LeBron James and his teammates finally showed up when it was needed most

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LeBron James
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

With the prospect of a 0-3 series deficit in the NBA Finals looming, the Cleveland Cavaliers issued a major response against the Golden State Warriors on their home floor in Game 3 on Wednesday night as they thwarted the defending champions 120-90, led by LeBron James’ 32-point, 11-rebound and 6-assist performance. 

James’ Herculean effort was undergirded by bounce-back games from both Kyrie Irving and J.R. Smith, as the Cavs starting backcourt combined to score 50 points (30 and 20 respectively), after two consecutive ugly offerings in Oakland. 

Tristan Thompson, who is often vilified for his sizable contract, had a great game that was rather unheralded. Thompson finished with a 14-point, 13-rebound double-double, with seven of those boards coming on offense, nullifying any chance Golden State had to corral the rebound and push the ball for the transition bedlam they oh so crave.

Richard Jefferson (9 points, 8 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals) who replaced the concussed Kevin Love in the Cavs’ starting lineup in Game 3, had a solid all-around game if we’re gauging things by standard statistical measures, but even your typical metrics may understate how profound of an impact he had on Cleveland.

Cleveland Cavaliers, Golden State Warriors, Kyrie Irving
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Jefferson’s insertion into the starting squadron moved James to (what is in my opinion his best position), power forward and also furnished the Cavs with a low-usage, gritty defensive presence which at this point may be an upgrade over Love in this particular series.

It’ll be interesting to see how Tyronn Lue addresses this issue once Love is medically cleared to play. One could deduce that Lue elects to bring Love off the pine, allowing for more post-ups (which he must yearn for) and the ability for Cleveland to run an offense that’s Love-eccentric if James or Irving are to need rest. 

James fared much better at the defensive end at power forward in Game 3 than Love has at any point during this series, and the effects of this were seen through the Warriors’ atrocious offensive performance. 

Golden State shot 42% from the field and 27% from downtown, with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson combining to shoot 10-26 from the floor. The fluidity and crispiness Golden State’s offense was laced with in Game’s 1 & 2 was substituted for staleness and stagnation, as we saw possessions end in isolation plays for Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes and Andre Iguodala on multiple occasions. Plays such as those is what Golden State would like to avoid. 

Cleveland’s energy infused effort was encouraging, and it’ll be interesting to see if this can be sustained. Collectively the Cavs were vivacious, exerting a zest that trumped what they output in the first two games. Where did this jolt come from?

Well according to Chris Haynes of Cleveland.com, an expletive-laced tirade from Cavs coach Phil Handy gave them the inspiration they needed to upend the Warriors in Game 3. 

Assistant coach Phil Handy, who happens to be a native of Oakland, erupted with a profanity-laced tirade, questioning their toughness and the lack of fight they displayed on such a grand stage. The players were shocked. Handy is relatively quiet. In Handy’s outburst that lasted a few minutes, his overall message was clear and to the point: You guys were punked and you did absolutely nothing about it.

That message was candid and straightforward during what was a highly frustrating period, but it was well received.

“He’s an Oakland boy, and we went out to Oakland and got our ass whipped twice,” Cavs forward Richard Jefferson told cleveland.com. “He was pissed off. He has to show up there every day. It means a lot to him, it means a lot to us, and for us to go out there and play the way we did was embarrassing. Look, we personally feel that no team should handle us the way they did the last two games, and it was disrespectful.”

Players said Handy’s rant stayed with them in the days leading up to Wednesday’s Game 3 in Cleveland, and it showed.

A tough tongue-lashing is what the Cavaliers may have needed, or maybe they needed this series to shift scenes back to “The Land.” Whatever the case is, they’ve trimmed the Warriors’ lead to one game, and they’ve temporarily hijacked the momentum. 

Golden State Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers, Stephen Curry, LeBron James
Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

However, Golden State’s confidence won’t waver, and nobody understands this better than James. It’s crucial that Cleveland wields the same mental fortitude in Game 4, or they’ll be heading back to the Bay down 3-1 and the Warriors on the verge of their second straight NBA crown. 

A torrent of criticism rained down upon Cleveland after Game’s 1 and 2, but for a moment all the chatter has hushed. We will marvel at James’ virtuosic performance on Wednesday night until Game 4, and then a topic of discussion will emerge from that game which will supplant what was prevalent today. That’s the beauty of a basketball series: one game at a time. Cleveland passed that first test. The second one on Friday is of equal, if not more importance.

 

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