The Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James stepped in front of Steph Curry Wednesday night with less than three minutes remaining in the third and and got his fingertips on a lazily lobbed Golden State Warriors pass. After nearly falling to the ground, James sent the rock ahead to Kyrie Irving, who tossed it near the rim, leading LeBron into the one-handed oop.
Cleveland: 79. Golden State: 59.
In a game in which tension swelled between James and Curry, in a contest in which the Warriors' Draymond Green yelled with frustration and the Cavaliers' J.R. Smith yelled out of delight, the Cavaliers out-dueled the Warriors from opening tip to final buzzer. Thanks to remarkable performances up and down the home team’s starting lineup, Cleveland walked out of Quicken Loans arena with a 120-90 win in Game 3 of the NBA Finals. The Warriors still lead the series, 2-1.
The Cavaliers’ starters were responsible for all 89 of the team’s points through three quarters, with Smith’s performance the biggest surprise of the night. Smith hit five three-pointers, three more than in the series’ first two games combined.
Perhaps the most important of the bunch came less than six minutes into the second half -- around the time when the Warriors typically make their third-quarter run. Smith received the rock from Richard Jefferson 26 feet from the hoop and let the shot fly. The ball sunk through the net, and, less than a minute later, LeBron hit a dagger of his own, extending their lead to 70-48 and sealing Golden State’s Game 3 fate.
While the rest of the game was glorified garbage time, one incident -- when the clock wasn’t even running -- served as a reminder of the bad blood that still exists between these two foes.
After a whistle had been blown and play was stopped, Curry put the ball on the floor, readying to lay up a practice shot before the clock began anew.
But LeBron wasn’t about to let Curry get any semblance of his usual rhythm back -- and he swatted away the MVP’s casual attempt, leading both players to walk away from the paint scowling.
James and Irving each finished with more points than Curry and Klay Thompson combined. Respectively, the Cavaliers stars tallied 32 and 30, while the Splash Brothers totaled 29.
Irving, especially, had a night to remember. While he had been effectively invisible for the first two contests of the series, Wednesday’s first quarter was a reminder of just how blistering his offensive game can be. Scoring the first bucket of the night -- a midrange jumper -- his moves and makes got increasingly impressive as the opening period progressed.
While Curry and Thompson couldn’t find the basket with a map and a compass on one end, Irving was crossing, cutting and connecting on the other, pouring in 16 points in the opening 12 minutes, going 7-of-9 from the field, 2-of-2 from deep and pocketing three assists.
From the 4:30 mark to the end of the opening period, Irving outscored Golden State, 12-10, shaking and baking, twisting and banking his Cavaliers to a 20-point lead with less than 11 minutes elapsed.
His early heroics climaxed on consecutive plays with about one minute to go in the quarter. First, holding the ball at the top of the key, Irving lost his defender, thanks to a screen from big man Timofey Mozgov, taking the rock to the right and hitting the trey.
The next time down, Irving got the same screen from Mozgov and once again brought the ball to his dominant side. But knowing that Thompson would shade to the right this time in response to the previous play, Irving crossed the rock back again, hitting the three from the top of the key and nabbing the 33-13 lead.
While Cleveland’s point guard was putting on a show, Golden State’s floor general was surprisingly silent. Curry went 0-of-3 in the first quarter, picking up two fouls and turning the ball over twice. And while Thompson started showing some of his usual swagger late in the second period, somehow neither Splash Brother got the ball into the hoop until just 6:33 remained in the first half.
Golden State as a whole shot uncharacteristically poor from deep, hitting threes at only a 27.3 percent clip.
But no team can bounce back like the Warriors can. So, if Cleveland wants to pull out another W for its home crowd on Friday, the supporting cast in wine and gold will have to put on a show just like it did Wednesday night.
But what a show it was.