It has been noted throughout the season that no lead is safe against the Warriors. A team that defends, runs, and shoots at this level is never truly out of any contest; even a double-digit lead can be wiped away in a matter of minutes, blasted from the scoreboard by runs set off like a gunpowder keg.
True to form, Golden State erased just such a deficit in Game 3. With 2:51 remaining in the third quarter, the Warriors found themselves trailing by 20 points. At quarter’s end it was still 17. After just two fourth-quarter minutes, the lead hit single digits. The runs came, the Warriors rallied, and an uphill battle again had the Warriors in competitive position.
The fundamental difference between this game and many comebacks like it: We’ve now, at long last, found the team that can resist. Cleveland didn’t play its best basketball in the fourth quarter. It did, however, hit a critical quota for big plays by way of its physicality and hustle. Every championship must be earned. We can say definitively, after a 96–91 Game 3 victory, that the Cavaliers are as worthy a competitor as can be found in the NBA.
What LeBron James (40 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists) has done to bring a damaged roster this close to the title will inspire confusion and commendation in equal measure. We may never settle on a satisfactory explanation for what’s happened here: How a single superstar and a short roster of role players powered through injuries to two of the team’s most important players. No team in the modern era has won a championship with a supporting cast this thin. After three games, James and his teammates have at the very least suggested that such a thing may be possible—that the ultimate prize of the NBA season may indeed be won by the likes of Matthew Dellavedova, Tristan Thompson, and Timofey Mozgov as core contributors.
Cleveland patched together enough offense to win in no small part due to Dellavedova’s 20 points on 17 shots. The one-time backup did it all: Hit back-breaking three-pointers, knocked down more runners than basic probability would suggest he should, and even banked in a wild three-point play down the stretch to keep the Warriors at arm’s reach. One expects Dellavedova to work through his assignment of covering Stephen Curry and hustle to the point that he walks (and sometimes crosses) the line of dirty play. What’s more surprising is a scoring performance of this magnitude against one of the best defensive teams in the league.
To make matters much worse, the Warriors’ offense again faltered under the Cavs’ defensive pressure. All of the typically smooth transitions for Golden State—dribble hand-offs, backdoor cuts, pin-downs for shooters—have tripped into clumsiness. This is not who the Warriors are. Cleveland has made sure that the most dominant team of this NBA season turned out a no-show on offense by applying pressure in all the right places. It’s Dellavedova and Iman Shumpert getting into shooters on the perimeter, James and Thompson providing timely rotation, and Mozgov going vertical at the rim. Collectively they’ve shackled the Warriors for 154 minutes. Even Golden State’s scoring possessions come after dragging quality defenders through multiple, drawn-out actions.
Only by three-point shooting and the surprise appearance of David Lee were the Warriors able to inch back into the game. If Game 3 offered any hope for the Warriors, it's in the 17-point swing that coincided with Lee’s 13 minutes on the floor. By putting Lee in the high-pick-and-roll and allowing him to make plays from the middle of the floor, the Warriors finally found the catalyst necessary to force rotation and find the open man. Lee finished with 11 points and four rebounds while reclaiming a spot in the regular rotation against long odds.
Curry was also able to shake free (in part because of Cleveland’s adjustment to Lee’s success) for a late surge, but his 17 fourth-quarter points and the Warriors’ 36 in the frame came up just short. Golden State needs that explosive version of Curry in a bad way. It also needs Green, currently stuck in a confidence-rocking shooting slump, to participate in the same kind of playmaking that made Lee so effective. The Warriors can’t survive a rough series from Curry, Green, Andrew Bogut, and Harrison Barnes all at once. Should their joint struggles continue, the Cavaliers will have every opportunity to win. Three games of evidence suggests Cleveland, against all basketball logic, would meet the occasion.