LeBron James is right — Game 4 remains must win for the Cavaliers. Go down 3-1 heading back to the Bay Area and things get ugly. Expect a better game from Golden State on Friday, but this is a series now, and Cleveland expects to even things up. Here are four things that will decide the game.
1) If Kevin Love is back, does he start? How much does he play? It’s not official yet, but Love is expected to return for Game 4 after missing the last game due to a concussion. Which leaves Tyronn Lue the unenviable task of sitting Love down and saying, “I know how hard you worked and how desperately you wanted back on the court, but you need to come off the bench for us.” That is what is rumored to be happening (although we likely will not find out officially until just before game time) and it is the correct move to make. Cleveland’s defense was vastly superior with Richard Jefferson starting, although Cavs coach Tyronn Lue tried to say Love was not the reason.
“No, it didn’t make it easier,” Lue said of Love being out. “I thought what made it easier is we played harder. We competed, we played harder, and we were able to get matchups in transition. It didn’t have anything to do with Kevin being on the floor. It’s just the way we approached the game.”
This is simple: don’t mess with what worked.
2) Can Cleveland keep up that defensive focus, and how does Golden State counter it? Cleveland’s defense was dramatically better in Game 3, holding the Warriors less than 100 points per 100 possessions on the night after allowing at least 116 per 100 in the first two games. The improvement was not about an Xs and Os move, they simply played defense with far more intensity and focus. In the first two games the Cavs seemed to be thinking not playing all out, then one or two players would lose focus and a Warrior would get loose on a bad switch or a back cut and get a lay-up. Stephen Curry got good looks curling off screens (he just missed a lot). In Game 3 the Cavaliers didn’t change strategies — they were still switching off ball screens — they simply executed it all much better.
“Everyone extended their defense a little bit more,” LeBron said. “They’re such a great three-point shooting team that you have to extend your defense to start off with…. So, you’ve got to do a good job of trying to help the back-line defense by putting a little ball pressure on them.”
Cleveland has shown this level of defense before, sustaining it has always been the issue. Can they sustain it for Game 3? Golden State certainly will come out with more intensity and some game plan tweaks, for example don’t be surprised if they go small and start Andre Iguodala and bring Andrew Bogut off the bench (he was -21 in Game 3). Also, Golden State turned the ball over 17 times under that Cavaliers defensive pressure, do that again and they will lose again.
3) Golden State needs it to be Stephen Curry time (or Klay Thompson time will do). Stephen Curry has been pedestrian this series. Give Cleveland credit for executing a “Curry/Thompson are not going to beat us” strategy, picking them up very high on the court and forcing the ball out of their hands whenever possible. But it was more than that in Game 3, with coach Steve Kerr benching Curry for Shaun Livingston for a short stretch.
Curry didn’t play well in last year’s Finals until Game 3, and this time around Curry started to find his shooting groove in the third quarter of Game 3. He needs to bring it full throttle in Game 4 — complete with the side-step threes and defensive steals. Even if it’s just a few threes early, that will bend the defense toward him more, so other guys get looks. Golden State needs Curry to play like the MVP.
4) Will the Cavs keep knocking down threes at this rate? Through the first two games, Cleveland was 12-of-44 from three, 27.3 percent. In Game 3 they hit 12-of-25 threes, with J.R. Smith hitting 5-of-10. Cleveland wants to play small and fast, that means they need to hit their threes. Simple as that. Expect a better defensive effort from Golden State; the Cavaliers are going to have to hit contested threes, but if they want to win the shot has to fall.