The Warriors small ball “death lineup” ripped the heart out of the Cleveland with an 11-0 run that closed out the game and gave the Warriors a 3-0 advantage. It feels over, but here are three things to look for in Game 4.
1) When the Warriors inevitably go on a 10-0 run (or more) to grab a lead, how will Cleveland respond? Do not doubt the pride of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers — they are going to come out in Game 4 with a “not in my house” attitude. They will be physical. They will attack the paint. They will do everything they did in Game 3 that made it close, and probably do it with more desperation. Closing out teams in the NBA is hard.
“We understand what’s at stake, our whole entire season,” Kyrie Irving said. “There’s really no other decision, other than to leave it all out there.”
However, the Warriors have their own motivation: perfection. They can be the first 16-0 playoff run in NBA history — and they want that for their legacy (no matter what they said to the media). They too will come to play, Golden State is not thinking “it’s okay, we can just win it at home next game.” The Warriors want this bit of history, and they will come in waves at the Cavaliers.
At some point, the Warriors are going to go on a 10-0, or 12-0, or 15-0 run, as they do every game. There will be a three-minute stretch where the Warriors incredible defense shuts the Cavs down, everything Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson throw up from 28 feet falls, and it will push the Warriors to an 8-10 point lead. How will the Cavaliers respond to that? In Game 3 they fought back, made it close again, even took the lead themselves.
But down 0-3 following an emotional, gut-punch loss, when the Warriors make their run in Game 4 will the air come out of the balloon in Cleveland? Will the Cavaliers’ players shoulders slump a little? Will the fans go quiet in Quicken Loans Arena? Will there be a sense of inevitability that overtakes them? I would not be surprised. The Cavaliers will play hard, but if the Warriors pulled away in the second half it would not be a shock.
2) With less rest between games 3 and 4, will we again see LeBron and the Cavaliers’ stars wear down in the fourth? Two trends have been well documented through this series. First, the Cavaliers struggle when LeBron sits — he was +7 in Game 3, but in the 2:23 he sat they were -12. Second, because of the extra minutes he’s on the court and the crazy workload at both ends, LeBron is wearing down in the second half. In Game 3 LeBron had 27 points on 11-of-14 shooting in the first half, with half his shot attempts coming within eight feet of the rim as he attacked the basket; In the second half he had 12 points on 4-of-13 shooting, and while six of his shots were within eight feet he only hit three. He’s worn down like that in every game, and the idea of getting him more rest just means bigger deficits.
“There’s no tomorrow. So we just have to play,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said. “He needs a break, he’ll let me know. We’ll get him out, get him right back in. But right now our season’s on the line, and we just have to play.”
How do the Cavaliers get out of this cycle, especially in a game with just one day off between (the only game in the series with one day of rest)? The only hope is better play from their reserves — when LeBron goes to the bench Cleveland had to be able to hang close. There can’t just be a 10-0 run (like at the end of the first quarter in Game 3 when LeBron sat), which forces Lue to bring him back quickly. LeBron is as well conditioned an athlete as there is on the planet, but he’s human, you can’t ask him to run the offense on one end then guard Kevin Durant/Draymond Green on the other and not see a drop-off.
Cleveland needs things to change in Game 4, in terms of rest and strategy, but the mantra from the coaching staff and players seems to be one of “we just need to do what we do better.” That does not bode well.
3) Watch Kevin Durant hoist up the Finals MVP trophy. If the Warriors in this game — and after the first three games of this series, it’s hard not to predict that — then Kevin Durant will be named Finals MVP on Friday night. He has earned it. Through three games Durant has averaged 32 points, 10 rebounds, and six assists per game, he hit the game-winner in Game 3, and on the other end he’s been the Warriors best defender on LeBron. He’s been brilliant.
“We knew how good he was, but just how clutch he’s been, how many big shots he’s hit for us,” Warriors’ coach Steve Kerr said of what has impressed him about Durant this series. “I think I said it last night, it just looks like he understands this is his moment, this is his time. He’s earned it. He’s been in this league for a long time, and he’s, I think, at the top of his game at the biggest time.”
Is that vindication for his much-maligned decision to join the Warriors? Maybe, but I don’t think Durant sees it that way — what he wanted was his best shot at a title, and he’s going to get that. He has had a series on the biggest stage that made people question who is the greatest player on the planet right now.
He has had a series on the biggest stage that made people question who is the greatest player on the planet right now. He has earned the trophy coming his way, and if he has one more strong night in Game 4 he will get that trophy Friday night.