June 7, 2018, 12:45 am
The Cleveland Cavaliers’ early 13-point lead, it turns out, wasn’t close to big enough. Kevin Durant made sure of that. Behind an effortlessly masterful performance from the reigning Finals MVP, the Golden State Warriors beat the Cavaliers 110-102 at Quicken Loans Arena on Wednesday night, coming within a single victory of their second consecutive title.
Game 3 was a throwback of sorts for Durant, who took the reins for Golden State from the opening tip as his star teammates struggled. He scored 43 points on 15-of-23 shooting overall, 6-of-9 from beyond the arc and 7-of-7 at the free throw line, good for a laughable true shooting percentage of 82.4. Durant drained pull-up triples, made hay from the post and generally abused the many overmatched defenders unlucky enough to cover him – from whatever spot on the floor he wanted. He also did a lot more than score, finishing with 13 rebounds and seven assists, and helped force LeBron James into an uncharacteristically average shooting night.
— NBA (@NBA) June 7, 2018
James’ numbers, to be clear, were stellar. He had 33 points, 10 rebounds, 11 assists, two steals and two blocks on 13-of-28 from the field, which would be a spectacular line for literally any player throughout league history – especially considering the dire circumstances of potentially falling behind three games to none. But through years of postseason brilliance, perhaps cresting over the last seven weeks, James has made sure the basketball world expects something close to his absolute best, and he didn’t provide it on Wednesday night. Clearly lacking confidence in his jumper, James ended up going just 1-of-6 from three and didn’t take a single shot from mid-range. He was also a pedestrian 9-of-15 from the restricted area, missing several makeable attempts, including a pair of uncontested layups in the second quarter.
Despite Durant’s utter brilliance, Cleveland should still consider Game 3 a missed opportunity. The home team jumped out to a 14-4 lead behind sweet shooting from Kevin Love and J.R. Smith, and led 50-37 with 4:06 left before halftime after Golden State cut their deficit to one by the end of the first quarter. Finally, the Cavaliers’ supporting cast gave James enough help to steal a win against an objectively superior foe. Love scored 20 points and grabbed 13 rebounds. Smith needed 14 shots to score 13 points, but fared markedly better on both ends of the floor than he was over the first two games of the Finals, playing with notable edge and intensity. And Rodney Hood, dusted off for rotation minutes after falling out of the rotation in the second round, was a revelation, finishing with 15 points, six rebounds and two blocks on 7-of-11 shooting.
Combined with Cleveland’s 9-of-31 shooting from deep, though, Durant’s singular night and several impactful efforts from role players helped the Warriors make up for the struggles of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. The Splash Brothers totaled just 21 points on 27 shots, and made only three of their 15 3-point attempts. Though Curry’s labors were especially evident, his fingerprints were still all over Golden State’s win. The Cavaliers elected to trap him when Love was involved in ball-screen situations, forcing the ball from Curry’s hands and letting the Warriors play the numbers game from there – one they would win over and over.
Golden State posted a 116.6 offensive rating and doled out 27 assists in Game 3. Draymond Green had 10 points and nine assists, often functioning as a point guard when Cleveland’s newfound aggression defensively made Curry, and sometimes Durant, give up the ball. JaVale McGee and Jordan Bell were the biggest benefactors of that development, each scoring 10 points on an array of above-the-rim finishes. Shaun Livingston continued his highly-efficient Finals, with eight points on 4-of-5 shooting, while Andre Iguodala‘s return from a nagging left knee contusion ended with eight points, two rebounds and multiple big defensive plays down the stretch.
It was Golden State’s superstars, however, who put the Cavaliers away for good. After Cleveland retook the lead on a pair of free throws by Love with 3:11 left in the game, Curry, who’d scored just by that time in the action, ran off five straight points over 20 seconds, first on a backdoor layup from Green and then a pull-up triple in transition following a steal by Iguodala. James’ three, his only long-range make, pulled his team within a single possession less than a minute later. But Durant, who had already grabbed the lead back from Cleveland on three separate occasions in the final stanza, splashed a three of his own from a very familiar spot on the floor the next trip down, putting Golden State up 106-100 with 49.8 seconds left.
KDTREY! 😮😮😮 pic.twitter.com/m1IaARjJd7
— NBA (@NBA) June 7, 2018
It’s been almost exactly one calendar year since Durant, in another Game 3 at Quicken Loans Arena, pulled up from left center and drilled 3-pointer over the outstretched arm of James, bringing the Warriors all the way back from a crunch-time hole. Golden State is up 3-0 again, and Durant, based on Wednesday’s game, is the biggest reason why. Don’t count on history repeating itself on Friday night, though.
Last year, the Cavaliers had the horses, and inevitable sense of belief that comes with them, to stave off elimination by blowing out Golden State in Game 4. They don’t this time around, and this series has already shown that an all-time performance from James isn’t enough to beat the Warriors. That Golden State won on the road in a game it allowed 15 offensive rebounds and Curry and Thompson failed to make their normal box-score is a harbinger of what’s to come, too – another championship for the Warriors.
That’s not surprising. For Cleveland and Golden State, though, it won’t make that long-awaited result any less frustrating or gratifying.