CLEVELAND — This one never felt close, even when it was. What does feel close now is this series.
Even after their wild Game 2 win at Oracle Arena, it still felt like the Cavaliers were simply staying afloat against a better, and deeper, Warriors team. Without Kyrie Irving, LeBron James would simply have to do too much by himself for Cleveland to have a legitimate shot against Golden State.
Which is why The Cavs’ Game 3 win was so astonishing. A look at the box score makes the 96-91 score look like it was competitive, and Golden State did make it a game at the end. But it never felt like that, not before the Cavs blew it open in the third quarter, nor when the Warriors staged a comeback to cut a 17-point lead to one in the fourth quarter.
The Cavs have done in this series what the Warriors did throughout the regular season. They’ve been one step ahead of every adjustment the Warriors have made. They’ve controlled the pace and the flow, almost without exception. They’ve forced the Warriors to take tougher shots than usual, and they haven’t been falling.
“It’s so fun playing here,” said J.R. Smith. “It’s crazy. You get so much momentum playing here. I was telling Mike [Miller], we were sitting next to each other, I think the score was 5 to 10. I thought we were up 20 or something.”
That’s what it felt like all night. Every Warriors run had the Cavs ready with a counterpunch, mostly in the form of James, who once again did just enough to overcome the Warriors. Once again, he scored 40 points on a not-all-that-efficient 34 shots. It’s a role he’s resisted playing at other points in his career, and he isn’t thrilled about doing it now. But desperate times call for desperate measures.
“I’m not OK with it,” James said. “But I’m so outside the box right now. I went seven straight season with improving my efficiency. But this is a different challenge. I’ve never played where two All-Stars were out. So it’s a different challenge for myself, and it’s outside the box, but it’s not too far. It’s not far for me to go grab. I’m just trying to do whatever it takes to help. I’m high-volume shooting, but it’s not like I’m going out there and I’m high-volume shooting and I’m not doing anything else.”
On the contrary, he’s doing everything, and it has this Cavs team, improbably, two wins away from their first championship in franchise history. For the first time in the series, that seems like a real possibility.
“We’re playing against a great team, I think, who is very underrated,” said Warriors forward Andre Iguodala. “LeBron makes a lot of those guys good, but they’re a very good team. They’re just taking it to us right now.”
The Cavs didn’t just steal home-court advantage from the Warriors in a hectic final minute on Sunday. They’re now in control. They only have to split the next four games to take home the title. A fourth-quarter surge by the Warriors aside, all signs so far point to the Cavs doing what many thought was impossible.
“The pressure is like a 5.13,” Kerr said, laughing, when he was asked what the pressure is on his team, on a scale of 1-10. “We’re in the NBA Finals. There’s pressure for everybody. I was pleased with the way we responded when we got down, and I’m very confident we’ll play better in Game 4.”
Thursday won’t be do-or-die for the Warriors, but it won’t be far off.