LeBron James knows that when Kevin Durant shoots, he falls forward. So when Durant barreled up the court with the Warriors down by two and time running out in Game 3, James didn’t want to commit a foul on a 3-point shooter. Staying in his spot, he raised his hands and contested.
It didn’t matter.
In a fashion eerily reminiscent of the Cavaliers‘ Game 7 upset of a year ago, Golden State scored the final 11 points of Game 3 to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, with Durant scoring the eventual go-ahead field goal, capping his 14-point fourth quarter.
After escaping a 3-1 hole in 2016, Cleveland will need to one-up themselves following the Warriors 118-113 comeback win Wednesday.
After all, it’s highly unlikely this Warriors team blows another 3-1 lead in this year’s NBA Finals. In fact, they’re on the brink of the flip side of history — one win away from sweeping the Cavaliers and going an unprecedented 16-0 in the playoffs.
Their hero? None other than Durant, the guy they brought in to exorcise their 3-1 demons.
Trailing by one with just over 45 seconds left to play, Durant drained the pull-up three over James to give the Warriors a 114-113 lead.
James called the shot a “bomb.” Kyrie Irving said it was a shot that “only Kevin Durant can hit.” As for Durant, he had no doubt he was going to hoist.
“I see [James] backing up. I knew I wanted to take that shot.”
Klay Thompson added:
“We’re confident in him taking that shot every time.”
Durant finished with 31 points, combining with Thompson (30 points) and Stephen Curry (26) to offset monster games from James (39) and Irving (38). Irving said, before this season he couldn’t have envision LeBron and himself having their respective performances and the Cavaliers still losing.
But, things weren’t what anyone would have expected. After all, this isn’t just any team. James said:
“It’s probably the most firepower I’ve played in my career. I played against some great teams, but I don’t think no team has had this type of firepower. So even when you’re playing well, you’ve got to play A-plus-plus-plus.”
Perhaps this was the best the Cavaliers could muster, with the home crowd roaring, the pace playing to their favor and the team holding serve for 46 minutes.
Unlike the first two games of the series, this one was close throughout. The Warriors held the lead for the majority of the first half, but never pulled away. That allowed the Cavaliers to make their move in the third quarter, outscoring the Warriors 33-22 to take a five-point lead into the fourth.
They went on a 10-0 run near the start of the second half, with a Kevin Love 3-pointer giving them a 71-69 lead, their first later after the opening quarter in the series.
With the pace slowing after a frenetic first half, the Cavaliers took advantage while the Warriors went cold offensively.
The Cavaliers led 94-89 heading into the fourth as the game further tightened. Irving and James took over for the Cavaliers, although the Warriors withstood the double-pronged attack.
Durant dropped a tear drop from the baseline to cut the deficit to 113-111 with just over a minute to play. After Kyle Korver missed a three, Durant then calmly dribbled up court, stepping into the go-ahead three giving the Warriors the lead.
Irving was short on a three at the other end. His Cavs, reeling from the circumstances, missed their chance to intentionally foul Draymond Green — a career 70-percent free throw shooter — with 20 seconds left, instead wrapping up Durant — an 88-percent shooter from the line. He dropped both for a three-point lead.
Andre Iguodala, with the latest of his bordering miraculous defensive plays, stripped James’ game-tying 3-point attempt to conclude matters, with a pair of Curry free throws serving as house cleaning.
And, with that, it became apparent that even the best of Cleveland’s efforts would not be enough. Because, not only is this Warriors team loaded but it also has plenty of experience — good and bad — on the big stage. Steve Kerr said:
“You win a championship, then you lose one in heartbreaking fashion. You’ve pretty much seen everything at that point.”
Curry said the team did not panic, tapping into that experience, even during the fourth quarter stretch when the game seemed to be slipping away. He described the mood as peaceful. Of course, it helps to have Durant on the team.
Kerr said that it was, plain and simple, K.D.’s time:
“He knows this is his moment. He’s been an amazing player in this league for a long time, and I think he senses this is his time, his moment, his team.”
Early on, it seemed as if the Warriors were just one or two runs away from breaking the game open.
James said before Game 3 that he didn’t think the Cavaliers needed to slow the pace to slow down the Warriors, and indeed, the pace remained fast right off the bat.
Typically, that gives the edge to the Warriors, and they punished the Cavaliers by draining a Finals-record nine 3-pointers in the first quarter, making seven of their first nine attempts. They also assisted on 13 of their baskets, matching a franchise playoff record.
Thompson, who awoke from his postseason slumber with 22 points in Game 2, put in 16 points in the first quarter and 21 in the first half. He attributed his performance to being patient and making a few early shots:
“Whenever you make your first couple, you feel good … I’m going to carry this momentum into Friday.”
It offset a monster first half by James, whose 27 points kept Cleveland in the game. That, and some undisciplined play from the Warriors, who handed the Cavaliers 12 turnovers and committed 14 fouls.
But the Warriors made a few spurts – a 10-0 run in the first quarter and a late push in the second — to maintain a 67-61 lead at halftime.
And when it came down to crunch time, the Warriors cleaned up their act. They may have turned the ball over 18 times overall, but none of those came in the final six minutes of the game.
“The biggest thing we did down the stretch … we didn’t turn the ball over. Make or miss, you can’t allow that momentum to swing back.”
The momentum was never really fully on their side until the final minute. Now, they have all the momentum, and could be less than 48 hours away from another championship — and history.
Although Durant, who hasn’t been this close to a championship in his career, said he appreciates the situation, he’s not taking it for granted:
“I don’t want to relax. It’s not over. I don’t want to relax and feel like it’s over. It’s not.”
After last year’s collapse, his teammates would probably agree that being one game away means nothing until the fourth game is won.
The Warriors will go for the sweep and the championship on Friday in Game 4 at Quicken Loans Arena. Like Game 3, the ball will be tipped at 6 p.m.
The Warriors have won their last three Game 3s. Prior to this postseason, they had lost Game 3 in five straight playoff series. … Durant became the third player in league history after Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal to score at least 25 points in each of his first seven Finals games. … Curry made his 28th consecutive free throw, the longest in his playoff career. … Green picked up a technical foul in the second quarter; that, along with his five personal fouls came much to the delight of the Cleveland crowd.