After Game 3 of the NBA Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors, some may be tempted to credit Cleveland’s rejuvenated offense for their turnaround, but put that to bed before we go any further. A profoundly different defensive team won this game, and their presence is the foundation upon which hope will be built for the Cavs heading into a pivotal Game 4 on Friday night.
There’s an elephant in the room now, of course. Kevin Love’s absence may not have been directly responsible for a huge defensive reversal, but it certainly put the forks and knives on the table. It allowed (or perhaps forced) Ty Lue to make his most important adjustment to this point: LeBron James spent virtually the entire game guarding Draymond Green, and was fantastic in a way that reverberated on the Cleveland side of the ball. It appeared to sacrifice little offense while wildly altering the way the Cavs could approach the game defensively. It will be an issue going forward, no matter how much we try to downplay it.
So will Steph Curry’s performance, which was maybe even more surprising. There’s been too much conversation about his health in the last few weeks, and at this point it doesn’t matter; he’s on the court, and what looked like a yawner of a series could get a caffeine injection if his malaise persists. The Cavs had done a good job muscling up on Curry at Oracle even as they spewed mistakes all over the court elsewhere, and they were on another level Wednesday night. Cleveland is taking away his space, getting into his jersey and running him through a gauntlet defensively that caused foul trouble. They’re clearly making an effort to wear him down, and it’s fair to speculate whether they’re succeeding to some degree. Game 4 will be a telling indicator.
LeBron was a rampaging beast in this game, and his assignment on Green should remain in place regardless of Love’s status or role. He switched seamlessly all around the court, most importantly onto Curry throughout the game, and was at a 2012-James level of activity that even allowed him to double as a much-needed rim deterrent while playing with just one other big man the entire night. James was the best defensive player on the floor. Meanwhile, he found his jumper in the third quarter and seemed to pinpoint the timing that had eluded him for the first two games in Golden State while playing a more streamlined offensive game.
The Cavs simply needed a much better all-around effort after their performance in Oakland, and they got it in spades. Kyrie Irving had a monstrous first quarter, outscoring the entire Warriors team for most of the period before settling for a tie after 12 minutes. Tristan Thompson was phenomenal on both ends, with Lue referring to him as the “heart and soul of our team” after the game. Thompson rebounded a ludicrous 27 percent of all Cleveland misses while on the floor – a feat made even more remarkable by the fact that he was the only big man every second he was on the court. J.R. Smith awoke from Finals hibernation to hit five triples, but was even more impressive defensively – both on and off the ball. Richard Jefferson was active and efficient starting in Love’s place, and the full group looked more cohesive as a five-man defensive unit than one might have imagined possible a couple days ago.
Warriors head coach Steve Kerr seemed to go out of his way to downplay the role of lineups after the loss, but they’ll be in the crosshairs for the first time this series for Golden State. Andrew Bogut was helpless on this night against the Cavs’ smaller starting unit, and the Warriors were destroyed in the first six minutes of each half to dig a hole they couldn’t climb out of. Kerr went to his trump card lineup with Draymond Green at center for limited minutes in the first half before busting it out earlier in the third quarter when it was probably too late, and the question now becomes whether he’ll be forced to consider starting it (or at the very least giving it longer run).
The questions for each team – Love’s role for Cleveland, smaller lineups for Golden State – are similar in nature. No one wants to overreact, but this is the NBA Finals. There isn’t time to build up a robust sample size. The Warriors solved the smash-mouth Cavs last June when Kerr removed an established player in Bogut almost entirely from the rotation; neither coach can afford to tiptoe around egos or some arbitrary sense of status with so much on the line in every game.
Neither bench boss should be shy about pulling the trigger. Love’s situation would be different if the ways the Cavs succeeded without him weren’t so predictable, but the template is as obvious as the Cavs’ clearly amplified comfort level defensively. The Warriors have lived and died (okay, mainly lived) by the Death Lineup since unlocking it against this same Cleveland team last year. Game 3 made this enough of a series that both groups need to put their best stuff on the table.
Game 4 Prediction: The Warriors win a classic, taking a 3-1 lead.
Make sure to follow Basketball Insiders on Twitter at @BBallInsiders.