- Despite league-wide domination for three straight years, the Warriors are just 5-6 in Game 3s under Steve Kerr. Can the Cavs capitalize on the strange trend?
CLEVELAND — Before the Warriors can turn their attention to completing the first perfect postseason in NBA history and staking their claim as the Greatest Team of All Time, they must stare down an old nemesis: Game 3.
To be sure, the most heartbreaking postseason moments of the Steve Kerr Era came late in the 2016 Finals, when LeBron James took over to lead the Cavaliers to wins in Games 5, 6 and 7. But Cleveland first found life in Game 3 last season, and Game 3s have been a persistent hassle throughout Kerr’s otherwise charmed and dominant three-year tenure.
“We want 15-0,” Kerr said at practice Tuesday. “That's what we want. We literally have never once mentioned 16-0. To me, it's a miracle that it's even a possibility. It's so hard to do. But we are here, we're more focused on what happened last year like in terms of we were up 2-0 and we came here and the series shifted. That's the important lesson, not any historical benchmarks or anything like that.”
Under tenure, Golden State boasts a plus-.500 record in Game 1s, 2s, 4s, 5s and 6s within a playoff series. In Game 7s, the Warriors are .500, beating Oklahoma City in last year’s West finals before falling to Cleveland in the Finals. That leaves Game 3s, where Golden State is just 5-6 despite going 3-0 with Kevin Durant in the fold this year.
Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising. The Warriors have been the home team in all 12 of their postseason series since Kerr’s arrival, meaning they’ve played Game 3 on the road all 12 times. In addition to overcoming their opponent’s home-court advantage, the Warriors have been undone in Game 3s by injuries, shaky execution, poor effort, and overconfidence along the way. They also have worked through match-up and lineup issues to arrive at solutions that have helped them later in series.
“We have a huge hurdle to get over [Wednesday],” said Stephen Curry. “Game 3 has been rough for us historically, and especially in this building. To give ourselves a chance at even coming close to thinking about [going 16-0 this postseason], we need to really, really just lock in … on how hard this 48 minutes is going to be.”
In 2015, Golden State managed just 89 points in a Game 3 loss to Memphis in the second round before making the necessary match-up adjustments to take the series. Later that year, in the 2015 Finals, the Warriors fell to the Cavaliers in Game 3 thanks to 40 points from LeBron James and 20 from Matthew Dellavedova, who was hospitalized with cramps after his breakthrough performance. Golden State would go on to win that series after embracing small ball in Game 4.
Last year was even worse. Without an injured Stephen Curry, the Warriors lost Game 3 to the Rockets in the first round on a James Harden game-winner before breezing through the rest of the series. In the second round against Portland, Golden State gave up 40 points to Damian Lillard in a Game 3 loss. Curry then returned to make his famous “I’m here, I’m back” statement in overtime of Game 4 to swing that series. The wheels really came off in the West finals, when the Warriors were blown off the floor by Durant’s Thunder in a shocking Game 3 that saw Draymond Green play one of the worst games of his career. Golden State eventually recovered from another bad road loss in Game 4 to escape that series in seven.
Finally, Cleveland laid the groundwork for its dramatic championship comeback by running Golden State off the court in Game 3 of the 2016 Finals. With Richard Jefferson inserted into the starting lineup in place of the injured Kevin Love, the Cavaliers raced out to a 19-4 lead and won the first quarter 33-16 en route to a 120-90 victory. That loss made Golden State 0-4 in Game 3s during its 2016 postseason run.
“They just took it to us right from the beginning,” Kerr recalled. “I remember our offense was pushed back to half-court the first few possessions. They set a great tone. I think they went up big right away. We’ve got to be ready for that initial force.”
Needless to say, the Warriors have been sharper in Game 3s this year, going 3-0 against Portland, Utah and San Antonio. While Golden State’s stiffest test this postseason was clearly its narrow Game 1 win over San Antonio in the West Finals—which saw Kawhi Leonard go down with an ankle injury—Game 3s have still been an issue. Golden State has prevailed in Game 3s by 9.7 points, the smallest margin of victory of any of the four games. By comparison, the Warriors have won Game 2s by 23.8 points and Game 4s by 21.7 points.
There have been some moments of tension in this year’s Game 3s. Golden State had to withstand the valiant return of Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic in the first round to take a six-point win, one of only two games this postseason it failed to win by double digits. Durant had to take over down the stretch to kill off the Jazz in the second round. And the Warriors used another strong outing from Durant, including a strong individual stretch in the third quarter, to comfortably overcome a vintage Manu Ginobili performance in the West finals.
To Green, the difference between those victories and possible defeats can be chalked up to improved focus shaped in part by their historic Finals collapse.
“Before [this year] we just hadn't performed well in Game 3,” Green said. “That's probably a sense of complacency. [This year], I think guys are locked in like I've never seen before. [We] understand the task ahead and know that this is going to be the hardest game of the series. If we can come out on top, we put ourselves in a tremendous position. But [the Cavaliers] are down 2-0, coming home, crowd's going to be loud, they're going to give everything they have. We definitely understand that and know that we’ve got to come out ready to fight and just be ready for whatever. They're going to throw everything at us.”
Golden State, up 2-0 after a pair of blowout wins at home, can find positive indicators in all directions. They face no major health issues. Durant and Curry are collectively playing their best basketball of the season. Klay Thompson broke out of a slump in Game 2. Cleveland has yet to find a major match-up advantage aside from James, and numerous role players (J.R. Smith, Tristan Thompson, Kyle Korver, and Jefferson) have yet to make a positive impact on this series.
James, who has hailed Durant’s entry as the difference-making element of this series, wasn’t interested in looking back to the 2016 Finals for guidance.
“I don't remember how I felt last year being down 2-0,” he said. “That's last year and I don't even know the feeling anymore. … My game is being aggressive. My game is getting my guys involved. My game is getting into the paint, shooting some outside shots when they're available. But my game is … not going to change because I'm down 2-0 or up 2-0. It's going to be the same.”
After notching two straight blowout wins over the Cavaliers to open the 2017 NBA Finals, the Golden State Warriors are on the cusp of history once again. This time, they're chasing playoff perfection.
Here’s what the fundamentals of the Warriors’ “Greatest Team of All-Time” case would look like if they take Game 3 on Wednesday night and sweep the Cavaliers in Game 4 on Friday to complete their 16-0 run in this year's playoffs.
• Avenged the worst collapse in NBA Finals history with the most dominant postseason run in history
• First team ever to go undefeated in the postseason
• No. 2 winning percentage of all time, regular season and postseason combined: 83-15 (.847), trailing only 1996 Bulls (87-13, .870)
• One of 13 best records ever (67-15) and best three-year span ever (207-39)
• No. 4 all-time in regular season point differential (+11.6)
• Tied with 1992 Bulls for No. 1 offensive efficiency since 1984 (116.2 rating)
• Best postseason point differential ever (+16.9 currently), previous record is +12.8 by 2001 Lakers
• No. 2 offensive efficiency among NBA champions since 1984 (118.6 currently), trailing only 1987 Lakers (120.3)
• First pair of teammates to post PER above 27 in same postseason (min. 300 minutes): Stephen Curry at 28.1 and Kevin Durant at 27.1 currently
• Boasting two former MVPs, four 2017 All-Stars, three 2017 All-NBA selections
• Eliminated five 2017 All-Stars (Gordon Hayward, Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love) and numerous former All-Stars (including Damian Lillard, Joe Johnson, LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, Manu Ginobili, etc.)