CLEVELAND — For three days, Kyrie Irving heard it all. About how his penchant for pounding the rock and attacking in isolation was dragging the Cleveland Cavaliers down. About how his inability to hold up defensively, whether trying to stay solid against his own man or communicating a switch off the ball, was helping give the Golden State Warriors the steady diet of clean releases and open looks they needed to thrive even without the Splash Brothers getting untracked.
About missing two-thirds of his shots — including nearly 90 percent when calling his own number — with more turnovers than assists. About being a minus-42 through four games against Golden State this season. About how maybe the Warriors' 2015 championship win over a Kyrie- and Kevin Love-less Cavaliers squad didn't demand an asterisk after all, because as it turned out, full-strength Cleveland didn't seem to have a whole lot to offer Golden State.
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He heard it all, and on Wednesday night, he set fire to all of it in 12 brilliant minutes.
The All-Star point guard finally looked like one on Wednesday, taking the fight to unanimous MVP Stephen Curry and grabbing Game 3 by the throat with 16 first-quarter points — his most in a quarter this postseason, and six more than he'd managed in all of Game 2 — in a roaring start that propelled Cleveland to a 120-90 blowout victory.
"Kyrie pretty much took over the game," LeBron James said.
Irving finished with 30 points on 12-for-25 shooting, eight assists (three more than he'd logged in Games 1 and 2 combined), four rebounds and just two turnovers in 37 minutes in the win, which cut Golden State's Finals lead in half and offered a reminder that, despite two games of acting as little more than a sparring partner for the defending NBA champions, the Cavaliers can throw haymakers, too.
"He was just really aggressive," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. "He's a great player. He had a couple of tough games, and I thought his play kind of mirrored their team's play. You spend two or three days listening to everybody say things about you that don't feel that good, usually you bounce back. I thought they bounced back and played a fantastic game, and Kyrie played a great game."
After Game 2, with Irving coming under fire following a subpar and isolation-heavy start to the Finals, Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue emphasized the importance of Irving staying aggressive, making quick decisions with the ball and attacking defenders before they get set. Irving took the message to heart, setting the tone early with decisive, confident moves that put the Warriors in compromised, reactive positions.
"I know that I can't play in-between or be indecisive, especially with guys in front of me," Irving said after the game. "Just constantly in attack mode. I know my teammates consistently want me to do that, possession by possession, whether it's getting downhill or shooting jump shots or whatever it is."
He got on the board by taking a handoff from Tristan Thompson and stepping into a right elbow jumper that splashed through. He juked a disconnected Curry out of his shoes on a backdoor cut for a layup. He shook both Steph and Klay Thompson with evil crossovers, froze Draymond Green off the bounce, then pulled up and popped deep jumpers over them.
"He attacked early," Lue said. "We got the ball up the floor with great pace. He was able to attack in transition. And even versus the switches, he really attacked quicker so they couldn't load up on him. He really attacked quick, and got downhill and got into the paint."
Late in the frame, neck-deep in his groove and feeling himself, Irving offered a damn fine Curry impression, dancing around Timofey Mozgov screens and bombing away from well behind the arc with a pair of deflating detonations that made Mike Breen yell "BANG!" and the 20,562 in attendance at Quicken Loans Arena reach deafening new levels. After a 7-for-9 start, Kyrie going it alone wasn't a problem for the Cavaliers anymore. Suddenly, it was the Warriors' headache to handle:
Kyrie Irving had more unassisted field goals in the first quarter (5-5) than the first two games combined (4-27).
— Kevin Pelton (@kpelton) June 9, 2016
Kyrie Irving went 6-of-8 on jump shots off the dribble in the 1st quarter.
He was 4-of-19 on such shots in Games 1-2.
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 9, 2016
Knocked on their heels and out of sorts, the Warriors only equalled Irving's opening-quarter output, managed just 16 points on 7-for-20 shooting, with five turnovers leading to 12 Cavalier points. Golden State would eventually find its shot-making touch, scoring 27 points in the second quarter fueled by a small-ball outfit that got back to the business of spreading Cleveland out and attacking in space. But the Warriors would never lead in Game 4, would never get closer than seven points, would never really threaten after Kyrie cold-cocked them in the early going.
"We lost the game in that first quarter," said Thompson, who bounced back from a scoreless first frame with 10 in the second, but wouldn't score again after halftime, finishing 4 for 13 from the floor.
"It was that first eight to 10 minutes where they came out with a huge punch and we didn't handle it well at all," added Curry, who continued his title-round struggles with a quiet 19 points, the bulk of which came after a brutal first half that saw him post more fouls and turnovers than points and assists.
Irving's ability to toast Curry and Thompson off the dribble forced Golden State's previously airtight defense to contort and collapse, opening up dump-off passes that turned into threes for Richard Jefferson and J.R. Smith, and into layups for Jefferson and Tristan Thompson.
"I knew that getting down and getting into the paint, I'm able to be aggressive for my shot," Irving said. "But in the beginning of the game, I just knew where guys were going to be. I'm coming off pick-and-rolls, and we have guys in specific spots, and they just made my job a lot easier coming in and seeing a lot of bodies in the paint, and I am able to just draw some eyes and kick out to our shooters."
"It opens it up even more," Lue said. "When he's scoring at a high clip the way he did tonight, and then when he gets to the paint and guys are helping, he's making the right play and the extra pass, then we're going to get any shot we want."
The Cavs made those shots on Wednesday, going 8 for 9 off Irving's passes, with his feeds generating 19 points ... including two very, very loud ones on the play of the night, a defense-into-offense open-court give-and-go that ended with a thunderous throwdown by James:
"I knew we had a break going, and I didn't know exactly which one of my teammates was running the left wing until I got back up off the ground and saw Kyrie," said James, who led the way with 32 points on 14-for-26 shooting, 11 rebounds, six assists and two blocks in 40 minutes. "I threw it to Kyrie and I made, I think it was Klay, just shift a little bit, and I knew he was going to throw it up there. And I had to go get it. He threw it, I had to go get it."
And thanks to Kyrie, he had to get up to do it.
"I wanted to see something great," Irving joked. "I threw it very, very — you know, some people may say it's a bad pass, but I wanted to see something great, and for him to do that, it was awesome. It was awesome."
With Love still sidelined in the NBA's concussion protocol and Cleveland's standard operating procedures coming up lacking through two games in Oakland, many wondered what kind of adjustments the Cavaliers needed to make to get back in the series. As coaches are often fond of saying, though, sometimes it's just a matter of doing things better, harder, faster and with a greater sense of purpose. Irving did that on Wednesday, playing from the opening tip with a force the Warriors hadn't yet seen from him, and it made all the difference.
"I told you, no one can stop Kyrie one-on-one when he has the basketball," Lue said. "We just have to attack quicker and keep them on their heels."
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