CLEVELAND — It took Stephen Curry more than two quarters to emerge from a slumber of turnovers, rhythm-less jumpers and inane fouls—the type of deep sleep that leads to early 20-point deficits—and LeBron James was waiting for him.
The Warriors guard loves to save his best for last, as he did in his remarkable 17-point overtime against the Blazers and in the fourth quarter of Game 7 against the Thunder. Lifeless throughout a first half on Wednesday that saw him score just two points while committing three fouls and three turnovers, Curry came alive a bit in the third quarter, hitting three three-pointers as Golden State’s sole spark on a flat night.
With the play whistled dead after a foul, Curry collected the basketball and rose for a right-handed dunk, a hopeful show of force that might conjure up something resembling momentum with the Warriors trailing by 19 points. James, standing underneath the basket and sensing Curry’s intention, casually came across the paint and jumped straight up to block the inconsequential shot. Without really rising above the rim, and with players on both teams milling about aimlessly, James batted the ball out of Curry’s hands and off the backboard, giving the unanimous MVP the same treatment that Kevin Garnett has long given after-the-whistle threes.
Here was Curry, straining to dunk, straining for a little confidence-booster, straining for something to build upon, and there was James, sending him back with an older brother’s dismissiveness.
“When you have the greatest shooter in the world trying to get an easy one or trying to get in rhythm, it’s our job to try to keep him out,” James said. “No matter if it’s after the whistle or not. That was just my mindset. … I didn’t want him to see the ball go in.”
The Cavaliers defeated the Warriors 120–90 in Game 3 of the Finals in Cleveland on Wednesday, proving that they were serious about doing the many things necessary to make this a series, the many things they hadn’t done in Games 1 and 2. James, screaming from the moment the National Anthem completed, was at the heart of it, finishing with 32 points on 14-of-26 shooting, 11 rebounds and six assists as Cleveland dealt Golden State the worst postseason defeat of coach Steve Kerr’s tenure.
Curry, meanwhile, wasn’t at the heart of anything except the blooper reel. The same bugaboos that plagued him in Games 3 and 4 in Oklahoma City—incredibly careless turnovers, rushed shots—came roaring back in Cleveland. He was out of it right from the get-go, attempting a lazy shovel pass in traffic less than a minute into the game that sent the Cavaliers off to the races.
That would be a recurring theme: The Cavaliers scored 34 points off the Warriors’ 18 turnovers, with Curry committing a team-high six. A few minutes after his first miscue, Curry lost his dribble on the perimeter, leading to a 4-on-1 Cavaliers fast break the other way. Just before halftime, he squirted up the ball as he drove to nowhere. Not long into the second half, he over-dribbled the ball through his own legs out of bounds.
If there was any upside to Curry’s sloppiness, it was that his fifth turnover led to the best highlight of the Finals. After attempting to toss a casual pass over James on the perimeter, Curry bumped James as the two players chased after the ball near midcourt. James briefly slipped, but he kept his dribble alive and found a streaking Kyrie Irving, who returned the ball to James over the top of a helpless Curry for a sensational alley-oop.
James, after being bottled up to one degree or another in seven straight losses to Golden State, let loose on Curry twice in a few minutes. First, he finished the lob slam by reaching far back to corral the pass and then tomahawking it cleanly through the hoop. Then, he blocked Curry’s dunk attempt in one of the clearest “Not in my house” brush-offs between superstars in recent memory.
Needless to say, Curry wouldn’t be leading a comeback in the fourth quarter. Cleveland extended its lead in the opening minutes of the fourth, leading Kerr to wave the white flag with more than five minutes remaining. The Quicken Loans Arena crowd responded to the sharp turn in events by chanting “M-V-P” while James was at the foul line and then “Cavs in 6!” late during garbage time.
“It was all me,” Curry said afterward, owning up to his poor play. “They were playing aggressive defense and they came out with a big punch. I didn’t do anything about it or play my game, and for me to do what I need to do to help my team, I have to play a hundred times better than that.”
Curry’s mental lapses on defense aided Irving’s strong night. Cleveland’s point guard scored 16 of his 30 points in the first period, shaking free from Curry on a simple back cut and losing him completely with a series of crossovers at the top of the key.
“We weren’t ready to play,” Kerr said. “Obviously they just punched us right in the mouth right in the beginning. We’re turning the ball over like crazy. Soft, we were extremely soft to start the game.”
Kerr wasn’t done, calling out Curry specifically for his defensive mistake on Irving’s cut before adding that his point guard “wasn’t his usual self” and he “just didn’t play well.” To cap it off, the second-year coach used the word “soft” four additional times to describe his team’s performance.
The LeBron James vs. Stephen Curry rivalry through the years
LeBron James vs. Steph Curry
Although he wasn’t irate in front of the cameras, Kerr had to be mystified by the fact that his team just spent two full days acknowledging its poor play in Game 3s in this postseason, only to turn in its worst showing yet. He also has to know Curry’s lack of readiness sent this game down an ugly path that saw Golden State trail 30–10 in the first quarter.
“We don’t get paid to show up and shoot baskets every day,” Kerr said, after watching his team lose by 30 points one game after it won by 33. “We get paid because we’re going to get a lot of criticism, and we deserve it tonight.”
Among the many obvious contrasts between Curry and James—their positions, their physiques, their styles of play—is how much wider the margin of error is for Curry thanks to the Warriors’ depth and talent.
During his absences with ankle and knee injuries, the Warriors won with elite, consistent defense and with strong play from Green and Klay Thompson. In Game 6 against the Thunder, Thompson swooped in to save the day. In Game 1 against Cleveland, he played poorly and Golden State’s bench led the way. In Game 2, he got into foul trouble, and Golden State’s commitment to ball movement and excellent team defense made him a footnote.
Curry might clearly have more help than James—Cleveland’s bench didn’t score a single point in the first three quarters—but he’s reached the point in this series where it’s time for him to do his part.
“I’ve just got to be aggressive and play better, and be more assertive in my scoring positions and my playmaking positions on the floor,” Curry said. “There’s a sense of urgency knowing how big Game 4 is, and I need to be ready.”
Incidentally, Curry was in a similar spot in last year’s Finals, and he responded to the pressure by helping lead Golden State to three straight wins to finish off his championship.
But James, with his dunk and his block, was there to offer a simple reminder: Last year was last year, and Curry will need to deliver all over again.