 the rest of the regular season, either tied or leading through three.
And yet, the way Golden State closed, staying calm, trusting in the clock and their defense while concentrating on taking proper care of the basketball, you’d have sworn their season was built on close calls and white-knucklers.
There were two big reasons helping them down the stretch: Kevin Durant’s unflappability and their own lessons learned.
According to Thompson, it wasn’t anything Durant said or did in an overt, leadership-y sort of way that sparked the comeback. “No, we know in that situation to get that man the rock,” the Warriors guard said. “He's seven foot, can shoot over almost anybody and has amazing shooting touch, and he made a dagger three -- well, not a dagger but a huge three there. And we're confident in him taking that shot every time.”
Two previous trips to The Finals, and two defeats in Game 3, kept their attention this time.
“We know our terrible record in Game 3s on the road in the playoffs historically, and especially in this building, we have never played well,” Curry said. But now? “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. Just there's a lot of time left, let's just figure it out.”
So it was Durant leading the charge offensively. It was Thompson hanging with Irving defensively on an ill-conceived, clock-squandering isolation on the Cavs’ last possession to take the lead (no, he didn’t make the step-back 3-pointer this team, a la Game 7 a year ago). And it was Andre Iguodala having the discipline and the nerve to strip James as he tried for a game-tying shot from the left corner.
Peaceful, really. But ground out, too, by a team that doesn’t often hear “gritty” among the adjectives tossed its way.
Said Kerr: “It wasn't our smartest game that we have played all year, but it was maybe our toughest in terms of our ability to just hang in there.”
3. That WAS the Cavs’ best punch: Look, it’s possible the Cavaliers could pump enough bravado and adrenaline into the not-in-our-house approach to Golden State’s likelihood of claiming the championship in Game 4 Friday that everyone has to traipse to the West Coast again. James and his teammates might see that, in this one-game outlook, as a little bit of satisfaction, while spoiling the Warriors’ quest (out in the open now) for an historic 16-0 postseason.
If you consider that Curry and crew didn’t win it at home in 2015 -- they beat Cleveland in Game 6 at The Q -- and surely didn’t win it at home last year in Game 7, maybe having to go one more game wouldn’t go down so hard for Golden State, either. Remember how the Chicago Bulls, to start their second three-peat in 1996, dropped two gamesin Seattle to turn a 3-0 series in a Game 6 clinching back at United Center?
Still, it’s hard to conceive a better formula overall for Cleveland than the one working so well for 45 minutes Wednesday. James had 39 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists, and made 15-of-27 shots and 4-of-9 from the arc. Irving scored 38 and demonstrated why he’s the most lethal finisher at the rim in the NBA. The Cavs got that resuscitated game they needed from J.R. Smith (16 points, five 3-pointers). Kyle Korver was a legit threat (eight points) off the bench. And Tristan Thompson ... well, Cleveland is still waiting for him to fog the mirror.
But the Cavs had their home crowd, where they truly are a better team, and a late lead and ... it wasn’t enough.
Best shot, delivered and withstood?
“It's so hard to say, but like I said, for me personally, I gave everything I had tonight,” James said. “So win, lose, or draw, you live with the results. ... I mean, before the series even started we knew what we was dealing with. I said it after we won the Eastern Conference finals that we're getting ready for a juggernaut. It's probably the most, most firepower I've played in my career.”
James has done too many things -- think 12 months ago -- and earned too much respect to call that a concession speech. But his and numerous other Cavs’ body language late in the week hours of Thursday morning had a noticeable summer-is-calling look.
4. Draymond Green is right where he belongs: The Warriors’ versatile power forward is a plus-227 through the playoffs for Golden State, according to NBA.com’s John Schuhmann. That’s a monstrous number -- 18 better than James en route to the title in 2016 -- in terms of Green’s positive impact when on the court through 15 games so far.
But let’s be honest, his dramatics and apparent inability at times to just shut up would be disastrous on other teams. Say, for instance, one where Green were the first- or second-best player. It’s troubling enough when he’s third- or fourth-, the way he a) picked up a technical foul late in the first half, then b) stalked referee Monty McCutchen and yammered, with Warriors fans worried he might get ejected and everybody else wondering how the heck he didn’t.
Golden State can absorb Green’s overly emotional junk between the seams of most games because of the talent and maturity it has on the roster. Green and the others can claim all they want that somehow his flailing about gives them an “edge,” or whatever. But there was no semblance of benefit from it Wednesday, and he’s averaging about 10 fewer minutes than Durant and Curry due to foul trouble.
Green supposedly “woke up” after his suspension from Game 5 in last year’s Finals, a transgression that might have cost the Warriors a repeat title. He still contributes mightily with his on-court know-how, especially defensively, and leadership within their ranks.
“I think the most important thing is just growth,” Green said recently, “and just understanding what’s in front of you. Never making the same mistakes twice.”
Greens growth won’t be complete until he stops indulging his loudest demons. There’s no particular appeal in making new mistakes, either.
5. Conspiracy theorists resume their watch: There was no way this series would be a sweep, right? That was the conventional wisdom and it even made sense, at least according to some non-basketball-related reasons. This was The Finals everyone had waited for, the showdown that was going to make up for earlier rounds that delivered too many blowouts and snoozers. Why settle for just four games when six or better yet, seven would deliver the entertainment and highights so many crave?
The thing is, any chicanery or tomfoolery would have had to happen by now, right? If the referees were going to tilt their whistles to serve some star chamber of the NBA’s Board of Governors or if the Replay Center in Secaucus were going to lose a few vital seconds of video feed at a pivotal moment, they would have done it in Game 2 to assure a 1-1 split. Or in Game 3 for sure, yes, to keep this at 2-1 in hopes of retaining the audience, yes?
What's most important to note is that teams down 3-0 in a best-of-seven playoff series are 0-126. Unless James, Irving and the rest decided to dial up last spring’s handicap, just to add a few more degrees of difficulty, it isn’t going to happen this time either. Even pushing things back to Oakland wouldn’t necessarily drag the viewers along, not when they know they can catch up in Game 6 or 7 as needed.
So in a sense, all the conspiracy theories that abound through the NBA postseason might suffer a needed blow if we end up with the ninth Finals sweep ever. Sweeps aren’t exciting but they do produce champions. And considering how good this Cleveland team has been, especially for the past two seasons, a sweep would enlarge the Warriors more than it would diminish the Cavaliers.
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