The whole “no lead is safe against the Warriors” statement has become an NBA truism because, well, it’s true. And it was true again in Game 3, with the Cavaliers’ hopes effectively on the line down 2–0 and the odds stacked unfavorably, a double-digit Cleveland lead erased by a sensational Kevin Durant and the fourth quarter boiling down to one possession the entire way. Given the way these Finals appeared to be swinging entering Wednesday night, most Cavs fans would have gladly accepted that scenario, leaving a glimmer of hope against a heavily favored Golden State team with the firepower to turn games on a moment’s notice. And it’s exactly what they did, with Kevin Durant turning a three-point game to six with less than a minute to go and icing a 110–102 Warriors win and commanding series lead.
The Cavaliers gave themselves an opportunity on a night where Steph Curry struggled and Rodney Hood, of all people, stepped up in support of LeBron James. Curry hadn’t even hit a three and was 2-of-15 from the floor before draining a clutch one with 2:38 left in the game. Context meant this could be Cleveland’s final gasp, but it became obvious rather quickly that it was particularly winnable after an aggressive Cavs start and good showings by the supporting cast at home. It was Durant who did his best to step on the Cavaliers’ throats, finishing with 43 points on 23 shots, 13 rebounds and seven assists, seemingly tearing down every Cleveland run with icy buckets of his own. No other Warrior had more than 11 points. If there was any doubting his value to a Golden State team that was great without him, look no further.
After opening up a 14–4 lead in after the first four minutes of the game, the Cavs appeared as confident as they’d looked all postseason — perhaps the entire season, period. J.R. Smith was making shots, Kevin Love was noticeably aggressive on the glass, and for once, LeBron didn’t actually need to do all the lifting (though not to be outdone, he did pull off a nifty alley-oop to himself). Predictably, as is often the case against the Warriors, all that goodwill was erased pretty fast. Due to Durant pouring in an easy 13 points (he didn’t miss once from the field or foul line) and also grabbing all seven of his team’s rebounds, the Cavs led by just one point after the first.
And that was the way it went much of the night, Cleveland making valiant attempts to pull away, James turning in a triple-double (33-12-11), Kevin Love looking sharp and the effort dialed up all over. Tyronn Lue’s decision to mercifully sit Jordan Clarkson in favor of Hood, another of the Cavs’ big midseason acquisitions who had been mysteriously bottled up for the majority of this postseason, paid off. His biggest moment of the playoffs had been refusing to check into a blowout win in Game 4 of the conference semifinals against Toronto, and then apologizing for it, and still not seeing any important minutes. That ended Wednesday, and given the result, Hood’s 15-point performance stands as a somewhat ignominious symbol of Cleveland’s refusal to dust him off much sooner.
If there’s a way to beat these Warriors, it’s with nonstop effort, as Houston showed in the Western Conference finals and Cleveland did early in this one, blitzing physically, fighting for loose balls and dominating the rebounding splits. Curry and Draymond Green got in foul trouble and Klay Thompson never got in the flow of the game. Even with Andre Iguodala back and JaVale McGee handing in 14 inspired minutes, this felt winnable for the Cavs. But Golden State’s third-quarter runs are an NBA tradition, and as Durant stroked three after three, the game began to slip through the margins, the Cavs lacking a final push to seal the deal and James, who played 47 minutes, showing a small degree of wear. Even at home, they were outscored by 14 points in the second half and couldn’t seal it.
The Warriors will now be in position to sweep James out of the playoffs for the first time since 2007—his very first Finals appearance, when the Spurs handed it to a much younger player surrounded by a dismal supporting cast. Between Games 1 and 3, there have been chances for Cleveland. Don’t expect many more.