If you believe LeBron James, the Cleveland Cavaliers are very much alive in the NBA Finals.
He declared beforehand that Game 3 was “do or die,” so the Cavaliers clearly chose the “do” option in a blistering, out-of-nowhere 120-90 victory Wednesday over the Golden State Warriors.
Cleveland started out stunningly well, storming to a 20-point first-quarter lead and resurrecting a moribund series by closing within 2-1.
No NBA team has rallied from a 3-0 deficit to win a series, something Cleveland won’t have to worry about now. Game 4 is Friday, also at Quicken Loans Arena.
If losing by 33 in Game 2 wasn’t enough of an apparent problem, Cleveland played Game 3 without Kevin Love because of a concussion.
James started at power forward as Cleveland went small, their tallest starter 6-foot-9 Tristan Thompson.
It’s a dangerous proposal to try to match the Warriors’ speed and savvy. It worked Wednesday.
James lived up to the importance he placed on the game, amassing 32 points, 11 rebounds and six assists. Kyrie Irving scored 16 points in the first quarter and finished with 30 points and eight assists. J.R. Smith, who scored eight points in the first two games, broke through with 20.
The Cavaliers looked nothing like the team that rolled over twice at Golden State. There was a detectable glow on offense and a sudden attention to defense.
“You have to be able to have a short mind,” James said while trying to describe the 63-point reversal from Game 2.
Neither Golden State guard played to his All-Star ability. Klay Thompson missed his first five shots and finished with 10 points. Stephen Curry had two points and three fouls at halftime.
“Obviously they just punched us right in the mouth right in the beginning,” Warriors Coach Steve Kerr said. “We’re turning the ball over like crazy. Soft. We were extremely soft to start the game, and then they set the tone with their intensity.”
Most of Curry’s damage came with Cleveland well ahead in the third quarter. He finished with 19 points and six turnovers and “was not his usual self,” Kerr said.
He has yet to have an MVP-type game in the Finals, shooting poorly in Game 1 and getting into foul trouble in Game 2. In Game 3, it was a little of both.
“Unfortunately, it was all me,” Curry said. “I have to play a hundred times better than that, especially in the first quarter, to kind of control the game, and I didn’t do it.”
Kerr tried to sound optimistic about him before tipoff.
“Sometimes it’s just the law of averages. He rarely goes more than a game or two where he struggles with his outside shot,” Kerr said. “Chances are pretty good he’s going to have a good game. Just like the chances are pretty good LeBron’s going to have a good game.”
Kerr was only half right.
James hit the ignite button plenty of times on drives to the basket and was also effective from the outside, particularly in the third quarter when he hit a variety just inside the arc to keep Golden State at bay.
Thompson was active at center for Cleveland (14 points, 13 rebounds) while veteran Richard Jefferson had nine points and eight rebounds in Love’s starting spot.
Love wasn’t missed in Game 3. It was unclear if he would play in Game 4.
“He’s frustrated that he’s not able to play. But that’s the [concussion] protocol and that’s how we’re trying to protect our players nowadays in the NBA,” Cleveland Coach Tyronn Lue said beforehand. “So someone else has to step up right now.”
Plenty of someones did for the Cavaliers. Finally.