Game 3 of the NBA Finals on Wednesday night provided the home-standing Cleveland Cavaliers with a must-win situation.
Lose, and the team would have been down 3-0 to a 73-win Golden State Warriors squad that they had lost seven consecutive games against.
It also presented the Cavaliers with a perfect storm. Heading into Game 3, LeBron James and Co. were 7-0 at home with two 30-plus point victories in the playoffs.
Cleveland would go on to defeat an uninspired Warriors team by 30, seemingly getting itself right back in the series.
For his part, James put up an absolutely stunning performance a game after playing some of the worst basketball we have seen from him in his career.
He tallied 32 points, 11 rebounds, six assists, two blocks and one steal. It wasn’t just James’ brilliant overall performance that stood out.
Leading by 20 points in the first quarter, the Cavaliers saw that gap narrow to eight by the half. No one really knew how this happened.
After all, Stephen Curry headed into intermission 1-of-5 shooting with two points and three turnovers. The Warriors were 2-of-14 from three-point range, had 10 turnovers and converted on 3-of-8 free throw attempts. Heck, Golden State’s starters were a combined minus-43 when on the court.
It was in this that James knew the Warriors weren’t done. He’d have to do something special in the second half to fend off that inevitable run from the defending champs.
James responded by hitting on 9-of-12 shots for 21 points to go with seven rebounds and four assists in the second half. That patented Golden State run never came, as the Cavaliers outscored their foe by 22 after the half.
Kyrie Irving completely outplayed reigning two-time MVP Stephen Curry, going for 30 points and eight assists while crossing up Curry multiple times throughout the game.
Kyrie crossed up Steph Curry and makes him look silly pic.twitter.com/vqIerErvMV
— gifdsports (@gifdsports) June 9, 2016
Meanwhile, J.R. Smith finally got his perimeter shot going, hitting on four three pointers en route to a 20-point performance.
It was a must win for Cleveland. A game the team needed to have in front of its home crowd. It was also a game the Cavaliers should have won.
They were the desperate team playing against a squad that might have been riding a false wave of confidence after outscoring Cleveland by 48 combined points in the first two games in Oakland.
That’s a perfect storm for a blowout home win in the Finals. It’s happened time and time again. In fact, Golden State has now lost five consecutive Game 3’s in the playoffs and is just 2-6 in this specific type of game in the postseason.
On the other hand, the Warriors boast a 28-5 record in all other playoff games over the past two seasons.
There is no rhyme or reason for that stat. There is, however, a reason for Golden State’s lax play and inability to meet the energy of the Cavaliers.
“We weren’t ready to play. They punched us in the mouth right away,” Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said after the game. “It’s the NBA. That’s just how it is.”
This same stance was repeated by multiple Warriors players following the 30-point blowout loss.
— NBA TV (@NBATV) June 9, 2016
And it was evident on the court. Curry struggled big time, and simply didn’t seem to have his head in the game. In fact, the MVP was benched for a few minutes in the second quarter, at which point Kerr had a talking to with him.
Cleveland converted 34 points on 18 Warriors turnovers, the single-largest number against the defending champs all season. Meanwhile, the road team compiled just eight points on 14 Cavaliers turnovers.
Cleveland hit on 12-of-25 three points attempts while the Warriors converted on just 9-of-33.
These two stats — combined giving the Cavaliers a 35-point advantage — was the difference in the game.
But let’s look at this game for what it was. Cleveland needed to stave off a 3-0 series deficit to even have a chance in the series. No team in NBA history has won a series after falling into that deep of a hole in the playoffs.
It was also playing in front of an electric home crowd against a Warriors team that simply thought it could sleepwalk through the game and still come away with a win.
Sure the Cavaliers moved the ball much better (23) assists. Sure they started to finally hit from the perimeter. They also did a darn good job extending their defense and forcing the Warriors out of their comfort zone on offense.
That’s all find and dandy. But just as Game 3 was an outing Cleveland should have won, Friday night’s Game 4 matchup becomes a game the team needs to win. Simply put, falling into a 3-1 series hole heading back to Oakland for Game 5 pretty much ends this sucker.
Cleveland knew that heading in on Wednesday, it will understand this on Friday as well.
The old saying goes that no series really starts until a road team wins. For the Cavaliers, this couldn’t be more true.
Despite one blowout win at home, the Eastern Conference champions must still find a way to win in Oakland. Heck, they must win Friday as well in order to bring this series even heading into Game 5.
One win in the face of all this adversity sure does feel nice for Cleveland. But in no way does this mean the team is right back in the series. All Wednesday did was confirm that it wouldn’t be a four-game sweep for the defending champs.
Friday’s game means a whole heck of a lot more. And as we have seen over and over again, the Warriors will be better prepared. That’s the reality of the situation. Cleveland knows this full well.