CLEVELAND -- The numbers right now are staggering. Of the 154 minutes played in these Finals, LeBron James has been on the court for 142 of them. Of the 291 points the Cavaliers have scored, LeBron has been scored, assisted or created 200 of them. That last number came from Synergy Sports Tech, the company that has redefined the way we consume basketball at all levels by blending scouting video cut-ups with analytics.
LeBron is a player for the modern age. We can debate his standing among the all-time greats from now to the end of eternity, but websites like Synergy have helped us understand his impact on a more thorough level than the folklore that defined the greats of previous generations. It's through sites like Synergy that we came to appreciate and codify LeBron's efficiency as a basketball player, which has been a hallmark of his run this decade. These Finals have been about many things, but efficiency ain't one of them.
James took 34 shots in Game 3 and missed 20 of them. That's roughly in line with the rest of his shooting performances this series. Through three games, he's attempted 106 shots and made only 43 of them. Truth be told, he doesn't like playing like this. Volume shooting has never been his thing. His career has been based on making the right basketball plays and not resorting to the kind of isolation hero-ball that was once held in such high regard.
"I mean, I'm not okay with it," James said. "I'm not okay with it, but I'm so outside the box right now. I went seven straight seasons with improving my efficiency. But this is a different challenge. I've never played where two All-Stars were out. So, it's a different challenge for myself and it's outside the box, but it's not too far. It's not too far for me to go grab."
Along with those 34 shots, which yielded 40 points, there were 12 rebounds and eight assists. Those last two numbers were also in line with his series averages that now stand at 41 points, 12 rebounds and 8.3 assists per game. That's almost impossible to comprehend, but not, as LeBron said, too far for him to go grab.
After holding off a furious Golden State rally in the fourth quarter to claim a 96-91 victory, LeBron and the Cavs are now two wins away from an improbable championship. That's two wins closer than a lot of people gave them a chance of getting after Kyrie Irving joined Kevin Love on the injured list, but here they are.
"It's just a group that is willing to play as hard as they can to win," Cavs coach David Blatt said. "And when you do that, you can live with any consequence. We may bend sometimes but we haven't broken."
Once again, Cleveland's defense was phenomenal for most of the game. They sucked the life out of the joyful Warriors for three quarters, so much so that Golden State coach Steve Kerr suggested his team had lost its way spiritually at times in Game 3.
"I didn't like our energy," Kerr said. "I didn't like our body language for much of that first three quarters. This is what we have to fight through. Things aren't going our way, it doesn't matter, you've got to fight through. You've got to bring energy. You've got to bring life. You've got to bring some emotion."
Ever since Irving went down with a broken kneecap, the Cavs have been imposing their will on this series. They've slowed the pace to a crawl and suffocated Golden State's offensive brilliance by pounding the offensive glass and lengthening possessions. They've made everything hard, which is a lot easier in theory than it is in practice. Many have tried, notably the Memphis Grizzlies in the second round, but no one so far has succeeded in ultimately denying the Warriors of playing their version of the beautiful game.
Like the Cavs, the Grizz took a 2-1 series lead into a Game 4 on their home floor. The Warriors adjusted in ways both unorthodox (having center Andrew Bogut guard Tony Allen) and conventional to their true selves (by playing ultra-small and even faster.) The parallels are striking, but the Grizzlies didn't have LeBron James.
The Warriors, it must be said, do not lack for confidence. They have an unshakable belief that once they get themselves going they'll be themselves again, and they may be right. You don't win 67 games and blitz through the West without having something special to work with, and they all feel like they haven't even come close to playing their best basketball yet. LeBron or no LeBron, they still feel like this is more about what they're doing wrong, then what the Cavs are doing to them.
"We all know the accolades he has," Stephen Curry said of LeBron. "He's a great player. He's shooting an okay percentage in our eyes. He's getting up a lot of attempts, and anybody that's that much of a volume shooter when he needs to be for his team, he's going to have points. The timely ones are the ones that killed us. The three late in the fourth quarter, certain easy buckets that you allow him to get. But that's not the issue why we're down 2-1. It's the way we're playing on the offensive end, especially to start games. We'll fix that and try to even the series."
Out of desperation, the Warriors may have found something late in Game 3 that could unlock this series in their favor. Kerr brought David Lee off the bench for the first time in the series and had him work off Curry in the pick-and-roll. That presented a serious problem for the Cavs' defense in that Lee has made a career out of slipping and scoring off those sets. Lee scored 11 points in just over 13 minutes and helped Curry finally break free in a 27-point performance that included 17 in the fourth quarter on 6-for-9 shooting.
"I think I found something when it comes to how I'm going to be able to attack their pick-and-rolls and even certain ISO (isolation) situations," Curry said.
The trade-off for utilizing Lee is on the defensive end where the Cavs attacked him in pick-and-roll situations. Lee is a fantastic scorer and rebounder, but he lacks the positional versatility that has keyed Golden State's defense. It's a situation that even Lee acknowledged.
"No doubt. It's a tradeoff going smaller like that," Lee said. "Offensively I think we can hurt them in the pick-and-roll spreading the floor, especially with Draymond (Green) being a fourth shooter out there. Defensively, the biggest task is keeping those guys off the glass."
For as much build-up and anticipation as Game 3 brought, Game 4 will be even bigger. It's always the pivot point in any series. If the Warriors are able to get out of here with a split, they will have once again reached equilibrium. If not, they'll be battling for their continued existence with no more margin for error.
The Cavs are in this position because James has been so omnipresent and because their defense has been so good. The Warriors are down 2-1 because they haven't been able to withstand LeBron at crucial moments, nor have they played their game yet. They've also been outworked, out-hustled and out-maneuvered.
All that can change in an instant. Like Games 1 and 2, it almost did in the hectic frenzy of the fourth quarter. A shot here and a play there and this series looks completely different in so many different contexts. Through three games and two overtimes, the Warriors have outscored Cleveland by a single point. The line between these two teams is that minuscule and the gulf is only as wide as a single game.
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