A year ago, when the Cavs were down 3-1, it took them getting everything from LeBron James and Kyrie Irving to bring Cleveland back. In Game 5, they combined for 64 points. In Game 6, they combined for 82 points. And in Game 7, they combined for 53 points and pulled off the two most important plays in franchise history. Anything less, and maybe the Cavs don’t win.
On Wednesday, with Cleveland down 2-0 for the second straight year, they Cavs again got everything from the two players driving their team forward. James, again at or near his peak, scored 39 points, pulled down 11 boards and dished out nine assists. Aside from the brief respites Tyronn Lue gave him where Golden State dominated, LeBron was everywhere. Two minutes was too long for LeBron to sit.
Irving had the type of performance the Cavs have needed from him, the type he hadn’t yet had in the Finals. His defensive miscues and an 0-7 mark from three aside, Irving played the best game he possibly could. 38 points, including 16 in the third when Cleveland took control, is the type of night from Irving that won the Cavs a title last year.
A year ago, 77 points combined from James and Irving wins the Cavs a game. This year, it only delayed disappointment. To date, a 118-113 loss to the Warriors’ is the Cavs’ best case scenario.
“It's The Finals,” Irving said after the game. “We had our horses in. Myself and Bron, eclipsed the 43-minute mark, playing pretty well, then they made some big-time plays down the stretch. They're a juggernaut of a team, do a great job of spacing out the floor, keeping a high tempo, and just made some big-time plays down the stretch. You got to give credit when credit is due.”
With 1:24 to play in the fourth, and with almost everything breaking right in the second half, the Cavs were up four. Nine seconds later, a Durant made cuts the lead to two. 30 seconds later, with 45.3 to go, Durant hit a three over James to put the Warriors up for good. Fourteen minutes of leading the game meant nothing.
For the Cavs, Durant’s make could have been just a brief setback. What James and Irving do is get buckets late with the game on the line and win Cleveland games. The Cavs went to Irving, who was guarded by Klay Thompson just like he was on Christmas Day when Irving hit a game winner on the very same court. Only this time, he missed short. It took the Cavs 13 seconds to foul — 12.5 seconds too long — and send Durant to the line where he iced the game.
Cleveland might as well have lost, and gone down 3-0, the moment Irving’s shot hit the front of the rim. For the crowd, silenced by Durant’s make, it may have already been over. By the time Steph Curry took the final two free throws of the game, most of the arena headed out to the exit.
Maybe Irving dribbled away too much of the clock and forced himself into a bad shot. Maybe, like LeBron, he was tired. Or maybe he should have attacked the rim instead of taking a fadeaway jumper. But what Irving does is make tough shots like the one he took. That he took at the end of the Game 3 wasn’t much different than the one he made in Game 7 last year or over Thompson on Christmas Day.
“[I was] trying to make him get off the three-point line and make him finish over the top of me either at the rim or mid-range,” Thompson said after the game. “I think I play with great length, and Kyrie's been hot all night, and I think that I just did a good job of not falling for any of his moves, because he's real shifty, and just stayed in front of him, and luckily he missed the shot.”
This is also a different Warriors team than the one the Cavs beat last year. Curry is healthy. Draymond Green won’t be suspended if he happens to hit LeBron below the belt. And, yes, they added Durant to a team that won 73 games last year.
“I said it after we won the Eastern Conference Finals that we're getting ready for a juggernaut,” James said. “It's probably the most, 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.”
The Irving and James partnership isn’t perfect. James has certainly carried the Cavs to this point with Irving having an underwhelming playoffs. And until Wednesday, at no point during this postseason run have Irving and James been clicking at the same they were during last year’s Finals. And maybe, if the Cavs shoot better than 12-44 from three in Game 3, we’re having a different conversation.
But last year, James and Irving was enough. This year, the Cavs got the LeBron and Kyrie night they needed when they needed it most, and it was almost enough again. But with Durant there, it wasn’t and probably won’t be. 3-0 isn’t the new 3-1.