Golden State Retribution: Warriors End Game 3 on 11–0 run, Stunning Cavs (Final Three Minutes)

We wanted drama. Finally…we got some drama. Unfortunately, it feels like Game 3 is the only drama this series will bring.

I’ll be honest: I’m not a fan of blow-outs and so it’s been tough to really enjoy this 15–0 sweep of the playoffs as these Warriors sit on the precipice. Especially not a fan of the Conference Finals blow-out, or the Finals steam-roll. It reminds me of the 2001 Spurs-Nets Finals. Anyone with a heartbeat outside of the tri-state area knew that Tim Duncan’s Spurs were going to flatten those Nets. The style of play was plodding and monotonous as well. I do not long for the NBA of my early twenties.

The NBA knows these games, the most important of the NBA’s season, demand drama. They need moments for the Mike Breens of the world to scream ridiculously into the microphone, and for Jeff Van Gundy to give an understated, “Wow.”

Many question whether the Warriors are simply too good. It’s a fair question. But it’s also one we wouldn’t be asking if Kawhi Leonard’s ankle hadn’t given out in Game 1 of the West Finals. The Spurs were up by 24 in Game 1, clearly playing at their absolute apex after snuffing out the Rockets embarrassingly in Game 6 of the previous round. The Warriors would have beaten the Spurs…but it would have been more dramatic..more closely contested than this series.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are a very good basketball team…who won 51 games this season (in part because of injuries, in part because they lacked depth, in part because they’d gone to the Finals for two years).

The Cavs have two exceptional offensive players (three when Kevin Love gets really hot from deep like he was against Boston)…and not enough depth or speed. The Cavs have to play at a slower pace in this series to win. Golden State’s intensity on both sides of the ball, up-and-down their lineup, is unrelenting and physically punishing.

The Golden State Warriors are a historically-great basketball team…with three exceptional offensive players (yes, Klay in addition to Steph and Durant, if you’re not convinced, watch Games 2 and 3 again)…three of the NBA’s best defensive players (Green, Klay, and Iguodala)…and great defensive habits, and as much speed and agility as any top seven on a roster in NBA history. Kevin Durant and Draymond Green can defend the rim and rebound well enough to harrass your team, while annihilating you on the other end.

Many of the questions in the post-game press conferences after Game 3 zeroed in on the final three minutes. Kyrie Irving’s masterful third quarter became an afterthought, which is insane if you remember the degree of difficulty on Irving’s spinning lay-ups. LeBron’s utterly dominant first half wasn’t the story. How the game ended was indeed stunning, if you compare those minutes with the first 45 of the game. But not at all surprising if you’ve watched these two teams all year, and understand their habits.

4th Quarter. 2:56 left. Cavs 113, Warriors 107.

Final 2:56 of 4th: Warriors 11, Cavs 0.

What happened? The Cavs, whose offense relied almost entirely on the one-on-one greatness of LeBron James and Kyrie Irving for the first 45 minutes, continued to rely on LeBron and Kyrie isolations. They didn’t get any great open looks in the final three minutes. They got fiercely contested looks.

Was it because the two were exhausted? Yes, in part. James played 45 minutes, Irving played 44. In the three minutes Tyronn Lue chose to sit LeBron in the first half, the Cavs were outscored by 12 points.

On two of the Cavs attempts in those final three minutes, LeBron didn’t quite get the lift he’s used to. One was a baseline fade-away. The other was a post-up, spin-move. Neither was close. The defensive habits of Draymond Green Klay Thompson, and Andre Iguodala, plus 45 minutes of court-time will do that to a person…even LeBron. Durant hit a pull-up three with 45 seconds left. The box score lists it as a 26-footer. Watching the replay, you see LeBron behind the line, on his heels, as Durant picks up the dribble in rhythm. LeBron got a hand up, but a split-second too late. Durant might hit that three either way. He’s on another level right now…he has been all year. It was a moment that will stay with Durant. LeBron’s outstretched arm just under his field of vision as the three-pointer drops through clean. A silent dagger.

For nine straight playoff games, Durant has shot 50% or better from the field. In the Finals, he’s averaging 34 points on 22 shots, 56.1% from field, 10 boards, and 6 assists. He blocked five shots in Game 2.

Five years ago, Durant was 23. He carried the Thunder, with help from Westbrook and Harden, to those Finals against Miami. OKC won Game 1, and came very close to winning Game 2. Everything slipped away after that. Still, there were four good games out of five. The Heat were still figuring themselves out.

Dub Identity

Unselfish. Supremely talented. Fast as hell. Defensively aligned and engaged. Ready.

These Warriors have clearly figured themselves out. They began figuring themselves out mid-way through the 2014–15 season, en route to a 67-win season, and Draymond Green’s coming-out party. They cemented that season with a title, beating Cleveland in 6 games. Last season’s 73 wins put their dominance on full-display for all six months of the season, and continued on through the playoffs. In the West Finals, Golden State was in trouble against OKC. In the first round against Houston, Steph slipped on a wet spot and injured his knee. He missed games in the first two rounds, and came back with less than 100% quickness. Durant and Westbrook weren’t worried about the 73 wins, and nearly pulled off the series upset. Klay’s Game 6 lifted Golden State over OKC, avoiding disappointment after such a wild ride to 73. The first four games of the 2016 Finals, they rode that momentum. Golden State’s 73-win season led to a sense of overconfidence that became apparent after taking the 3–1 lead. The Draymond Green suspension threw the rotation off. LeBron and Kyrie had a three-game stretch for the ages. Cavs stun Warriors. This year’s Warriors have figured out how to remain mentally tough throughout 48 minutes of each playoff game. Watching the way Klay and Iguodala refuse to bite for pump fakes, staying focused on each possession, you can see how it wears down their opponents.

Golden Retribution

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Steph Curry and Kevin Durant forehead-to-forehead: silent acknowledgement of dethroning Cleveland. (via Sports Illustrated)

This year is retribution. For last year. For Durant’s 2012 Finals loss. For Mike Brown, who coached Cleveland to 314 wins over five years from 2005–2010, and led them to the Finals in 2007. Brown was fired, despite becoming the only head coach in NBA history to win every first round playoff series in his head coaching career. Even for veteran David West, whose Pacers were snuffed out by LeBron multiple times in the last decade. For Draymond, after knowing his testicle-punch and resulting suspension had a huge impact on the series last June.

Game 3 Numbers

Kevin Love 1 of 7 from deep. If Love makes two more, this game goes to Cleveland. He did have a solid overall game, with 13 boards and 6 steals, but there is no margin for error against the Dubs.

Rebounds: Warriors 44, Cavs 37. Playing without a true big man, the Warriors outrebounded the Cavs by 7. Some of the edge comes from the Cavs taking seven more attempts from the field. Some of it comes from neutralizing Tristan Thompson yet again.

Golden State shot attempts: Curry 19, Durant 18, Thompson 18. The Warriors offense is impossible to stop. The play-making of everyone on the court, combined with three of the league’s best shooters. Unfair. The balance is still impressive. Kerr and his staff made sure Klay got early touches, and Thompson responded with 16 points in the game’s first 5 minutes.

Cleveland shot attempts: Irving 29, LeBron 27, Smith 10. This isn’t a criticism of Kyrie or LeBron. They are two of the best one-on-one creators in the game and they both shot well over 50% for the game. This is more about Golden State’s defense intentionally taking away everyone else, with swift rotations and weak-side help.

Steph-KD-Klay went 15 of 29 from deep. Ridiculous.

Cleveland’s 4th Quarter: 19 points isn’t enough. Worn down.

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