On the first possession of the game, Stephen Curry walked the ball up and was met by Kyrie Irving out higher than he had been all series, just a few steps over half court. Irving got into Curry’s body. It was a sign of things to come — Cleveland brought an energy and, more importantly, constant activity on the defensive end all night. It disrupted the Warriors.
That defense fueled their offense, LeBron James at the four was explosive setting a tone, and back in the comfort of their home — and with a raucous crowd behind them — suddenly Kyrie Irving and J.R. Smith were sharpshooters again. Pace and spacing returned to the Cavalier offense, and behind a team attacking the rim and moving the ball Cleveland raced out to a fast 20 point lead in the first quarter. The Cavaliers are a dangerous front-running team, and they were overwhelming a Golden State team that seemed caught off guard by Cleveland’s intensity.
“We weren’t ready to play” Warriors’ coach Steve Kerr said. “Obviously, they just punched us right in the mouth right in the beginning. We’re turning the ball over like crazy. Soft, we were extremely soft to start the game, and then they set the tone with their intensity. I think it was 9-0, and we had to call timeout. Steph got beat back door, couple turnovers. Just a horrible way to start.”
Still, the question remained: How would the Cavaliers respond when the Warriors went on a run? Which Golden State did in the second half to cut the lead to eight at the half.
Cleveland responded like a team worthy of a ring. They opened the second half on a 7-0 run, stretching the lead out to 22 again and running away with the game. This series (and these playoffs) have had a lot of blowouts.
Cleveland won Game 3 120-90, making this a 2-1 series in favor of Golden State. This was the most lopsided Golden State playoff loss since Steve Kerr took over as Warriors’ coach.
Game 4 is Friday night in Cleveland — it will tell us a lot about both teams. And how long this series might go.
“I just think it’s two words, physicality, and aggressiveness,” Cavaliers’ coach Tyronn Lue said. “I thought we were very physical defensively, and I thought we were aggressive offensively, attacking the basket, getting out in transition, running the floor. We talked about it before, that opens up shots for J.R. Smith and those guys in transition. So that’s how we have to play.”
The Cavaliers were without Kevin Love, who is sidelined with a concussion, and with Richard Jefferson starting in his place the Cleveland defense was far more active and alert. It leaves Tyronn Lue with some challenges if Love is cleared to return Friday for Game 4 (Love needs to come off the bench or at least play much short shifts, this series is not a good matchup for him).
It was the Cavaliers starters that won them this game. Kyrie Irving had 16 points in the first quarter and 30 for the game, LeBron had 32, and Smith added 20. It literally was just them — through three quarters the Cavaliers bench had zero points.
Stephen Curry was just terrible in this game. He finished with 19 points and for a stretch in the fourth found his three point shot again, but he was 3-of-9 from deep overall. He started slow, with just two points in the first half. More troublesome was his six turnovers on the he. And his poor defense, which Cleveland attacked all night (and got him in foul trouble). Things were so bad for Curry that at one point that Kerr benched him for Shaun Livingston.
“He did not start the game well,” Kerr said. “Turned it over, got beat back door, and he was not his usual self. Now, it happens sometimes. I mean, that’s what everybody was saying about them the last two games.”
Credit the Cavaliers defense for that, which was much better from the opening tip.
Cavaliers much more energy defensively to start, Warriors offense is aimless — Curry and Thompson both had airballs — and the Cavaliers were moving better on offense. Race out to a 9-0 lead. That lead stretched out to 15 as the Cavaliers attacked the rim and the Warriors started 0-of-6 from three.
Kyrie Irving was hot early, 16 first quarter points and started feeling it with the Uncle Drew side steps and hitting threes. He looked far more comfortable.
Meanwhile, Curry and Thompson had zero points in the first quarter, and it was 33-16 Cavs after one.
Early in the second, it was the Warriors bench — as it has been all series — the Warriors bench was their spark. They opened the second on a 7-0 run and pushed the lead down to nine at one point. Warriors defense settles down, and the Cavaliers opened the second half 3-of-17 to start the second half, they also were just slow getting in their offense, again letting Warriors set. Golden State cut the Cleveland lead to 51-43 at the half, just eight points.
“I thought tonight even when they made runs, we kept our composure,” Lue said. “We stayed with it, we stayed physical, we continued to play hard, and we didn’t let it deflate us.”
The Cavaliers opened the second half on a 7-0 run with the starters again, and they stretch the lead back up to 19 thanks to a much better defense and hitting their threes in transition, taking the lead up to 22 on a LeBron three.
Later in the third the Warriors started to find a bit of an offensive groove when they went small (why was Anderson Varejao in at all?) but by this point the Cavaliers were full of confidence. LeBron was hitting jumpers (which he missed the first two games), Smith was feeling it, and the Cavaliers were flying around on defense. The Warriors could not close the gap.