The Cleveland Cavaliers thrashed the Golden State Warriors in Game 3 of the 2016 NBA Finals because they came out with championship level intensity and purpose while Golden State did not. All other analysis is not invalid or non-important, it's just secondary. It's not that the Cavs wanted it more, it's that Cleveland - down 2-0 after two thrashings of their own in Northern California - needed it more.
The tone was set early by LeBron James and company. Tristan Thompson was all over Andrew Bogut 35 feet from the basket on Cleveland's first defensive possession. James was cutting hard on offense. The Cavs finally played with the pace and purpose that Tyronn Lue has been begging for.
Pace has two definitions in basketball. The most commonly used refers to how many possessions a team has in a game, or how fast they get up and down the court. The latter is essentially synonymous with purpose. Is a player moving because he's supposed to be moving or is he moving like he has somewhere to go?
Put another, more visual way - pace can be both horizontal and vertical. Vertical pace is how quickly a team gets up and down the floor. Horizontal pace refers to how fast they move across it as they run their offense. For the first time all series, the Cavs played with horizontal pace last night and the results were stunning.
The results were a tempo that created rhythm shots for players who hadn't been heard of since the Cavaliers dispatched Toronto in the Eastern Conference Finals. JR Smith was magnificent. Thompson was able to take advantage of a scrambling Golden State defense to own the offensive glass. Kyrie Irving, who had put up decent numbers but really hadn't played well, was arguably the best player on the floor.
Golden State had nothing in response. They played like a team that had already accomplished something. That is, after all, human nature.
It's no secret that the Warriors wanted Cleveland. They wanted to shut everyone up that said they won the title last year because of Cleveland's injuries. They also loved the matchup and were talking behind the scenes (which we know thanks to reporting from many people. I first heard it from ESPN's Zach Lowe.) about how confident they were that Cleveland couldn't play with them.
This is still true. My podcast from Tuesday still holds true. This is still the best team ever. They're still winning this series. They're just not going to sweep, but I would've been surprised if they did so for this very reason. Cleveland's good and they weren't going to lay down, and Golden State is made up of human beings who have human flaws like human nature. The Warriors relaxed and they got smoked because of it.
All of this doesn't mean there aren't other interesting things to discuss, they're all just secondary to the fact that Cleveland played their socks off and Golden State didn't match. The most interesting of the "next things" is what role Kevin Love plays moving forward.
Q. If Kevin is able to go in Game 4, how would you expect to use him?
TYRONN LUE: Do I have to tell you?
Q. That's up to you.
TYRONN LUE: I'm not going to tell you."
Nor should he, however it should be fairly obvious after the performance his team put on that Love should come off the bench if he's cleared to play in Game 4. It's impossible to describe how much easier it is to get away with one bad defender (Kyrie Irving, who wasn't actually bad in Game 3) as opposed to two, especially against Golden State. Richard Jefferson, despite being 178 years old, moves the ball well offensively and is satisfactory as a defender. The Cavs don't really need a third scorer with their starting unit and Jefferson fits perfectly.
Love can be useful off the bench to run offense through while James and/or Irving are resting. He can still play significant minutes, but there's no real reason to start him. This becomes even more logical if Golden State changes their starting lineup.
Andrew Bogut was impactful in the first two games of this series, but there's no doubt that Golden State is at its best when it goes small with Draymond Green at center. Starting Andre Iguodala just makes too much sense for the same reason it made sense to do it for Game 7 in the last series and in last year's finals. Iguodala is the team's best defender and in order to maximize his time on the other team's best player (LeBron, the world's best player) he needs to start. The margins are too small. Every possession counts. I'd be slightly surprised if Kerr doesn't make that change in Game 4, however he wouldn't tip his hand either.
Q. Steve, I have two quickies: Curry came on late, but he got off to a really slow start. What was going on with him, if you understand it? And the second, would you consider making changes in your starting lineup for the next game? I know you always do, will you do it more?
STEVE KERR: Wow. We just lost one game.
Q. I'm sorry.
STEVE KERR: Change the starting lineup?
We weren't ready to play. 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, and then they set the tone with their intensity. I think it was 9-0, and we had to call timeout. Steph got beat back door, couple turnovers. Just a horrible way to start, but even then we fought back in. We were down 8 at the half right there. But it's going to take more than an effort like that to win a Finals game against a great team, obviously.
He's right in that they got their tail kicked, but that doesn't mean he can't make a change. This also leads directly into the Steph Curry problem.
First and foremost, it's not as bad as some people are making it out to be. He certainly hasn't been bad for two straight finals and anyone who says that should be slapped in the face with a stat sheet. He had a so-so start last year, including a really poor Game 2 (19 pts on 5-23 shooting), before averaging 27 ppg on 49% shooting (47% 3pt) for the final four games of the series. He wasn't probably second to Iguodala for Finals MVP.
This year started with a poor Game 1 in which he had only 11 points, but did have 6 assists and 5 rebounds. Game 2 was very solid with 18 points in just under 25 minutes. Last night was...well...interesting.
The two-time MVP finished with 19 points on 6-13 from the field. He took (and made) his first four free throws of the series. He was absolute garbage in the first half, having little to no impact on the game. That said, his 3rd quarter was very solid, scoring 13 of his 19 points. There are two problems plaguing Curry that he needs to fix or Cleveland's going to get back in this thing for real.
First, he's got to stop turning the ball over. Even in Game 2, he had four turnovers. He's averaging five per game in the series so far, a rate that would've led the league during the regular season (James Harden had a league worst 4.6 TOPG).
Second, Curry's got to freaking shoot. He can't make shots if he doesn't take them and Curry's attempts are far below his average in this series. That's a major credit to the Cavs, who have paid him extraordinary attention (sometimes to a fault), but after three games it's time to figure it out.
Curry's 15 shots in Game 1 are the most he's attempted in these finals. Since returning from injury against Portland, 15 shots was the fewest he'd taken in a game until The Finals started. Normally he attempts in the low 20's, which is exactly where Golden State needs him to be.
The Cavs are doing a good job sticking with Curry through the plethora of screens he weaves through on any given possession, and they've done a good job tracking him in transition. It's clearly a point of emphasis because it should be. He's only the greatest shooter who has ever lived.
That might mean the Warriors simplify a bit and let the fact that Curry's ball handling can also get him shots. Instead of weaving him through a half-dozen screens, just let him come up and attack Kyrie Irving off the dribble. They could also run some pick and rolls with he and Draymond Green or whoever they want to try and draw a switch with. Perhaps some pick and roll with Klay Thompson is in order, putting the Cavs guards in positions they're not accustomed to being in guarding a screener.
There are options and the Warriors staff is way smarter than me. They'll figure it out. Curry is also an extremely high IQ player who knows what he has to do. He talked repeatedly in his post-game presser about assertiveness and aggressiveness, especially early. I'm kinda expecting a big Game 4 from him.
The other mega star in this series was validated last night. Everyone wanted LeBron to come out in takeover mode, score 40 and completely dominate the game while wearing a superhero cape and saving children from burning buildings. He merely scored 32, had 11 rebounds and dominated large stretches of the game.
James knows that the only way his team has a chance is if everyone on his team is playing well. Him dominating the ball might lead to closer losses, but it ensures that they will be losses. The Cavaliers came out on fire, playing team ball and the result was a 30 point win.
Will this happen if Golden State matches their intensity? No, but I sure hope we get to find out what that result is in Game 4. Cleveland shouldn't relax, knowing they have to hold home court. Golden State will be sharp knowing the difference between 3-1 and 2-2 is massive with a chance to go home and close it out if they can leave Cleveland victorious.
Game 4 could be the game we've all been waiting for. Step 1 of course will be intensity.