The Cleveland Cavaliers weren’t perfect in Game 3 of the 2017 NBA Finals, but their effort certainly seemed like enough to get a win and put pressure on the heavily favored Golden State Warriors. LeBron James and Kyrie Irving combined for 77 points, everyone scrambled for loose balls, and Cleveland led by six points after J.R. Smith’s 3-pointer with 3:09 remaining in regulation. The Cavaliers certainly played well enough to win.
Except, of course, they didn’t. The Cavs missed their final eight shots and saw Kevin Durant take over late to carry the Warriors to a 118-113 win and a commanding 3-0 series lead. As well as Cleveland played for 45 minutes, it didn’t come through in the final three to seal the victory.
After the game, the Warriors keyed on one reason for their ability to come back — the Cavs’ fatigue. Both LeBron (46 minutes) and Kyrie (44 minutes) shouldered heavy loads over the course of Wednesday night and struggled late when called upon to come up with the final few plays needed to win. As the Warriors put it, the Cavs’ fatigue wasn’t just a lucky break. It was part of their plan for victory.
Draymond Green said the team’s plan was to stay “within striking distance” during his postgame appearance on NBA TV.
Head coach Steve Kerr wasn’t so sure the plan would work, but he expressed his belief that the Warriors’ form of rope-a-dope would eventually pay dividends:
We just felt like the way they play, Kyrie and LeBron had it going the whole game, but that’s pretty taxing to go one-on-one the whole game. Both those guys were amazing, 38 and 39 [points].
But that takes a lot out of you. We just kept telling the guys, they’re going to get tired. Stay in front of them. Force them into outside shots, if you can. Fatigue will play a role. And I think when you get guys playing 45, 44 minutes, basically attacking one-on-one the whole game, it’s — you hope eventually it’s going to take its toll. I wasn’t sure after awhile, they just were going nuts.
But I think that we just stayed with it, and our defense finally kicked in.
Kerr’s take jibes with the flow of Game 3. Both James and Irving were terrific on Wednesday night, but their scoring did not come easily. The Warriors threw multiple defenders at both and bodied them when possible, forcing both players into labyrinthine drives and acrobatic finishes at the rim. It’s a testament to their talent that they succeeded, and Irving often appeared flat-out unguardable simply because he was spinning in lay-ups no matter his shooting angle. It’s remarkable that the Cavs’ leaders shot better than 50 percent under such heavy pressure, because they were regularly pushed into uncomfortable positions.
Kyrie and LeBron were so good, in fact, that Cavs head coach Tyronn Lue could not justify sitting them in the second half:
Well, I knew it was going to be a tough game for us. And for us to win, I knew I to give LeBron at least a two-minute blow in that first quarter because in the second half he might not get a blow. So Kyrie was playing well, the game was on the line, so I decided to stick with those guys, being at home, down 0-2.
It’s hard to quibble with Lue’s rotations (or lack thereof), because the mere fact that his stars’ excellent performance only gave them a six-point lead is proof enough the Cavs needed them to win. More than anything, Cleveland’s need to play its top guys so many minutes in just the third game of the series points to the asymmetric terms of engagement in this series.
The Warriors have enough star depth to rely on their typical rotations and hope everything comes together late, if that late charge is even necessary. The Cavs have to play all-out for 48 minutes and hope they can hold on late.
As Kyrie Irving put it, they don’t see any other option:
It’s The Finals. We had our horses in. Myself and Bron, eclipsed the 43-minute mark, playing pretty well, then they made some big-time plays down the stretch. They’re a juggernaut of a team, do a great job of spacing out the floor, keeping a high tempo, and just made some big-time plays down the stretch. You got to give credit when credit is due.
Irving’s point about the Warriors stepping up to take the game late is undoubtedly true. If not for Durant’s clutch shots, we would probably be focusing on how well the Cavs played instead of the ways in which they came up just short. Again, they played well enough to win. The Warriors just did better in the final minutes.
LeBron, for his part, continued to refuse to admit to fatigue and put the blame on the misses:
No, only missed shots. We missed shots. I gave everything that I had, so at times throughout the game I was tired, but that’s just because I was just playing as hard as I could. But I was able to get second and third and fourth winds. I don’t contribute as losing this game because we got tired. We missed some shots, and they made some.
Of course, missed shots often depend on context. Random variance can explain why tough layups went down in the third quarter and not the fourth, but it’s also true that fatigue can change a player’s ability to put the proper spin on the ball or create the extra inch of space necessary to score.
The Warriors had to address their own heavy-minute totals for Kevin Durant (41 minutes), Klay Thompson (41 minutes) and Stephen Curry (39 minutes) with Green once again in foul trouble throughout Game 3, but each of their stars could depend on the others for help. Perhaps Durant was able to take over late because he didn’t have to for the vast majority of the prior 45 minutes.
There are arguments to be made that the Cavaliers could have avoided such fatigue scenarios by slowing the pace and forcing the Warriors into a half-court battle. But that plan has its own drawbacks, and pounding the ball into the floor for 20 seconds before hoisting a tough shot often has its own impact on a team’s energy. Maybe the Cavs have no good options against a team as stacked as the Warriors.
Tiring out LeBron James and a ludicrously talented All-Star teammate has never been a viable approach before this series. No matter what the Cavs throw at the Warriors in this series, they’re likely to have an answer for it.
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