The Cavs improved to 8-0 at home in the playoffs as Golden State struggles to find its way to the main stage.
It is almost as if the Golden State Warriors were hustled.
Maybe Cleveland simply sent cardboard cutouts to Oakland for games one and two of the N.B.A. Finals while the #realcavs hung back to tweet and binge-watch season four of Orange is the New Black.
If you watch the replays closely you’ll see that LeBron James and co. did look a little too two-dimensional to be real: Ineffective in traffic, unable to grab a rebound and letting nine Warriors have their double-digit scoring way.
Like Jake LaMotta taking punches through the first couple rounds in order to get the blood moving, Cleveland shook the rust off of decades of urban decay and choreographed blight like a suddenly awake, Costco-sized Kraken emerging onto the fiery shores of the mighty Cuyahoga Wednesday and reconstructed the moribund Rust Belt on the shoulders of the only man in the world who can unironically sport a shoulder-to-shoulder Chosen1 tattoo.
In fact James, who left the game with just under five minutes to go, finished with 32 points, 11 rebounds and 6 assists — not pedestrian numbers but a box score that doesn’t completely reflect his Game 3 dominance.
Most of James’ scoring came through parting the lane Moses does a body of water, shooting jumpers like he was bouncing off a new box spring and one thunderous alley oop that went ahead and reverberated back to the Bay Area, and shook the stanchions of the Bay Bridge well below the waterline.
The Warriors, still up 2-1 in the series, spotted the Cavs a dozen almost immediately during the first few minutes of a rollicking homecoming. The solution last year was for Golden State to go big (for them) and bullish on the defense starting Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala. Those four, plus MVP Steph Curry, proved insurmountable for the 2015 Cavs and much of the rest of the league this year to date.
Cleveland, however, its hand forced with Kevin Love out game 3 for concussion protocol, went with a smaller lineup including a revelatory Richard Jefferson (who’s not fooling anyone with that plastic bald head he wears), who played 33 minutes, scored nine points and grabbed eight rebounds.
Kyrie Irving was on the assist end of the defining play of the series thus far when James, who got down to the floor for a steal, slung a pass to the Cavs’ point guard on the left side and Irving returned a lob to James, who was surely the only man on the planet who could have finished the play in low orbit.
Add in a convincing return to form by J.R. Smith, who made quintet of 3-pointers and a suddenly formidable Tristan Thompson, who grabbed 13 rebounds, and the Cavs improved to 8-0 at home this playoffs.
On the Warriors’ side, questions linger about the overall health of Curry who just one day prior took his name out of contention for a spot on Team USA. Curry, who suffered a Grade 1 MCL sprain during the Warriors’ first-round series with the Houston Rockets (which seems like a Leap Year ago), is still not back to form.
Usually a flashes of a hot hand and a strong supporting cast can mask it — but when left exposed, as he was in the first half scoring two points and committing three turnovers as well as picking up three bad fouls — the questions mount.
“He was not his usual self,” Warriors’ head coach Steve Kerr said of Curry. “Now, it happens sometimes. I mean, that’s what everybody was saying about them the last two games. No matter who you’re talking about, when a team plays poorly, the team deserves criticism. The coach deserves criticism, the players. I always tell our guys, that’s why we get paid. We don’t get paid to show up and shoot baskets every day. We get paid because we’re going to get a lot of criticism, and we deserve it tonight.”
Fortunately for the Warriors, there are a maximum of four games left this season. It’s on them to determine which team shows up for the remainder of the scrap, because clearly Cleveland now knows which one of theirs to bring.
Game 4 tips off 6 p.m. Friday in Cleveland.