CLEVELAND – Five things we learned from the Golden State Warriors 110-102 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 3 of the 2018 Finals Wednesday at Quicken Loans Arena:
1. LeBron James has no LeBron James
As in, “LeBron James has no Kevin Durant.” In other words, no, James cannot afford to have a Finals performance in which he misses 13 of 16 shots and wraps up the night with five rebounds, six assists and just 11 points (as Stephen Curry did in Game 3 for Golden State).
If James ever were to do that, not only would his team get pummeled on the scoreboard, he would be raked over by critics … maybe forever. That’s precisely the stats line turned in by Curry, along with his 0 plus/minus. He’s a multi-MVP winner who gets away with it because, of course, he has Durant around to do the heavy lifting when all else fails.
As Wednesday’s postgame interviews ground on, the luxury Curry enjoys -- and the limitations James faces with Cleveland -- took on a more existential feel. Curry -- and, for that matter, Durant and Draymond Green -- revels in all the uber-qualified help he has on nights such as Game 3.
James, meanwhile, goes through his NBA life without a LeBron in it.
Not another LeBron. Any LeBron.
Since James is doing what he does in real time and responding moment by pressure-packed moment, he doesn’t get the opportunity to gauge this clash between the league’s best team vs. the world’s best player. In his world, he is an NBA superstar with a bunch of teammates who -- not to spoof them as “Saturday Night Live” did -- are simply more ordinary than the guys Curry or Durant have at their disposal.
Any one of the Warriors’ four All-Stars always is playing alongside three All-Stars, right? James is playing alongside one, sometimes, in Kevin Love.
You see the easy camaraderie and the lightness of being a Warrior, secure in the knowledge every night that two or three others can carry the load. You see James, his bearded jaw set, fully aware that no one else among the Cavaliers can carry his load. Then you hear James talk about both Golden State you understand if he does leave Cleveland again, what it is that might have him looking for an exit.
“I can take you back kind of to the battles I had with the Spurs when I was in Miami,” James said after Game 3.
He had been asked about the stress of facing a team whose many threats demand constant concentration across 48 minutes, and how exhausting that must be.
“You just knew that they wouldn't beat themselves,” James said of those Spurs and these Warriors. “You just knew that like every possession we were playing San Antonio when I was in Miami, you just knew if you made a mistake, Manu [Ginobili], Tim [Duncan], Tony [Parker], Pop [coach Gregg Popovich] will make you pay. At times they did make us pay, and then you sprinkle in what Gary Neal did to us one game, what Danny Green did to us one game. Then Kawhi [Leonard], you just couldn't -- you could never relax.
“When you have great basketball players but also that can also think the game and be very cerebral about the game, that's what adds the level of stress … Now Draymond and Klay [Thompson], Steph and KD, and then you sprinkle in [Andre] Iguodala and [Shaun] Livingston and all those guys as well, it adds a level of stress. Because you know that you can never relax. You know if you relax, they make you pay, and making you pay could cost you a game.”
Or a Finals. Or another building block toward a legacy.
James sounded very much like a fellow who wished he had a Curry or a Durant on his squad, or better yet, a LeBron. He sounded, after Game 3 made the outcome of this series inevitable, like someone who would dedicate the freedom and leverage he has this summer to finding one or several.
2. Rodney Hood, poster guy for what ails Cavs
After falling out of the Cavs’ playoff rotation as the playoffs wore on, Rodney Hood bounced back in Game 3. He logged 25 minutes off the bench, scoring 15 points that were as appreciated by James, by their coaches and by the fans as they were timely.
Hood was a team-worst minus-12 in Game 3, which means while he was shooting 7-of-11 and creating offense out of nothing, the Warriors were shooting something-of-something to render his 15 points almost moot.
That’s these Cavaliers in a nutshell: They must try to outscore opponents because their defense is so porous. Meanwhile, the grab at Hood as a matchup and rotation tweak looks as late as it does desperate.
Some of that is on the circumstances – seven-game series against Indiana and Boston didn’t allow for much experimentation or on-the-job learning for Hood. Some of it’s on Hood, who buried himself on coach Tyronn Lue’s bench by balking at garbage-time minutes.
Some of this, too, is fluke -- it’s possible that Game 3 was an adrenaline performance by Hood or a function of the Warriors’ inattention to him. But a sizable chunk of responsibility for getting too little, too late from the 6-foot-8 Meridian, Miss., product is on the Cavs.
They essentially bought a new jack and spare tire for the start of a long trip in February, yet never bothered to learn how to use them. Until they were broken down on the side of the road, in darkness, in trouble.
3. Glue guy’s gonna glue
Before Durant climbed aboard the Warriors’ bandwagon, back when Curry was a new MVP and unproven as a Finals performer, there was Andre Iguodala. Iguodala is the veteran wing who, time after time in these four Finals runs, has been the primary James “slower-downer” (we won’t say “stopper”).
In the 2015 Finals, Iguodala was named Finals MVP after his impressive defense on James in the series. The 34-year-old didn’t enter the fray this time until Wednesday, and while the outcome wasn’t different from the first two games, the way in which the Warriors got there -- with Iguodala vital to the effort -- was.
“Andre was really good,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said. “He gave us much-needed minutes. I didn't expect to play him 22 minutes. One thing with Andre is that he's not like most players in terms of needing rhythm and needing minutes to get his conditioning back. He just never gets tired, even when he's been out two and a half weeks and hasn't really been running much at all.”
Iguodala played 22 mintues, took four shots, scored eight points … and was a plus-14. That put his contribution up there with Durant’s or Curry’s (but done in about half the time).
Said Kerr: “Typical Andre line. ... He gives us another guy to guard LeBron, and he gives us another guy to settle us down and keep us on the right path.”
A tale from before this series began about Iguodala bears repeating. James -- who never has met a talented opponent he hasn’t coveted as a teammate -- apparently was on the Iguodala train early. As in 2004 early, when James was just 19 and Iguodala (then 20) was about to turn pro.
“When he got drafted, we were one pick away from drafting him before Philly took him [with the ninth pick]. Then we selected Luke Jackson from Oregon. I had loved [Iguodala] at Arizona and was hoping that he slid to us with that pick.”
Jackson played 73 games for four teams in four seasons. Iguodala has been a two-way force and the NBA’s version of a starting pitcher converted into a closer across 14 seasons and 1,163 regular and postseason games.
What makes him so good? Let LeBron count the ways:
“First of all, he has very, very quick hands. That doesn't get talked about a lot,” James said. “His ability to react to the ball either in the flight or while you're dribbling or while you pick the ball up. But at the end of the day, his athleticism allows him to play some of the premier perimeter players in our league.
“He's been like that since he was at Arizona. He's just added to his game every single season he's been in the NBA.”
4. Kevin Durant, professional ... rebounder?
Assassins are known for their stealth, their marksmanship and the ice water that runs through their veins. Yet after Durant’s classic performance in Game 3 -- 43 points on 15-of-23 shots, including 6-of-9 from 3-point range -- we’re supposed to believe that he’s first and foremost a blue-collar grunt cleaning the glass for the Warriors.
His conscientious job of rebounding -- 13 in Game 3, to go with the 18 before that in The Finals -- demonstrated Durant’s value at both ends. It also provided an early sign he would have a big game offensively.
“That’s always a good indicator when he’s active defensively and on the glass,” Kerr said. “His overall game was, I mean, ridiculous.”
Durant had a moment of some embarrassment in Game 1 that got overlooked because of all that happened immediately after it -- he was the Warriors player beaten to the ball by J.R. Smith when George Hill missed his second free throw with 4.7 seconds left. If not for Smith’s Game 1 error after that, this whole series might be completely different.
Durant denied that he was motivated to make up for that misplay. But he corralled nine rebounds in Game 2 and 13 in Game 3.
“I didn’t beat myself up about that one [in Game 1]. But ... a lot of teams jus try to beat us up on the glass and get more possessions than us,” Durant said. “After Game 1, I had nine rebounds but they were just like a soft nine rebounds, just ball falling in my hand or I’m in the right spot or uncontested rebounds.
“So I knew coming in that should be my focus because these guys are so great at getting extra possessions.”
5. Department of Redundancy Department, Finals IV
When Hollywood dives back into a cash trough for a highly derivative, by-the-number sequel, it generally waits two or three years between projects. This Warriors-Cavaliers series of Finals clashes, by contrast, is coming hard with the similarities between 2017 and 2018 a mere 12 months apart.
A 2-0 Golden State lead after a pair of games in Oakland? Check. A pivotal Game 3 on Cleveland’s home court that could have swung momentum but didn’t? Check. Kevin Durant launching and hitting a dagger 3-pointer from the left wing in the final minute? Check.
So does the pattern of last year’s Finals hold, with the proud Cavaliers forcing everyone back to the Bay Area for a decisive Game 5? Kevin Love thinks maybe yes.
“We came out and I think – who was telling me – that we hit 24 threes last year in Game 4,” Love said, “and didn’t accept defeat. So that’s something this team needs to do and continue to be resilient and come out Friday, shoot our shot, play our game and give ourselves a chance, and move on to the next one.”
Unless the Warriors decide to write a different ending this time, asserting and locking in their superiority by completing the sweep. That will be the primary plot line for Game 4, with the subplot of James potentially playing his final home game – or game, period – as a member of the Cavs.
Considering NBA teams that have grabbed 3-0 leads in best-of-seven playoff series have gone 131-0 through the years, the outcome of the 2018 Finals probably isn’t in doubt but the manner in which both teams get there over the final 48 minutes (or 96 or 144) surely is.
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