Published On: Thu, Jun 7th, 2018

LeBron, Cavaliers lament another wasted opportunity in Game 3 loss

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CLEVELAND – Early in the first quarter of Game 3, it appeared as though the possibilities were endless for a Cavaliers team prepared to defend home court and trim its NBA Finals deficit.

Less than three minutes into the game, with the Cavaliers already ahead by six points, LeBron James had the ball at the top of the circle. He dribbled past JaVale McGee, saw an opening to the basket, and threw an alley-oop off the backboard to himself, whipping the Quicken Loans Arena crowd into a frenzy. The Cavs were trailing the Golden State Warriors 2-0 in the series, but spiritually, in that moment, they were ahead.

And then reality set in.

Against this Warriors team, a brief run in the first quarter can feel euphoric, but the full 48-minute game remains a deflating experience. On an evening when Steph Curry – who set an NBA Finals record with nine 3-pointers in Game 2 – shot 3-for-16 from the field and 1-for-10 from three, the Cavaliers relinquished their first-half lead and went on to lose 110-102, a defeat punctuated by another dagger from Kevin Durant.

Afterward, the Cavaliers could only lament the missed opportunity to get back into the series.

“To hold Steph (Curry) to 11 and Klay (Thompson) to 10 … we did a good job in that regard,” said Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue.

But the Warriors can afford an off-night from their All-Star backcourt. Durant scored 43 points, hit 15 of 23 shots, and put on an offensive clinic that effectively wrapped up the series.

“I just think the margin of error against them is so little,” Kevin Love said.

Last year, on the same court – and from almost the same spot on the floor – Durant hit a 3-pointer that sealed Game 3 of The Finals, putting the Warriors up 3-0.

“You guys asked me this last year, what was the difference between the Warriors the previous year and this year,” LeBron James said. “And what was my answer? Kevin Durant was my answer.”

The addition of Durant has completely swung the matchup in Golden State’s favor; the Warriors are 7-1 against the Cavaliers in eight Finals games since signing the superstar forward away from the Oklahoma City Thunder.

“That’s the challenge right there,” James said. “That’s why they retooled this team, went out and got (Durant) to where there’s really not much pressure on, you know, I wouldn’t say any of them to score, but if one of them has a bad game, they have three or four guys that can actually pick up the load.”

James, of course, is not in the same position, having dragged a heavily scrutinized supporting cast to The Finals. On Wednesday, Rodney Hood got his first extended minutes since the start of the Eastern Conference finals against the Boston Celtics, and responded with 15 points on 7-for-11 shooting in 26 minutes.

It was the kind of surprising spark that the Cavaliers have lacked in the playoffs. James twisted his ankle in the first half, laced up his sneakers, and kept playing. He went 47 minutes and racked up 33 points, 10 rebounds, and 11 assists – another sensational showing that will wind up a footnote to a series dominated by his opponents.

James compared playing the Warriors to facing the New England Patriots.

“You can’t have mistakes,” he said. “They’re not going to beat themselves.”

The Warriors also remind James of another team he’s faced throughout his career: the San Antonio Spurs, who beat him in his first Finals appearance in 2007 and again in 2014. The 2014 series, James’ last season with the Miami Heat, was fresh on his mind after Wednesday’s loss.

“You just knew that like every possession we were playing San Antonio when I was in Miami,” James said, “you just knew if you made a mistake, Manu (Ginobili), Tim (Duncan), Tony (Parker), (Gregg Popovich) will make you pay … You could never relax.”

The Warriors are putting that kind of pressure on James. The Cavs were close in Game 1. They had a chance in Game 3. Now they’re looking up at the scoreboard, having lost three straight games to the Warriors. All the great teams leave their inferior opponents playing a game of what-ifs afterward.

Love, asked whether he’d considered how the series would be different with Kyrie Irving, said it’s “only natural” to wonder.

“Especially looking at (J.R. Smith) and Tristan (Thompson) and LeBron and myself and the guys that have come and gone from our 2016 team and what we were able to do to overcome the 3-1 deficit, and how we were able to win those games,” Love said.

The Cavaliers who won the 2016 title aren’t together anymore. Cleveland traded Irving, and the Warriors added Durant. The rivalry has grown stale as the divide between the two teams has widened, and Wednesday’s Game 3 put an exclamation mark on that point.

“It’s tough,” James said. “But it’s all part of the competition, which I love and which I continue to lace them up every night.”

There will be one more game Friday for James to lace them up – a game that feels like a formality. And then, the offseason questions begin for a Cavaliers team facing an uncertain future.

Alex Wong is an NBA freelance writer whose work has appeared in GQ, The New Yorker, Vice Sports, and Complex, among other publications.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

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