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Game 3 Preview: Golden State Warriors vs. Cleveland Cavaliers

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For perhaps the first time ever, a large portion of NBA fans may feel just a little bit sorry for LeBron James. Despite his best efforts to run through a physical Golden State Warriors defense, James and the Cleveland Cavaliers lost Game 2 by a score of 132-113 — their second double-digit defeat in a row. To his credit, James has been near-perfect for the underdogs thus far, and, in Game 2, racked up a triple-double (29 points, 11 rebounds and 14 assists) while also biting the next-to-impossible bullet of defending Kevin Durant on most possessions.

But as the television cameras caught an exhausted James trying to catch his breath on the bench during the late third quarter, the realization of possible mortality set in. At 32 years of age, we’ve already seen James transcend the game of basketball on countless occasions, but particularly so against this very team one year ago. The memories of that 3-1 comeback are now fleeting, replaced by nightmares of the Slim Reaper, who, as you’ve likely heard, has already outscored Harrison Barnes’ dismal 2016 Finals output in just two games.

Of course, hope hasn’t been completely extinguished for the Cavaliers, but there’s a strange feeling of resignation echoing across the country. Betting against James is a sure fire way to look silly, but if his supporting cast continues to come up empty at home, there’s almost no chance for Cleveland to repeat their miraculous task once again. Kyrie Irving’s late surge helped him finish with 19 points and seven assists, but his 8-for-23 shooting performance was difficult to swallow as Stephen Curry cruised to an easy triple-double of his own.

However, the Cavaliers received very little outside of James, Irving and Kevin Love (27 points, seven rebounds) in their Game 2 loss. Tristan Thompson, lauded as one of the Cavaliers’ only rebounding threats against the Warriors, has managed just eight points and eight rebounds through two games, tallying an overall poor plus-minus of -31. For Thompson, who scored 15 points and 16 rebounds in last year’s crucial Game 6 alone, it’s disappointing, but for a Cavaliers side desperately looking for answers, it may as well be the death knell.

Additionally, J.R. Smith struggled once again as he failed to score a single point in 14 minutes, but the Cavaliers’ bench didn’t fare much better. Key players like Channing Frye and Deron Williams combined to shoot just 1-for-10 and Iman Shumpert’s strong line of six points, four rebounds and three steals was sullied by converting just one of his six attempts from the floor. If Game 3 is to fall Cleveland’s way, they’ll need more from their veteran-laden roster across the board — a daunting request against this rigid Warriors defense.

The Warriors recovered from a sloppy, 20 turnover performance to reach basketball euphoria in the second half. In fact, the only player to record a negative plus-minus in more than 10 minutes of game time was Shaun Livingston, with a -10, a fair representation of just how solid this Warriors team is on both sides of the ball. The headlines will certainly go to Curry (32 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists) and Durant (33 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and five blocks), but Klay Thompson’s much-awaited arrival was a game-changer in Game 2.

Thompson’s 22-point effort was his highest total since he scored 21 in the series-clincher against the Utah Jazz two rounds and almost a full month ago. Thompson and Draymond Green contributed seven of the Warriors’ 18 three-pointers after going for a combined 1-for-10 from deep in Game 1. Thanks to the effortless scoring of Curry and Durant and the swarming defense of Thompson and Green, there was little room left to operate for a Cleveland team that must now regroup with their season on the line.

Cleveland’s supporting cast should certainly improve at home in Game 3, but Golden State is a beast that this league has never seen before. Just ask the exhausted (and impatient) James — this is clearly new territory for him too.

During his postgame press conference, head coach Steve Kerr — who was back on the sidelines for the first time since April 19 — spoke about the Warriors and offered up this gem:

“Tonight was a game based on talent, we had a lot of guys who played exceptionally well individually. . . but heading to Cleveland, we’re going to have to be a lot smarter. We play that same game in Cleveland, there’s no way we win.”

Sure, whatever you say, Steve.

Who Wins Game 3?

Ultimately, you may not feel much sympathy for James and his status as a four-time MVP, three-time NBA champion and eventual first-ballot lock for the Hall of Fame, but that doesn’t make the sight any less strange to behold. Exhausted on the bench and outwardly frustrated in the locker room, James has played incredible basketball through two games and it hasn’t even been close to enough.

Outside of James and Love, few Cavaliers have proven worthy of their hearty challenge at hand, so it’d be tough to bet against Golden State at this point, even on the road. Cleveland will need one of Irving’s superhuman efforts to delay this inevitable drive toward the NBA’s new era. If the likes of Smith, Frye and Thompson finally show up, the dynamic in Game 3 could change completely — but, alas, that day may not come in this series. In all likelihood, the Warriors should move one game closer to an undefeated postseason after defeating the Cavaliers in Game 3.

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About Benny Nadeau

Benny Nadeau

Benny Nadeau is a Boston-based writer in his first year with Basketball Insiders. For the last five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.