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Five things we learned from Cavs' Game 3 win

POSTED: Jun 9, 2016 4:29 PM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner

NBA.com

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2016 NBA Finals Game 3 Mini-Movie

The Cavaliers bounced back in compelling fashion to take Game 3 of the 2016 NBA Finals.

— Five things we learned from the Cleveland Cavaliers' 120-90 Game 3 victory over the Golden State Warriors in The 2016 Finals Wednesday night at Quicken Loans Arena:

1. A turning point for the Cavaliers?

When Cleveland faced Toronto in the Eastern Conference finals, they, their fans and the NBA at large got a little dismissive of the Raptors because the guys from Canada so often seemed to check their "A" game at the border. Toronto at home vs. Toronto on the road was as pivotal a matchup as anything the Cavaliers threw at Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and the rest. It was also why Cleveland could play so comfortably in the decisive Game 6 -- it knew it had Game 7 back at Quicken Loans Arena in its back pocket.

Best Of Phantom Cam: Game 3

A special slo-mo look at Game 3 of the NBA Finals set to Coldplay's new single, ''Up&Up''.

Well, the Cavs right now are those Raptors. Dramatically different at home. They are 8-0 at The Q in the postseason, on top of their 33-8 regular-season mark there. The decibel level at home, the routine of being home, the vibe the Cavs get there as opposed to the speed bumps their foes face from being and playing on the road -- all of it contributed to Cleveland's favorable outcome. Was it worth 30 points? No. But it was worth a few and most of those probably came in the 9-0 start that forced the Warriors into an early huddle.

Also, Kyrie Irving was playing his first Finals home game, after being cheated of that in the 2015 championship series. And he took advantage, not merely outplaying the other guys' point guard but -- for the second time in three games but in this case, meaningfully so -- outscoring Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson combined.

"I don't want to say [I was] a completely different player," Irving said, "but it's just back to not really thinking about anything except being aggressive."

So now the lesson to be learned from Game 4 is this: Is it replicable? Desperation and home cooking might explain the Cavaliers' transformation. Or is their grittier, stay-at-home defense, and their offensive accuracy and resilience part of their style in The Finals going forward?

2. 'Splash Brothers' are going splat, brother

Everything Golden State accomplished this season, it did with its All-Star backcourt as the catalyst. Night in, night out, Curry and Thompson were good for 52 points between them and no small doses of consternation in the defenses that could never quite expand enough to reach them. Through three games of these Finals, the MVP and his All-Star sidekick have been shells of their regular-season selves.

They are averaging a combined 28 points so far, which puts the burden for those other 24 on other Warriors who aren't quite as offensively talented or accustomed to that role. That's fine when Golden State is playing before its raucous Oracle Arena crowd. But expecting Shaun Livingston, Leandro Barbosa and others who fueled that 45-point bench performance in Game 1 to flirt with that nightly? Well, Steve Kerr and his staff know better. So do Curry and Thompson. If they can't be more consistent, how should anyone else on their roster?

Warriors React to Game 3 Loss

Steve Kerr, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson address the media following a game 3 loss to the Cavaliers.

Kerr and his players felt this was a lousy night, a throw-that-boxscore-and-video-in-the-trash situation. Which is maddening, of course, because if you had suggested before Game 3 that might happen, every last one of them would have nodded and shaken his head simultaneously, as if to say, "Yes, that's exactly what we're guarding against. And no, we shall not let that happen."

And then of course they did. Either that, or the Cavaliers have adjusted thanks to their repeat exposures to Curry and Thompson in a lasting and, for the Warriors, troubling way. With Richard Jefferson in the starting lineup, they had an extra wing player who could help, pester and avoid unnecessary switching defensively. For all the fingers on J.R. Smith's pulse as a shooter, ol' Swish has done a solid job chasing around Thompson.

The Warriors' shooting guard did go off in the second quarter for 10 points, yet was otherwise scoreless. Curry had 13 in the third, even as his team got outscored by 12, and just nine the rest of the night. The Splash Brothers' only real solace: Stats showed they missed eight of their 12 open looks (defender 4 feet away or more). That sort of thing, just like Curry being held under 20 points for three consecutive games, just doesn't happen with these guys. At least, not for long.

3. LeBron's still going strong

At age 31, with 13 seasons, nearly 1,200 regular and postseason games and more than 46,000 total minutes on his odometer, LeBron James is way closer to the end than the beginning. Larry Bird, Jerry West, Dominque Wilkins, Clyde Drexler and other league greats were used up or broken down by now and while his four-year head start bought James time, it didn't necessarily mean he'd have a bigger tank forever.

Being closer to the end obviously doesn't mean finished, though. And for whatever role drama plays in NBA storylines, James remains more than capable of aping the books and the movies, which by design save their best for (almost) last.

James' overall "follow my lead" exhortation to his teammates and Game 3 performance from tipoff to check-out after 40 minutes, 32 points, 11 rebounds and six assists demonstrated that. But two plays in particular served as Exhibits A and B.

The first was James' steal, stumble across the midcourt line into a full-on sprawl, followed by his recovery to pass the ball to Irving and then leap high and wide to thrown down Irving's alley-oop pass. It was breathtaking, a reminder of what we missed by James' refusal ever to participate in the Slam Dunk Contest and an exclamation point on Cleveland's and James' resolve not to be embarrassed in these Finals.

All Angles: LeBron James Alley-Oop

Check out the Kyrie Irving to LeBron James alley-oop that took place during Game 3 of the NBA Finals.

Irving, sounding like a rascal, apparently made his pass challenging with an eye on greateness. "Some people may say it's a bad pass," the Cavs point guard said, "but I wanted to see something great."

The actual leap and finish ...

... was nearly as good as the Internet's instant exaggeration:

The other play that spoke volumes wasn't even a real play. The ball was dead when it bounced to Curry, his team down 87-68 with scant seconds left in the third quarter. The Warriors star grabbed it and, as much out of bottled-up frustration as anything, went for a recreational layup. James happened to be standing right there and instinctively jumped up and blocked it.

In that Kevin Garnett-like, obsessive, nobody-scores-ever moment, there was a message.

"When you have the greatest shooter in the world trying to get an easy one or trying to get in rhythm, it's our job to try to keep him out," James said. "No matter if it's after the whistle or not. If you're a great player and you see the ball go in, no matter if it's after the play or during the play, then you start feeling it. ... I didn't want him to see the ball go in."

4. Finally, a great game coming

If not for the Cavaliers' return to form or grab at pride, this series would be over and Golden State would be on its way to a title repeat. The same holds true if Cleveland falters Friday night, only this time the Warriors will have much more at stake than in Game 3.

"Three-oh has never been done and 3-1 has only been done a few times," Cleveland's Jefferson said, showing off his big brain on Finals history. "So we understand that this next game is equally important."

GameTime: Game 4 Lookahead

The GameTime crew talks about what they expect to see in Game 4 of the NBA Finals between the Warriors and Cavaliers.

From the Warriors' side, 3-1 is all sweetness and styling but 2-2 is to risk a championship and face a silly referendum on their 73-9 regular season if a stray injury or a wacky LeBron or Kyrie scoring night seizes up on them. So if their sub-par showing Wednesday was just that, rather than a Cavs' series-changer, it's on Kerr, Curry, Thompson and Draymond Green to prove it.

"They came out and played like a team with a sense of desperation like their season was on the line," Green said. "We came out and played like everything was peaches and cream."

Viewers in markets other than northeast Ohio or the Bay Area would settle for a more competitive game. With margins of victory of 15, 33 and 30 points, these contests have been decisive without much doubt or the aforementioned drama.

Only twice before in Finals history, in fact, has one team won by 20 points or more, followed by the other team winning by 20 points or more. The Boston Celtics and the Warriors did that way back in 1964 in Games 2 and 3, while the Chicago Bulls and the Seattle SuperSonics did it 20 years ago in Games 3 and 4.

In both cases, the team that claimed the first blowout victory went on to win the championship. But clearly that has nothing to do with this series.

5. Kevin Love as this year's David Lee/Wally Pipp?

OK, a little background. Wally Pipp was the New York Yankees first baseman who took a game off because he was feeling a little punk, and never got his job back after manager Miller Huggins replaced him with Lou (Iron Horse) Gehrig.

Lee was the power forward who, while an All-Star and a key to previous Warriors teams, wound up coming off the bench in a limited capacity in last year's Finals, a helpful piece but not nearly the contributor he had been.

That's where Kevin Love is right now, assuming that he will be cleared from the NBA's concussion protocol in time for Game 4 or soon thereafter.

GameTime: Lue on Love's Status

The crew discuss coach Tyronn Lue keeping quiet with the media on Kevin Love's status for Game 4.

The Cavs were 30 points better than Golden State without Love, compared to 48 points worse with him. That's simplistic and unfair, but there's not a lot of time for perspective and grand plans and hand-holding.

If Cleveland matches up better by starting Jefferson, or any other tweak that Lue pursues, it has to do that until proven wrong. Carve out a role for Love off the bench the way Kerr brought Lee in to great effect deep into last year's Finals. Let him be the offense's No. 1 or No. 2 the way Lue has been using Love and Irving at the end of the first and third quarters through the postseason.

But the care and feeding of Love is a project for October through April. Maybe it's a crisis intervention waiting to happen this summer, if egos and confidence get enflamed. But it's nothing Lue can fret about now. And something in the game and postgame behavior of all folks Cavalier Wednesday night suggested it won't be.

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

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