After Golden State essentially blew the doors off Cleveland in the first two games of the NBA Finals, the Cavs seemingly had Game 3 in the bag. JR Smith’s 3-pointer with 3:09 left gave Cleveland a six-point lead and the Cavs, playing in front of a raucous home crowd and desperate to escape an 0-2 hole, appeared poised to extend the series.
But the Warriors scored the final 11 points, three of which came on what might be the most cold-blooded dagger in Finals history, to prevail 118-113.
Now the Cavaliers are left to pick up the pieces and try to prevent Golden State from becoming the first team to finish 16-0 in the playoffs. We had our Hudl Assist analysts break down the Game 3 showdown to try and find some areas coach Tyronn Lue could target as Cleveland attempts to do the impossible and slow the Warriors freight train.
24: Points in the Paint by Kyrie Irving
LeBron James gamely battled his way through the Finals’ first two games, averaging 28.1 points, 10 assists and 10.5 rebounds. But Cleveland was blown out twice because James received little help from his supporting cast, including Irving. The Robin to James’ Batman, Irving shot 37.1 percent from the field and posted a 0.86/1 assist/turnover ratio. He relied too much on his outside shot, totaling just 20 points in the paint.
But Irving flipped the script in Game 3, repeatedly attacking the rim with abandon. The Warriors had no answer for his marvelous finishes as Irving racked up 24 paint points en route to a 38-point performance. He also shot 6-for-6 from the foul line after attempting just three free throws in the first two games.
What it means: The Cavs need Irving to continue driving. Kevin Durant and Draymond Green are fine rim protectors, but the Warriors’ best lineups don’t feature a traditional center. Irving has the handles to get by his man almost at will (even when that defender is Klay Thompson). Irving shot 72.7 percent on 2-pointers in Game 3 and bricked all seven of his 3’s. While the guard certainly can shoot, Lue needs to encourage him to get inside more often.
14.9: Cleveland's Offensive Rebound Percentage
The Cavs would gladly welcome Tristan Thompson to show up at some point. The power forward has put on a milk-carton Finals so far, totaling eight points and 11 rebounds in three games. Thompson’s relentless energy on the offensive boards was supposed to present one of the Cavs’ greatest edges against Golden State’s smaller lineups.
But Thompson has been basically invisible thus far and Cleveland is paying the price. The offensive glass was thought to be an area the Cavaliers could expose the Warriors, but the latter actually holds the edge.
What it means: Thompson was a positive force for Cleveland in the last two Finals, so it’s not clear why he’s been invisible this time around. His athleticism allows him to stay on the floor even against Golden State’s death lineups, so it’s not like he’s been played off the court. Lue desperately needs Thompson to tap into the energy that has possessed him for most of his career and punish the Dubs for going small.
66.3: Klay Thompson's Shooting Percentage in the Last Two Games
Thompson continued his surprisingly frigid shooting this playoffs in Game 1, clanking all five of his 3-pointers and finishing just 3-for-16 from the field. He’s become the living embodiment of fire since, draining 10 of his 18 attempts from deep and averaging 26 points.
Thompson was bound to awake from his slump at some point, and it’s come at the worst possible time for the Cavaliers. As great as Durant and Stephen Curry have been, the Cavaliers at least have a chance if it’s just those two going off. If Thompson gets loose too, it’s curtains.
What it means: Defending Thompson requires great effort, as Golden State runs him through a maze of screens to free him up. Staying with him requires both desire and discipline, neither of which were displayed by Irving in the clip above. Lue has to keep stronger defenders Iman Shumpert and Smith on Curry and Durant, but he must inspire Thompson’s defender to play harder. The open looks that he mysteriously bricked early in the postseason are falling now, and it’s a death knell for the Cavs if that continues.
39: Golden State's Turnovers in Games 2 and 3
If there is one thing the Cavs can take solace in, it’s that they’ve forced the normally buttoned-up Warriors into some sloppy play. Golden State was nearly perfect in Game 1, coughing up the ball just four times, but the last two contests have been a different story. Cleveland isn’t a strong defensive squad, but they’ve managed to speed up the Warriors and bait them into questionable decisions.
What it means: Credit the Cavs for applying some pressure, but even with the turnovers the Warriors have scored 250 points the last two games. Golden State is still cooking despite a turnover percentage of 17.3. Lue needs to continue to encourage the Cavs’ thieving ways, as it’s helped lead to 15.7 transition points per game. Cleveland needs more than turnovers alone to swing the series, but their improved pressure is a step in the right direction.
41.7: Minutes Per Game Played by James
There is nothing more that Lue can ask from LeBron. The King has been superhuman all playoffs and is averaging a triple double in the Finals. Until Irving awoke in the second half Wednesday, he was the one reliable option the Cavs possessed.
But with more than 50,000 career minutes on his odometer, James is having a hard time keeping up his scorching starts to games. He’s simply been forced to carry too much of the burden, and even LeBron’s mighty shoulders are growing weary.
Check out his by-quarter averages in the Finals.
1st Quarter: 13.0 points, 70% shooting
2nd Quarter: 8.3 points, 71% shooting
3rd Quarter: 7.0 points, 40% shooting
4th Quarter: 3.6 points, 36% shooting
What it means: Unfortunately, there’s not much Lue can do to help his star. This team was built around James, and it crumbles every time he hits the bench (the Cavs were outscored by 12 points in the two minutes LeBron sat). Lue should look to steal James any extra second of rest he can, maybe subbing him out just before media timeouts or the end of quarters. But in the end, James isn’t just the engine of the team - he’s the steering wheel, pistons and accelerator. Without him, this series is already over.
The Cavs are certainly in a sticky spot, as no NBA team has ever overcome a 3-0 series deficit. But that doesn’t mean the Cavs will stop trying, and by diving into the numbers Lue can find some insights that might give his team the slight edge it needed in Game 3.
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