With a classic Game 3 now in the books, it’s time to assign blessings and blame.
It wasn’t as if the game ever got away from Kevin Durant, not with that stat line, but the night certainly wasn’t his. At first, it belonged to LeBron James. For a while, it was Kyrie Irving’s evening to shine. In more settled times for the NBA, Stephen Curry (at 26 points, 13 rebounds and six assists) may have run away with things.
In the end, though:
That’s Durant with the game-clinching 3-pointer, over LeBron’s outstretched arms, the dagger in Golden State’s 118-113 win in Game 3. Now featuring a 3-0 lead, after two games spent earning the series’ MVP award, Durant has given his career its signature moment.
“I think he’s having the time of his life out there,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr noted after Game 3.
That’s rather apparent – 31 points, eight rebounds, four assists, a block and a steal on Wednesday. Durant kept his wits about him in spite of the standout work of Irving and James, holding court for 41 minutes. He played insistent two-way ball throughout, and in a week with talk dominated with fears for LeBron’s anticipated fatigue, Durant hasn’t earned the same treatment somehow.
Durant was slithery in repose, watching while Curry danced, trading blows with James throughout, finally lashing into action during the 11-0 run that finished Golden State’s evening, Game 3, and any legitimate hopes for a repeat of 2015 and 2016’s lengthy Finals.
Somehow, for the price of watching Kevin Durant for this Finals week alone, the pricey and too-quick payout for Golden State’s largess almost feels worth it.
For a while there, it seemed Dre wouldn’t even play, let alone contribute in his typical hearty form, in these Finals. His spring to action in Game 1 and sustained solid work in Game 2 must have come at the expense of some stomach lining, as the workhorse forward is gritting through all manner of injuries at age 34.
LeBron dominated for long stretches in Game 3, finishing with 39 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists, but it was the 2015 Finals MVP who capped a brilliant championship turn with the game-saving play for Golden State, a last-minute block of James on Cleveland’s final chance at a tie:
Iguodala won’t win the Finals MVP this time around, but he at least had the presence in place to turn what could have been James’ career-crushing moment of his own into the comfortable seal on a 3-0 series lead.
The game as intended
Golden State and Cleveland were relentless in their attempts to suit only their best players and lineups in Game 3, hardly eschewing position but delineating the impact of personnel prior to acknowledging pieces who weren’t fit to help on Wednesday. For the Warriors, that meant allowing for JaVale McGee and running David West out as Wes Unseld’s clone in a game otherwise meant for the Curry family. For the Cavs, Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson stay on in spite of missteps, as Cleveland intends to run its starting five ragged in a series that has provided little help for James and Irving.
Rare was the Finals night that saw Kobe Bryant or Dwyane Wade exhibit the sort of two-way brilliance that Klay Thompson supplied in Game 3, as he has throughout this series. Golden State looked every part the perfect team, ticking one step closer to that first-ever 16-0 NBA playoff run, but Cleveland appeared for the most part its deserved competitor in Game 3, if not the Warriors’ equal.
That’s cold comfort for a crew of defending champs, but the Cavaliers have to earn their plaudits from the Junior Division these days. They made the mistake of declining to sign Kevin Durant in the offseason. Still, there was Kyrie (until the end), and LeBron (until the end). J.R. Smith was only nervous until he saw the front of the rim, Love kept shooting, Tristan Thompson kept trying to make himself fit into the party – tentatively curling into action offensively like a too-shy freshman, forearm-strangling that red kegger cup.
Golden State, meanwhile, responded with precision. Something you can dance to, though.
Just about expertly run, this was basketball at its peak. Either side squeezed the most out of what it was blessed with, and in spite of the missteps both obvious and certain to be revealed, this was a stone-cold classic.
The viewers at home and in Cleveland were treated to a stunner of a game on Wednesday, but the glare as night turns into day will enervate, as we all stumble onto the street. Golden State is up 3-0 in what was supposed to be a series for the ages. The only chance the 2017 Finals has left to become a series for the ages would be for the Cavs to pull off a miracle run to a Game 7, something that has never happened in an NBA Finals.
Kyrie Irving’s lost play
LeBron already had his moment in the shade with Iguodala’s strip, as detailed above, but Irving’s moment was far more preventable.
Irving was a stunner for most of the evening, for long before what could have been his crowning moment:
The Cavs had a chance, they did, with the ball in the hands of the league’s cleverest ball-handler – such an idea! Kyrie Irving minded a killer game, a classic Irving performance featuring 38 points on 16-28 shooting prior to whatever-the-hell final play (a mess of Irving dribbles in the face of Klay Thompson, prior to a 3-pointer) became with less than a minute to go:
No other Cavalier touched the ball in the 19-second possession, which eliminated Cleveland’s chance at a 2-for-1 play while down one point.
“Trying to make him get off the 3-point line,” Klay Thompson answered when asked to point out his initial point of interest while defending that play. “Make him finish over the top of me, whether it’s at the rim or the mid-range. I think I played with great length. Kyrie’s been hot all night, I think I did a great job at not falling for his moves, because he’s real shifty. Just stay in front of him, and luckily he missed the shot.”
Why Irving chose to take a step-back 3-pointer, as if almost to prove the shot’s championship-sustaining viability over a long two, is tough to consider. The game was at least tied, in 2016, when Irving launched his season-clinching 3-pointer in Game 7 against the Warriors.
Love’s contributions in Games 1 and 2 were not empty stats. The 21 points and 14 rebounds he averaged came in the flow, and sometimes kept Cleveland close in its first two losses. Despite the Cavs’ repeated attempts at locating Love in the course of action in Game 3, though, he struggled badly, missing his first five shots, finishing with nine points on 1-for-9 shooting from the floor.
Love took seven free throws, but seven of his nine field-goal attempts were 3-point looks, and the shot wasn’t there in Game 3. Forced too often into acting the role of the 3-point shooter alone, taken away from some of the low-post looks he succeeded with in Game 2, Love faltered.
The forward/center was active elsewhere, tipping for six steals and pulling in 13 rebounds. But in the hours following the 2017 Finals’ first close game and Friday’s Game 4, his work will be studied.
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