CLEVELAND — Not long after LeBron James came back to town, he spent an idle moment with a Cavaliers executive engaging in one of his preferred past-times, making historical comparisons for current players. “Dale Davis,” James said, when asked about a bruising power forward. “Andrew Toney,” he chirped, when quizzed about an undersized shooting guard. After the exercise was over, the official walked away, shaking his head. “Andrew Toney? How would he even know that?” Toney retired when James was 4, with career averages of 15.9 points and 4.2 assists, a valuable contributor but not an ESPN Classic regular.
Many players claim to be versed in the NBA’s past, but James is unusual, peppering his speech with references that prove it. So when he is faced with a game as monumental as Wednesday night’s, he understands the everlasting stakes, maybe too well. Lose and lose the series, probably via sweep, then spend another summer stewing over an empty Finals. James can tell you how all the legends fared in the Finals, and though he swears he does not think of himself in the same historical context, he is surely aware of how 2–5 measures up.
That conversation, consuming the cable chatterboxes, can be postponed at least another few days. “Momentum is a myth,” NBA playoff veterans like to say, and the Cavaliers delivered the latest overwhelming evidence. They throttled the Warriors, 120-90, in Game 3, your basic 63-point swing since the world watched them stagger out of Oracle Arena on Sunday night. “Follow my lead,” James told the Cavs on Wednesday, and he put up 32 points, 11 rebounds, six assists and two blocks, not including the post-whistle swat of Steph Curry. Suddenly, it is Curry’s turn in the Finals crucible, left to answer why his touch has betrayed him at the most important time. Welcome to LeBron’s world.
James sounded desperate heading into Game 3—“must-win,” he termed the showdown, “do-or-die”—and looked it at the outset. After introductions, he tore off his jacket, Hulk style. After the first Warriors timeout, two-and-a-half minutes in, he unleashed an uncharacteristic roar in front of the scorers table. He was amped higher than Draymond Green, and after an efficient start playing largely out of the post, he put up a 1 for 10 second-quarter clunker. The Cavaliers led by eight points, but it felt like they were trailing, given how many minutes James and Kyrie Irving had logged, and how few baskets Curry and Klay Thompson had made. The Splash Bros were due, and yet, that’s been the refrain for almost a week.
Curry and Thompson are born marksmen. James has never claimed to be a sniper—even when he converted 40% of his three-pointers with Miami in 2012–13, he shrugged off praise, insisting it wasn’t his game—but he normally hits enough mid-range jumpers to keep defenses honest. His J, if not broken, has appeared in jeopardy all season. The Warriors are daring him to fire, as the Spurs did before them, a storyline in four straight Finals. They want James to shoot and are even content to let him drive. What they don’t want is to help off shooters and turn him into Magic Johnson, flinging those no-look fastballs around the arc.
With Kevin Love out because of the concussion he sustained Sunday, Cleveland went small, spreading the floor around James with Irving, Richard Jefferson and J.R. Smith. James felt the benefits of the space, even though missed those early gimmes, and at halftime his teammates urged him to keep attacking. “They told me to be aggressive,” James said. “And that’s what I was.” Amid his usual headlong rushes around high screens, he drilled a 21-foot jumper, two from 20, one from 13, plus a three. James has been searching for his stroke, and while it’s farfetched to suggest he found it in the third quarter, his shot remains a variable that could change the series.
The same goes for Irving, who dribbled figure eights around the Warriors, particularly at the beginning and the end. And also Smith, who sank five three-pointers, excluding the halftime heave released just after the buzzer. “Jump Shot Jesus,” Jefferson declared, when he spotted J.R. before Game 1, but Smith neither spaced nor saved in Oakland. Role players like Smith crave home court, as do young players, which helps explain the resurgence of Smith and Irving. After 72 hours of intense criticism—an extra travel day, added to the Finals schedule this year, produced pros and cons—Jump Shot Jesus and Uncle Drew issued convincing rebuttals.
If Cleveland falls, Irving trades will be popular topics of conversation around the NBA, but the Cavaliers should proceed carefully with a 24-year-old who can score in as many ways as Irving. “I get buckets,” Irving likes to say, and he drained a dozen of them. The predicament with Love is different. Although Love boosted the Cavs through the Eastern Conference playoffs, completing a legit Big Three, there is no obvious defensive assignment for him in this series. Warriors coaches want Love on the court, believing he cannot keep up with Green.
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Since Love was sidelined, James spent most of his time on Green, who finished 2 for 8. Tristan Thompson swallowed up 13 rebounds. Timofey Mozgov bruised Klay Thompson’s leg with a chippy moving screen. The Cavaliers, who are giving up skill in this matchup, brought some muscle. “Physicality and aggressiveness,” Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said afterward, catchphrases he’s been repeating since Sunday. The Cavs finally acted like they want a long series instead of an early summer.
Assuming Love is cleared for Game 4, Lue will have a tricky decision to make. The Cavaliers are paying Love $110 million, and he is a huge part of the reason they’re here, but he might not be best suited to these Finals. Three games in, the Cavs may have discovered another formula that gives them a chance: James handling the ball in the post against Green, Thompson cleaning the glass, shooters galore.
Of course, they are facing a historic foe, and any progress could be undone in a splash Friday night. But, if nothing else, the Cavaliers have arrived at the 2016 Finals. After a mortifying false start, a series has begun.