CLEVELAND—The win was totally in the bag, and then it started slowly sneaking out like a tiptoeing burglar, and then Matthew Dellavedova crammed it back in by making three the hard way, three the really hard way.
The Cavaliers maintained firm control on these NBA Finals for the first three quarters of Game 3 on Tuesday, leading from the outset and building a 20-point cushion while bottling up the Warriors' offense again. The Game 2 script was holding: Golden State wasn't playing to its preferred high pace, it wasn't getting Stephen Curry going, and it wasn't matching Cleveland's intensity. Finally, the Warriors made their desperate push, running off an 8-0 lead to start the fourth. Here was something resembling momentum, thanks in part to the insertion of the seldom-used David Lee, and a picture-perfect Curry three-pointer completing another 7-2 push to cut the Cavaliers' lead to one point midway through the fourth.
The undrafted Dellavedova sized up the momentum candle, licked his fingers, and squeezed the flame. Momentum extinguished.
Mere seconds after Curry's three, Dellavedova came right off a high screen, dribbling choppily as he tried to handle Curry’s harassing defense from behind. No one was open, and the paint was clear, so he took a hesitant step toward the foul line as Curry wrapped a hand around his waist. He switched the ball to his left hand, lunged forward, brought the ball back right and threw up a high-arcing shotput heave as he crashed to the court going left.
There was the whistle, there was the clean bank, and there were the raucous “DELLY, DELLY” chants from the home crowd, and there was the free throw to finish it off. Curry, the MVP of effortless threes, could only raise his arms in disbelief at Dellavedova’s off-balance, bumbling, stumbling effort. This was three the ungraceful way, three the improbable way, three the hard way.
“That was a huge turning point,” Curry sighed. “It was a good turning point for him to get the crowd back into it. They obviously love the way he plays. He made some timely buckets, and that was one of them.”
LeBron James knocked down a three-pointer on Cleveland’s next possession, supplying the dagger, and the Cavaliers held on for a 96–91 win to take a 2-1 series lead.
James, the smoother and more refined half of Cleveland’s budding “buddy cop” duo, played his third straight masterful game of this series. He finished with 40 points (on 34 shots), 12 rebounds and eight assists, pushing his scoring total in the series to 123 points, the most any player in history has scored in the first three games of the Finals. He often made it look like child’s play, spinning past Harrison Barnes on the block, turning the corner around Curry for a thunderous dunk, powering through Festus Ezeli for a runner, stopping on a dime to lose Andre Iguodala for a lefty finish, and skying high for an alley-oop in transition from Dellavedova. Appreciative “M-V-P” cheers rained down on multiple occasions.
It never looked easier than when he stepped into the path of a Curry inbounds pass late in the game, intercepting the ball, taking off for the races, and forcing a foul. James pointed to the side of his head after the play, signaling his understanding of Golden State’s intentions.
“I have seen them run that set before,” James said afterward. “I was telling the coaching staff that I was in tune and I knew what was coming.”
James’s head point also called attention to the biggest difference between these two teams through three games. Cleveland has James and his brain full of experience, confidence, and strategic understanding; Golden State doesn’t, and it has often uncharacteristically lost its head in key situations.
“This is a different challenge for [me], and it’s outside the box,” James said. “But it’s not too far. It’s not too far for me to go grab.”
But Game 3 won’t be remembered as a one-man effort, because the likeliest of all heroes had help from an unlikely one in Dellavedova, who averaged just 4.8 points and 20.6 minutes this season before getting the call to replace the injured Kyrie Irving in the starting lineup following Game 1. The second-year Australian guard finished on Tuesday night with a season-high 20 points, five rebound and four assists, and he was so drained from logging 39 minutes that he required a post-game IV and a late-night trip to a Cleveland-area hospital to address cramping.
"[Dellavedova has] done everything you [media] guys think he can't do," Tristan Thompson added. "Every night he's going to come out and bust his tail. ... He picks up 94 feet. He really tries to make whoever he's guarding uncomfortable, and those are the little things that changed the game and change the series."
After his late offensive rebound proved key in Game 2, Dellavedova’s energy again played a role late in Game 3, as he dove for loose balls on multiple occasions.
“He’s a guy that’s low to the ground and isn’t afraid to put his nose in there,” said Lee, who saw his first action in the Finals and scored 11 points, his highest output since March 31.
So this night belonged to James and Dellavedova, a teammate he has praised consistently in the face of criticism over questions about an all-out, unapologetic playing style that has led to incidents with Taj Gibson, Kyle Korver, Al Horford and, earlier in Game 3, Draymond Green. By the time the buzzer sounded on Cleveland’s wire-to-wire win, its first home Finals victory in franchise history, Dellavedova had morphed from fan favorite and lightning rod to indisputable difference-maker.
Dellavedova’s tight defense helped hold Curry in check for three quarters, a must for slowing down Golden State, and his scoring was similarly crucial given the absences of Irving and Kevin Love and a first-half shoulder injury to Iman Shumpert, who took only two shots all night. There is some question about who draws more passionate cheers—James or Dellavedova—from the Quicken Loans Arena crowd.
“Delly’s the most Cleveland-like Australian I’ve ever met in my life,” Cavaliers coach David Blatt said, referring to his point guard’s blue-collar approach. “He’s not afraid. He plays courageously. He’s going to give you whatever he has, and you can’t ask for anything more.”
This series now hangs on whether the Warriors can match the Cavaliers’ energy, and whether Curry can build on a breakout fourth-quarter that saw him score 17 of his 27 points. Golden State coach Steve Kerr said Curry “lost a little energy and life” during the first half, and he scolded his team for “hanging our heads” when Cleveland extended its lead in the third quarter.
Curry, who saw nearly 28 minutes of game action pass between his first and second made shots, admitted that he “stalled” in the second quarter, and said that he needed to “stay vibrant” whether or not his shots were falling. Vibrant is a good place to start when it comes to countering James’s unmatched value and Dellavedova’s unanticipated valiance.
The Finals hasn’t gone according to plan, and it certainly hasn’t unfolded according to Golden State’s script. James was bound to cause problems, but no one could reasonably project the consistency and volume of his record-setting output. On paper, Dellavedova looked like a bit player to be pushed by the Warriors’ second unit, not a legitimate answer to Golden State’s MVP in back-to-back games. Nothing can truly prepare a team for this stage, this pressure, this chaos from play to play. And there’s no blueprint or game plan for how to respond when an off-the-radar player with nothing to lose hits a one-legged banked prayer that has the potential to rewrite a dream season's ending with a fairy-tale finish of his own.