CLEVELAND – For days, the message coming out of the Cavaliers‘ camp has been unmistakable: Game 3 is a must-win. Cleveland rallied from a 2-0 deficit to beat Golden State in last year’s NBA Finals, but this Warriors team is different. This team has a healthy Stephen Curry. This team has Kevin Durant. To avoid an insurmountable 3-0 deficit, the Cavaliers needed their best game from everyone in the rotation, on both ends of the floor.
For most of Game 3, they got it, but it wasn’t enough as Durant, who scored 31 points, and the Warriors defeated the Cavs 118-113 Wednesday night at Quicken Loans Arena to move a win away from their second NBA championship in three seasons.
“They’re a juggernaut of a team,” Cavs All-Star guard Kyrie Irving said.
Cleveland played with a sense of urgency early. J.R. Smith, scoreless in Game 2, knocked down a pair of first-quarter threes while LeBron James continued a string of strong opening quarters, scoring 16 points.
After committing 20 turnovers in Game 2, the Warriors continued to be sloppy, turning the ball over six times in the first quarter. That sloppiness was countered by a blistering 3-point assault. Golden State knocked down a record nine threes in the first quarter, finishing with a 39-32 lead.
“It’s probably the most … most firepower I’ve played [against] in my career,” James said. “I played
against some great teams, but I don’t think no team has had this type of firepower.
“So even when you’re playing well, you got to play like A-plus-plus, because they’re going to make runs and they’re going to make shots and they got guys that’s going to make plays.”
Both offenses cooled off in the second. For days, Kevin Love has been tabbed as a possible scapegoat if the Cavaliers bowed out of the Finals early. Love struggled in the first half, missing all five of his shots and drawing catcalls from some of the 20,562 in the building.
Golden State held a six-point lead at the half, with its favorite quarter to come. The third quarter had been the Warriors’ best in the Finals, with Golden State holding a plus-24 advantage in the third through two games. In Game 3, the third belonged to Irving. After struggling to find his shot in Game 2, Irving came alive Wednesday night. To shed the defense of Klay Thompson, the Cavs put Irving in a steady diet of pick-and-rolls, and Irving responded with a series-high 38 points, including 16 in the third. Love shook off a shaky first half to chip in nine points in the quarter.
“Klay didn’t hang his head when Kyrie was going off,” Curry said. “He stuck with it and when it mattered most down the stretch. I think all that pressure kind of showed itself, and Klay really helped us get over the hump by getting a couple stops.
“So a lot’s been said about his defense and how important it is, and you can’t understate it. It’s just he understands how valuable he is for us on that end of the floor.”
Cleveland took a six-point lead into the fourth. And then the back and forth began. A Durant 3-pointer cut the Cavaliers’ lead to two with six minutes left. A minute later, a Thompson three sliced the lead to one. A J.R. Smith three swelled the lead back to six with three minutes left.
Enter, Durant. With a 1:15 left, Durant knocked down a 13-footer to cut the lead to two. Then, with 45 seconds to play, Durant coolly drained a 26-foot three in front of James to give Golden State a one-point lead.
“They made some big-time plays,” Irving said. “K.D. comes down, hits a big three, puts them up one, iso on the wing. I’ll probably be replaying that play for a while.”
A pair of Durant free throws extended the lead to three, and a strip steal by Andre Iguodala on James sealed the win for Golden State.
“It definitely hurts,” Irving said. “I’m human, as well as my teammates, and to lay it all on the line like that, you want to come out on the winning side. But we gave a great effort, and the result just didn’t turn out the way we wanted to.”
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