CLEVELAND — Playing the role of LeBron James on Wednesday night was Kevin Durant.
In a game in which Durant was forced to shoulder much of the scoring load because his teammates couldn’t shoot, and LeBron James was his usual self but got major contributions from the guys who had done very little in Oakland, it was the Golden State Warriors who outlasted the Cleveland Cavaliers by a 110-102 score.
Durant hit an absurdly long three-pointer with less than a minute left to give Golden State a six-point lead, part of his 43-point, 13-rebound performance. It was eerily reminiscent of the three-point bomb he hit in the face of James in Game 3 of last year’s NBA Finals which, like this one, gave the Warriors a daunting 3-0 series lead.
Steph Curry missed his first nine three-point attempts, but hit a big one late, and finished with just 11 points. No one else other than Durant had more than 10 points for the Warriors.
James, meanwhile, had 33 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds. He got 10 points from Kevin Love and a surprise 15 from Rodney Hood, who had just nine points combined in the last eight Cavs games, but it was not enough to fend off Durant’s brilliance.
“That was amazing, what he did,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr, referring to Durant. “Some of those shots, I don’t think anyone in the world can hit them, but him.”
Kerr said they decided mid-game to stop running the offence through Curry, who had been great in the first two games but couldn’t find his shot here. Instead, the Warriors went to their other former MVP.
“They lift each other up,” Kerr said. “That’s a pretty nice luxury, for sure.”
It’s also a grim reminder of the challenge facing not just the Cavaliers in this series, but the rest of the league for as long as these guys want to play together.
Cleveland did what it had been saying it would do for two days — come out better on home court — and the Cavs led for the entire first half, thanks in part to that terrible shooting from the Warriors. After Golden State raced out to a 2-0 series lead in these Finals, it looked like the Cavs could only win with either a hot shooting night or a dreadful one from the Warriors. They got a little of both, and still it wasn’t enough.
Not when Golden State can roll out Durant, who can score from anywhere, and he scores from everywhere.
“It was a big shot,” Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said of Durant’s late bomb.
“He’s one of the best one-on-one players in our league. Holding Steph to 10 points and Klay (Thompson) to 11, you’d think you’ll win the game.”
For a Toronto-based sports writer, it is an odd feeling to come to Cleveland and see the home team as heavy underdogs. The Raptors have made four playoff trips to the south shore of Lake Erie in the past three years, and they are a smooth 0-7 over that time. (Throw in the Blue Jays and the American League Championship Series two years ago, and Toronto is 0-10 in Cleveland in recent post-season play.)
The Raptors’ oh-fer here doesn’t even explain the level of dominance. Three of the Cavs’ wins over them in this arena have been by more than 30 points and in only one of them was the margin of victory less than nine. That one might have been the most painful of all — Game 3 of the East semis this year, when the Raptors fought back to tie the game late and then watched as LeBron hit a running, one-legged floater off the glass to basically rip the Raptors’ hearts out and probably cost their coach his job.
What the Raptors have seen up close is that in this arena, where the home team had won eight straight in the playoffs this season, the Cavaliers can be a nightmare: James orchestrating it all, as he does, but also an array of shooters who can light up the scoreboard from three-point range.
If Cleveland was going to make this a series, that was the team that needed to show up on Wednesday night.
From the outset of Game 3, these looked like different Cavaliers. Kevin Love drilled a tone-setting three-pointer on the first possession, sending the crowd into fits, and J.R. Smith, who most definitely did not enjoy his trip to Oakland, hit one soon thereafter. Cleveland jumped out to a 10-point lead in the first four minutes, proving once again the somewhat bizarre fact that NBA teams have a habit of hitting a lot more open shots on their home court. The rims are supposed to be the same, but the results are quite different.
One thing was the same in the early going: James was a monster, with six points and five assists in the first quarter, punctuated by the off-the-backboard dunk that is normally only attempted in an All-Star Game or a dunk contest.
By the time the first half ended with Cleveland up by six, the Warriors had chipped away at big Cavaliers leads twice, thanks mostly to Durant, who had 24 points in the half. He picked the right time to be dominant, since Curry and Klay Thompson shot a combined 3-for-15 in the first half. Durant was 3-for-4 on three-pointers, the rest of his team was 1-for-10 from distance in the half. It is a hell of a luxury to have Durant on a team that had already won a title one year and 73 games the next.
The Warriors promptly erased that six-point deficit when the second half opened, tying the game after less than two minutes of game time.
The Quicken Loans Arena crowd got decidedly nervous. It was tough to blame them.