CLEVELAND — The silver linings are few and far between when you're down 2-1 in the NBA Finals, watching your world-beating offense get mucked up and mauled by an opponent whose pipe-bursting pressure can pulverize even pristine, precise systems. But during their 96-91 Game 3 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Golden State Warriors finally started to see some shine surrounding the dark gray cloud that's been hovering over their heads. It came from an unlikely source.
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After logging just 68 minutes through the Warriors' run to the Western Conference title and opening the 2015 Finals with a pair of DNP-CDs, forgotten forward David Lee rose off the bench with 5:31 remaining in the second quarter. There might have been some dust on his uniform, but there wasn't any rust on his game. The 32-year-old former All-Star, Golden State's highest-paid player, made all four of his shots, chipping in 11 points to go with four rebounds, two assists and a steal.
"We've talked all season about this — my job as a pro is to be ready," Lee said. "I have confidence in myself. My teammates have confidence in me, and my job is to be ready when my number's called."
Warriors coach Steve Kerr has repeatedly emphasized the importance of his team finding pace and playing with flow against a Cavaliers team that has completely cast off six months of point-preventing mediocrity to become a nightmarish defensive squad. Golden State seemed to find that all-too-elusive flow with Lee on the floor alongside struggling MVP Stephen Curry. The Dubs outscored Cleveland by 17 points in Lee's 13:17 of playing time.
Curry found freedom in the final frame, scoring 17 of his team-high 27 points. The bulk of those buckets came while working with Lee, giving Kerr a new option to consider moving forward.
"They were doing the same thing [to Curry] in the fourth quarter as they were in the first three," Kerr said. "They're going to blitz him. They're going to trap the high screen. That's what they're doing to him. That's what a lot of people do to him. But I think what helped him was David Lee playing so well as the roll man, and Steph was able to find David, and that softened them up a little bit. David was terrific. David helped us big-time get back into that game."
He did that, in large part, by focusing on springing his longtime teammate.
"Biggest thing I tried to do in that fourth quarter is just get [Curry] open looks by setting good screens and rolling to the basket," Lee explained. "Make the defense make a decision. They trapped him some, and he was able to throw [passes] out, and we were able to make some plays when we had a four-on-three on the back side, as well as they tried to switch it some. Then we could go inside on the mismatch and just try to react to what the defense was doing."
Despite having gotten far fewer game reps of late than they had in years past — they'd shared the floor for just 399 total minutes this season, compared to nearly 2,200 last season — Curry and Lee fell into rhythm. With the Cavaliers throwing hard traps at Curry to either force the ball out of his hands or push him into tentative play, Lee and Curry brought back their two-man game, an old favorite that's been largely absent from the repertoire as Lee receded to make way for rising star Draymond Green.
"I mean, [Lee's] a playmaker, so if they want to trap the pick-and-roll in that situation, getting it to him on the free-throw line and him making plays — whether he's finishing at the rim, for finding some guys on the wings for open 3s or open shots — that's what he does," Curry said.
"It was great to see him out there, playing the minutes that he did, and giving us a big spark, especially in that fourth quarter," he added. "So I assume he'll have a huge role in our play going forward."
How about it, Coach?
"Yeah, you'll see more of David Lee," Kerr said. "He played really well."
Lee's strong play, however, only shines a brighter spotlight on the struggles of the Warriors' starting frontcourt players, who have been such an integral part of Golden State's success this season, but have been short-circuited by the Cavaliers' size, athleticism and swarming approach.
Harrison Barnes went scoreless on eight shots on Tuesday and bore the brunt of LeBron James' early-game offensive exploits. Andrew Bogut managed just four points, six rebounds, an assist and a block in 17 quiet minutes, seeming to struggle with the sheer mass of Cleveland's Timofey Mozgov. And while Green finished with seven points, seven rebounds, three assists and a steal in 30 minutes of work, he continued to look uncomfortable offensively, passing up several wide-open shots, missing eight of the 10 he did take and struggling to finish when he drove to the rim against Mozgov.
All season long, it was Green — who stepped into the starting lineup after Lee's preseason hamstring injury, stayed there as the Warriors soared and finished second in both Defensive Player of the Year and Most Improved Player voting — who made opposing defenses pay for trying to trap Curry and overplay Klay Thompson. It was Green whose court vision, passing skill, playmaking savvy and willing, accurate-enough long-range shooting helped make Golden State such an unguardable bomb squad.
After averaging 5.3 assists per game through the Warriors' first three series, though, Green's down to 2.7 per contest in the Finals. His assist rate has dropped sharply and his trademark brashness has seemed tempered, muted in the moment by a Cleveland defense hell-bent on eliminating easy passes.
Kerr, for his part, said he doesn't see it that way.
"I don't know that Draymond has had struggles with" the sort of short-roll playmaking Lee displayed in Game 3, Kerr said. "I think he's been good with that. He can catch that pass in the lane and make plays, and David can do that, too. We can play them together, like we did at times. But I think both players are very adept at making that play."
Curry, too, refused to lend credence to the notion that Green's confidence — especially in a 3-point shot that has found the bottom of the net just 12.5 percent of the time in this series — has waned.
"Good thing about [Draymond] is, he's low maintenance in that category," Curry said. "He never is out of it. Whether he's making shots or not, he might get frustrated, but he's always going to stay confident and keep shooting. When it clicks, it's going to be fun to watch, and I expect him to be ready to go for Game 4. Never really have to worry about him."
They may, however, have to worry about Green's health, since he seems to be somewhat the worse for wear:
Draymond Green shared w/ me his back "is locked up at all times- pain w/ explosion, jumping & contact". Hurt it Game 2, 3rd qtr after fall.
— Rosalyn Gold-Onwude (@ROSGO21) June 10, 2015
Part of the reason David Lee played so much tonight is that Draymond Green's back has been tight & sore
— Ramona Shelburne (@ramonashelburne) June 10, 2015
Draymond told me it's not a major issue. Said "this time of year everybody's got something." But clearly it's something they're dealing with
— Ramona Shelburne (@ramonashelburne) June 10, 2015
Brave faces aside, the Warriors do have things to worry about. Their starting five, which has smashed the opposition since October, has been outscored by 18 points in 44 minutes through three games while scoring at a rate of offensive efficiency that would've joined the Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA's cellar this season.
LeBron is destroying Barnes when they tangle on the wing, which has helped the Cavaliers leap out to early leads in Games 1 and 3. The former UNC standout isn't getting much back on the other end, averaging just 7.3 points in 33.3 minutes per game on 33.3 percent shooting from the floor.
Despite Barnes' issues and the continued superlative play of backup small forward Andre Iguodala — 15 points, five rebounds, five assists, one block and more solid defensive work on LeBron — Kerr said he's not shuffling the deck: "Harrison's fine. He's had a great playoff run. He just missed some shots that he normally makes. He'll bounce back [...] I'm not worried about Harrison. I don't anticipate making changes in the lineup, no."
Bogut's been outplayed and overmatched in this series, and backup center Festus Ezeli hasn't offered much relief. Late in Game 3, Kerr went to a smallish lineup with Lee at center and Green at power forward; that alignment helps maximize the Warriors' offensive options, but could prove disastrous on the defensive end against bigger Cleveland units.
"It's a trade-off, going smaller like that," Lee said. "Offensively, I think we can hurt them a lot on the pick-and-roll, spreading the floor with Draymond being a fourth shooter out there. Defensively, though, the biggest task is keeping those guys off the glass. And I thought it really took an extra effort by myself, Draymond, and the rest of the guys to rebound as a team. I think we did a pretty good job of that in the fourth quarter."
Even if Lee and Green can hold up against Mozgov and Tristan Thompson, though, that still leaves the small matter of the guy averaging 41 points, 12 rebounds and 8.3 assists per game.
"The other concern, of course, is LeBron on the pick-and-rolls, and that was something we also navigated," Lee said. "So, we're not going to shut them out by any means, with any lineup we have. But the key is, when we go smaller like that, it's to scramble defensively to make up for any deficiencies we have."
The Warriors must do quite a bit of scrambling in Game 4 to avoid heading home just one loss away from elimination. For starters, they'll need Curry to carry over his late-game shotmaking.
"I think I found something when it comes to how I'm going to be able to attack their pick-and-rolls and even certain iso situations," he said. "I'll keep that in the memory bank going into Game 4, and hopefully it has a trickle-over effect into the first quarter of the next game."
They'll also need Barnes, Green and Bogut to find new life and start making some shots. Between now and Thursday's tip, they'll need to figure out how to give the Cavaliers something else to think about, because even shorthanded thanks to injury, David Blatt's crew seems awfully well prepared for the Dubs.
"In the postseason, you're able to kind of — not get a rhythm, but know what's going on," LeBron said. "Because once the playoffs start, not many teams are going to change. You've worked so many months to work a system that that's what you're going to see."
Maybe reintroducing Lee after eight months in mothballs doesn't constitute a seismic shift. But it sure seemed to shake things up on Tuesday, and that alone makes it worth a longer look.
"I think we found something there with David Lee that's working for us," Iguodala said. "So he's going to get some more minutes, I would like to think, going forward, and then other guys will see how effective he is, and they'll do the same."
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