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.
SI's Best Photos From Game 3 of the NBA Finals
SI's Best Photos from Game 3: Matthew Dellavedova rose to the occasion again for the Cavaliers in Game 3, scoring 20 points and making several hustle plays to help Cleveland win 96-91 to grab a two games to one lead in the NBA Finals.
LeBron James converted this alley-oop pass from Matthew Dellavedova (far right) for a pivotal basket in the fourth quarter.
Despite Steph Curry's attempt to hold Matthew Dellavedova back, the Cavs guard kept driving toward the basket on this play and hit a circus shot off the glass and drew a foul.
Steph Curry found his shooting touch in the fourth quarter, scoring 17 points as the Warriors, who trailed by 20 in the third quarter, refused to go away. (Text credit: AP)
Matthew Dellavedova dove to the floor for a loose ball ahead of the Warriors.
LeBron James finished with 40 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists in 46 minutes.
Tristan Thompson scored 10 points and had 13 rebounds for Golden State.
LeBron James has scored 123 points in the series, the most ever scored by a player through the first three games of the Finals.
LeBron James threw down a monster dunk in the first half.
LeBron James's 40-point effort followed 44-point and 39-point efforts in Games 1 and 2, respectively.
Timofey Mozgov blocks a shot by Festus Ezeli.
The Warriors' Klay Thompson attempts to grab a loose ball.
LeBron James attempted 34 shots in his 46 minutes on the floor.
Tristan Thompson makes an emphatic finish on an easy basket.
Steph Curry scored only three points in the first quarter on 1-of-6 shooting and had only 10 at halftime.
Cleveland held the NBA's highest scoring team to a measley 37 points in the first half.