CLEVELAND — Here’s how you squirt ketchup on a postseason Picasso. You use some elbow grease, plenty of anger and get egged on by an instigating, feisty crowd. Most of all, you use pride as your fuel, and it was pride that gassed up the Cavaliers, put history to sleep, kept the victory champagne on ice and sent the NBA Finals back to Oakland.
The Warriors did not, to paraphrase Moses Malone, pull a ‘fo, ‘fo, ‘fo, ‘fo to become the first team to sweep through the postseason. They did, however, feel the fury of a fed-up Cavs team weary of coming up short and determined not to be embarrassed at Quicken Loans Arena.
That’s why LeBron James got chippy with Kevin Durant in an MVP stare-down showdown, and why Tristan Thompson took menacing steps toward Draymond Green and why the Cavs simply muscled up and therefore will move on in the series. The Finals took a spicy turn Friday and forced the Warriors to work at least one game longer than they anticipated in a series in which they’ve otherwise controlled.
“They brought a level of physicality,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr, “that we did not match.”
It wasn’t just the Cavs throwing their collective weight around and putting on their bully face. More concerning to the Warriors is how the Cavs finally showed what they’re capable of doing when their shots fall. Is this what the Warriors must deal with Monday in Game 5, and can that inject some suspense in an NBA Finals which, at 3-1, still looks like a runaway?
“When we’re making shots and playing with pace, we’re tough to beat,” said Cavs coach Tyronn Lue. “This is who we are. We’re a tough, resilient team. Guys were into it. We knew (the Warriors) were beatable, we knew we could play better, and this is the result you get when we’re at our best. You get down 3-0 and you’re fighting, you’ll do whatever it takes.”
With lots of energy and the right amount of sneer, the Cavs rolled up 137 points on perhaps the league’s best defensive team. This was fortified by 49 points in the first quarter and 86 in the first half, both Finals records. Their attacking approach led to a dozen free throw attempts in the first quarter alone. The 3-point shot, a precious weapon all season yet dormant for much of The Finals, returned with a vengeance; the Cavs set another Finals record with 24 makes in 45 attempts. For a team suspected of dragging its tongues on the floor late in these games, the Cavs fixed all accusations of being tired by building a double-digit lead they couldn’t blow.
But some of those numbers are freakish and unlikely to be repeated. The other, more important issue for the Warriors before they plan their parade: What to do about LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, if anything?
For the second straight game, this duo was more than a handful, LeBron getting his record ninth Finals triple-double and Kyrie jitterbugging his way to 40 points. Together they’re undoubtedly making the Warriors skittish and giving the Cavs hope for bringing The Finals back to Cleveland.
LeBron’s 31 points were damaging enough, but he also spotted 3-point shooters with pinpoint passes and made the Cavs unpredictable offensively. When Irving hits his outside shot, it opens the lane for his signature dribble drives, at which point he’s nearly impossible to contain. And so: After shooting a miserable 2-for-13 combined in the previous two games, Irving made seven from deep in Game 3, one more than Steph Curry and Klay Thompson combined.
“I was hoping they’d get tired but they weren’t tired tonight,” said Kerr. “Both guys played tremendous games, did some amazing things one on one and they got a lot of contributions from others, too."
Irving said he was juiced by locker-room talk among the Warriors and accused them of being anxious to dance on the Cavs’ floor for the second time in three years. On the surface, this seems odd; how much more incentive does anyone need to perform at a high level in The Finals? Isn’t the smell of a championship enough to push grown men beyond bulletin board material?
“You add some chatter in there and it adds some extra motivation,” Irving said. “I mean, we’re in The Finals. Everything is accessible. Social media is everywhere. So we see everything. I’d be sitting up here lying saying I didn’t see it.”
LeBron pointed an accusatory finger in the direction of Draymond Green; maybe the visitor’s locker room at Quicken Loans is bugged?
“I didn’t hear it but some of our guys heard it and told me that they wanted to celebrate on our floor and spray champagne in our locker room. I think it came from Draymond, which is OK. That’s Dray anyway. I just told the guys to live in the moment. We have a great opportunity to give ourselves another opportunity to keep going.”
This perhaps explains why the Cavs were in a foul move and the clear aggressors from the opening jump. Driving to the rim constantly to initiate contact and draw fouls was a clear game plan and in every which way, the Cavs did not back down even with their lead swelling to 21 in the third.
After Durant was clunked on the head by Kevin Love and took exception to it, he was met at the scorer’s table by LeBron and the two had a spirited chat. Neither player makes a habit of getting in another player’s face, but this wasn’t a typical situation. From LeBron’s end, this was survival.
“We weren’t coming to blows,” said Durant. “We were just talking. That’s a part of basketball … I’m sure it’s going to continue. Emotions are what keeps this game alive, it keeps it going.”
The home crowd trolled Durant later by chanting “Russell Westbrook” while Durant shot free throws. They also gave the business to Green, in a more R-rated manner, after Green engaged in a running feud with the refs and nearly earned two technicals and an ejection.
All game the Warriors and Cavs toed the line, with Zaza Pachulia taking a swipe at the sweet spot of Iman Shumpert during a pile up, and Thompson chopping it up with assorted Warriors.
“Guys are going to talk,” said Thompson. “We’re going to respond … they aren’t going to punk us. Not me. They’re not going to punk Tristan Thompson. You can talk all you want but I’m definitely going to bark back.”
The Cavs will stick with what’s working at the moment, which means they’ll keep LeBron and Kyrie unleashed, try to get under Green’s thin skin, and sharpen their elbows in the paint. Do they really have any choice? One slip-up and they become just another Warriors’ victim.
Meanwhile the Warriors are left dealing with a strange hangover for them. They hadn’t lost a game with their regular starting five since Feb. 2, a remarkable stretch that gave them credibility as an all-time great team. Also, Curry had his first poor performance of the postseason (4-for-13) and serving as a non-factor on the floor for once. Even Durant, whose 35 points was his fourth straight in the 30s, endured invisible stretches.
The Warriors are better as a front-running team, easy for them given their obvious firepower. Which is how they anticipate Game 5 will go.
“We’ve done a good job of bouncing back all year,” said Curry. “I love the vibe we had in the locker room after the game, understanding what we need to do to play better, to play with more force. We talked about it. We obviously know you just can’t go home and expect to win.”
This was the fourth straight game in The Finals, dating back to last summer historic rally from being down 3-1, when the Cavs won an elimination game. That’s an admirable feat, although this is one streak that isn’t expected to challenge Joe DiMaggio’s. The Warriors are returning home, where Oracle Arena will surely resemble a beehive under attack. Two years ago the Warriors celebrated in Cleveland, and with the chance to do it before friendlier faces will be a plus. Also, when the Warriors won their first title in 1975, that was done in Washington. So this would be the first celebration on Bay Area soil should it happen. That’s what the Cavs are up against, and they’re not ignoring the obvious.
Being down 3-1 to the Warriors with Green missing a game from suspension and no Durant is far different from being down 3-1 to the Warriors with Green dodging suspension — so far — and with Durant.
“They’ve got us where they want us,” said LeBron, who admitted he was “stressed” from so many must-win games against Golden State. “Listen, at the end of the day, we just want to put ourselves in position to play another game. Getting swept is something that you never want to happen. So I think a lot of guys had it in their mind and came out and played like it.”
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