CLEVELAND — We were three minutes away from a series. Just three minutes to make a play, hit a shot, get a stop. Three minutes that will linger for the Cavaliers well into the summer when this is all over and there’s time to digest what might have been.
After all we had been through to this point and to reduce it all to one sequence or one look is unfair, but then, that’s the game. With the Cavs clinging to a two-point lead over the Warriors and less than a minute to play, LeBron James found Kyle Korver in the corner in front of the Cleveland bench. It’s a shot Korver had made countless times in his 14-year career and it’s the shot he was brought here to make.
“I had a great look in the corner that I still can’t believe didn’t go down,” Korver said. “I thought it was in.”
There was barely any time for regret as Korver’s shot hit off the side of the rim and Kevin Durant gathered the rebound. Within seconds, KD brought the ball down the floor and let it fire from 24 feet. As Kyrie Irving said later, it was the kind of shot that only Durant can make. The lead, the series, and in all likelihood the Cavaliers’ season was gone.
There were still two chances to answer, but Irving missed a step-back three and James misfired on his own attempt. They could have done a half-dozen things differently in those last few minutes, but for Korver it kept coming back to the same thing. “All I’m thinking about was my shot in the corner,” he said.
The Warriors made their free throws and in those three minutes, they had gone from down six to up five with an 11-0 run that silenced the crowd and brought them to the brink of an unprecedented playoff sweep.
“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 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 got to play like A plus-plus.”
With their 118-113 victory, the Warriors are not only one win away from redemption, but one step closer to completing an incredible sweep through the postseason. And for Durant, it was a finish that brought his entire decision to team up with the Warriors into focus. The game was in his hands and he took it, forcefully.
“You can tell, he knows this is his moment,” Steve Kerr said. “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. When I say his team, I mean it's not literally just his team. We (have) a group around him that can help him and create space for him with the shooting and the playmaking, and I think he's having the time of his life out there.”
It was Durant’s moment, but it was Cleveland’s game right up until the time when it wasn’t. The Cavs didn’t play a perfect game by any means, but they matched Golden State’s barrage with phenomenal individual displays from James and Irving.
Kyrie was spectacular, turning twisting layups into works of art. LeBron played all but two minutes and 23 seconds, scoring 39 points along with 11 rebounds and nine assists. But in those two minutes and 23 seconds, the Cavs were minus-12. They needed superhuman efforts from their stars and they still weren’t enough. What more do they have to do to beat this team?
“For me personally, I gave everything I had tonight,” James said. “So win, lose, or draw, you live with the results.”
The Cavs didn’t want to talk about fatigue and they weren’t about to make excuses, but it was evident throughout the second half that the pace of the game, and the series, was taking its toll.
Aside from the third quarter when Cleveland slowed the tempo and took the lead, the games have been played at breakneck speed. The Cavs burned through timeouts in an effort to buy rest and it caught up to them, resulting in hectic possessions and forced shots down the stretch.
“We just kept telling the guys, they're going to get tired,” Kerr said. “Stay in front of them. Force them into outside shots, if you can. Fatigue will play a role. And I think when you get guys playing 45, 44 minutes, basically attacking one-on-one the whole game, it's — you hope eventually it's going to take its toll. I wasn't sure after awhile, they just were going nuts. But I think that we just stayed with it, and our defense finally kicked in.”
The Warriors have always thrived in chaos, but the Cavs have been determined to meet them on their terms. That was their approach during last year’s Finals, as well, and while everyone scoffed at their audacity at the time, it paid off in the end. This year is different, obviously, given Durant’s presence on the other side. But give the Cavs LeBron and Kyrie attacking and they’ll take their chances.
“We’ve seen them do it many times before,” Korver said. “Those are two incredible competitors. That’s what they want. That’s the way they want to play and that’s when we’re at our best. I don’t think being tired is any kind of an excuse in the Finals.”
It’s not. This is what you have to deal with when you play the Warriors. No one has found an effective counter to their collective firepower, not even the Cavs with LeBron and Kyrie playing as well as they can play.
What we learned in Game 3 was that it takes even more than Cleveland’s considerable star power to dent Golden State’s inevitability. It takes something that no team has been able to provide, not even the defending champs.