After Game 3, the numbers still look pretty good. James had 39 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists in more than 45 minutes Wednesday night, and the Cavaliers were seven points better than the Golden State Warriors when James was on the court.
The final result, however, still looked the same. James and the Cavaliers found themselves losers for a third straight game, falling 118-113 to move to within one more loss of seeing their hopes of a second straight title vanish. And it’s hard not to look at fatigue — particularly in the final minutes, as the Warriors closed the game with an 11-0 run over the last 3:09 — playing a part in Cleveland’s defeat.
“We just felt like the way they play, Kyrie [Irving] and LeBron had it going the whole game, but that’s pretty taxing to go one-on-one the whole game,” Warriors Coach Steve Kerr said. “Both those guys were amazing, 38 and 39 [points].
“But that takes a lot out of you. We just kept telling the guys, they’re going to get tired. 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.”
A look at the numbers during those closing minutes confirms that it’s hard to argue with Kerr’s analysis. Here are the statistical profiles for each team after James hit J.R. Smith for a three-pointer to give Cleveland a 113-107 lead with 3:09 remaining:
- Golden State: 11 points, 3-for-4 from the floor, 1-for-2 from three, 4-for-4 from the foul line, no turnovers.
- Cleveland: 0 points, 0-for-8 from the floor, 0-for-5 from three, no foul shots, one turnover.
When asked after the game if fatigue played a part, James again declined to say so.
“No, only missed shots,” James said. “We missed shots. I gave everything that I had, so at times throughout the game I was tired, but that’s just because I was just playing as hard as I could. But I was able to get second and third and fourth winds.
“I don’t attribute us losing this game because we got tired. We missed some shots, and they made some.”
That’s true, but look at the box score and how the minutes were distributed. It’s hard not to make a correlation to the Warriors taking over down the stretch. James went 11-for-14 from the floor in the first half, but just 4-for-13 in the second, and went from scoring 27 points in the first half to 12 in the second.
That falls into a familiar refrain with the other games of this series, as the Cavaliers have stayed close in the first half, only to fall behind as the game wears on. This time they were able to keep up longer because Irving had a tremendous game as well. But as great as both men were, they made mental mistakes in the game’s final minutes.
Meanwhile, the Warriors didn’t have anyone play even 41 minutes, allowing all of their players to be fresher and make the plays that they needed to win the game late.
Yet it’s hard to argue with how Cleveland managed the game. When James checked out for the final 1:49 of the first, Golden State promptly went on a 10-0 run to close the quarter out. It was clear that, no matter how tired he got, Cleveland was going to need James on the court for the duration to have any chance of winning.
And, outside of about 35 seconds at the end of the third quarter, he was.
“I don’t know,” Cavaliers Coach Tyronn Lue said when asked if James and Irving were exhausted in the final minutes. “Great players, they always dig deep and have their will to win, and they gave us everything they had. Durant made [seven] straight points that was very critical, three big shots, and that’s why they brought him here, for those situations.
“I thought our team scrapped and competed. I can’t be disappointed with the effort and how we played, but they made the plays down the stretch that we didn’t execute defensively or offensively, and they took advantage of it.”
That’s the thing about the Warriors: When they are on their game, it takes a near-perfect effort to beat them. James and Irving combined for 77 points, and both shot over 50 percent from the floor. But in those final minutes, the Cavaliers — including their stars — made just enough mistakes to open the door for the Warriors.
When Golden State was given that opening, Durant and the Warriors took full advantage of it in a way few — if any — teams ever could.
“Yeah, I mean, before the series even started we knew what we was dealing with,” James said. “I said it after we won the Eastern Conference finals that we’re getting ready for a juggernaut. 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.
“So even when you’re playing well, you got to play like A-plus-plus, because they’re going to make runs and they’re going to make shots and they got guys that’s going to make plays. So we made enough plays tonight to still win the ballgame, but they made a couple more.”
There’s little doubt the odds are stacked against James in this series. He remains the undisputed best player in the world, but Golden State has the four other best players in this series. That’s the benefit to having four of the top 15 players in the NBA — not to mention two of the best three or four in Stephen Curry and Durant.
But that still doesn’t change the fact that, with 3:09 remaining, Cleveland held a 113-107 lead, and looked to be on its way to cutting Golden State’s lead in this series in half.
Then, whether it was fatigue or not, things fell apart for James and the Cavaliers. And, because of it, this series — and, by extension, their season — is on the verge of being over.