Curry's gone and the Cavs are back... Did the Finals just get interesting?
Wherever you fall on the belief spectrum, watching Cleveland come back from the dead was more fun than a 30-point Finals blowout ever should've been. There were Kyrie crossovers, LeBron alley-oops, Richard Jefferson-starting-in-the-2016-Finals hallucinations, J.R. threes, Tristan Thompson dunks, and lots of truly heartless Kevin Love jokes. It was delightful, and a reminder that while this Cavs team may not be on the Warriors' level, they're also not 30-points worse.
"It's the NBA," Steve Kerr said afterward. "This is how it is. Most of the teams in the league are pretty equal in talent. As Gregg Popovich used to tell me, the other guys make millions of dollars of year to play the game, too."
The question now is whether last night changes anything. The sober answer is probably not. After the Warriors came back from 3–1 against the Thunder, they'd have to be down 30 in an elimination game before anyone in basketball doubts them again.
Having said that, the Cavs team we saw Wednesday was very different than the team that everyone had written off after the first two games, and the Warriors may not be as invincible as we thought. There's room for this to get fun.
Here are three factors to consider after Game 3.
1. There's a reason Kyrie is polarizing. The first week of these Finals were not kind to Kyrie Irving's basketball reputation. He was torched on defense (conceding 78% shooting to players he guarded, earning the nickname Kyriean BBQ), his offense disappeared (12 of 36 from the field), and his tendency to get lost in iso-ball was hurting teammates. This was all turning into the sort of disaster that's tough to live down. No true superstar should ever look as hopeless as Kyrie did through two games at Oracle.
All of this is the bad side of Kyrie. There's a version of his game that leaves him looking like the a rich man's version of Jamal Crawford. But then, when it works...
As Kerr said postgame, "You spend two or three days listening to everybody say things about you that don't feel that good, usually you bounce back." Indeed, after five days as an internet punchline, he responded—30 points on 12-of-25 shooting, plus eight assists.
Games like last night are when you remember that Kyrie at his best will give you one of the prettiest offensive skillsets imaginable, and bursts of instant offense that can turn a game upside down. That's what happened in the first quarter, when Kyrie had 16 points and nearly outscored the Warriors by himself. This kind of help is why LeBron came back to Cleveland.
It's also why some people will defend Irving forever. He's got flaws that never go away, but he's also good enough to win back support just when everyone's ready to give up on him. That was Game 3. He paid attention on defense Wednesday night—where he'd been embarrassed in the first two games—and while he wasn't shutting anyone down, he wasn't getting blown off the court and giving up easy buckets every other possession.
This gives the Cavs a chance. If Irving can give them two or three explosive stretches of offense each game, plus half-decent defense, it's enough to make LeBron and a roster of shooters dangerous enough to beat anyone.
2. J.R. Smith and Richard Jefferson will get weird. My favorite J.R. play came late in the fourth quarter when he took the ball on a fast break, and up 20 points, decided to pull it out to kill clock instead of rushing to the rim. It was a surprising show of restraint—and one that was followed a split-second later by a contested three with 20 seconds on the shot clock.
And that is the J.R. Smith the Cavs have been missing. They need Smith to play with no conscience, because picking his spots at Oracle clearly ended in disaster for everyone. He was back last night, and as a supporting gunner next to Irving and James, he is perfect. He took 10 threes—after taking nine shots in the previous two games combined—and he hit five of them on the way to 20 points.
Meanwhile, Jefferson added nine points and eight rebounds, and at 35 years old, he gave the Cavs 33 minutes that somehow didn't end in disaster. He makes their lineups more flexible, and he's crucial to keeping up with the Warriors when they go small. Of course, the best argument against believing in the Cavs is that J.R. Smith and Richard Jefferson can't possibly be counted on to show up in another Finals game this way. Similar arguments could be made for Channing Frye and Tristan Thompson.
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I'm not sure that's as smart as it seems, though. If Cleveland has a chance in this series, it was never going to come from leaning on the Big Three for 48 minutes of offense. We saw the better blueprint Wednesday. It'll happen with quick stretches of brilliance from Kyrie, consistent dominance by LeBron, and then a handful of ugly possessions that end in leaning Richard Jefferson jumpers or J.R. Smith fadeaways.
The Cavs superstars aren't good enough to hang with the Warriors shot-for-shot. But if Cleveland can make things ugly with unorthodox lineups, good defense, and role players that make absolutely no sense, this might actually work.
3. Will Steph Curry show up? The first two games of these Finals were disappointing for a lot of reasons, but most of all because we'd spent a year looking forward to a rematch between Steph Curry and LeBron James. Neither one of them really showed up in the first two games. Curry's presence barely registered in either contest, and LeBron may have been slightly better at times, but it wasn't nearly enough to matter. The Cavs were so hopeless that it felt like Golden State was dominating by default.
LeBron changed that Wednesday. After Kyrie helped at the start, James took over in the second half. He found his jumper again, he attacked the rim, he kicked out to shooters, and he helped turn an eight-point halftime lead into a 26-point blowout early in the fourth quarter.
That leaves Curry.
His numbers (19 points, 6-of-19 shooting) don't do justice to just how awful he was in Game 3. He was beaten badly a number of times on defense, he had six turnovers, and he had two points at halftime. He didn't start scoring at all until the game was out of hand in the third quarter. He was bumped and beaten up by the Cavs all game, and he might not be totally healthy, but he has to be better if the Cavs are going to be this good.
For the record, none of this is a complaint. I love it. It would've been depressing to watch Golden State ride role players and terrible Cavs defense to a sweep. This is the way it should be. If Curry's going to go down in history and taking control of the league from LeBron, it should come with a bang, not a whimper and a series of Shaun Livingston floaters.
That's was the best part of Game 3, and the best part of the Cavs coming back from the dead. It means we'll either get a much better series than expected, or Golden State will need a classic game from Curry to help finish this team on the road. Either way, I can't wait for Game 4.