After losing every Game 3 of the 2016 playoffs and suffering through their worst playoff performances of each of their first two series in 2017, the stage was set for the Golden State Warriors to lose Game 3 of the 2017 Finals in Cleveland. Instead, the Warriors overcame a six-point deficit with less than three minutes left in the game and claimed a 118-113 victory.
Most of the NBA world assumed that Cleveland had given their best effort in Game 3, only to fall short. The Warriors were expected to cruise to a Game 4 victory to close out the postseason with an unblemished 16-0 record.
However, the Cavaliers had other plans. Their role players finally contributed, and their Big 3 all put up stellar performances as the Cavaliers controlled the game from start to finish in a 137-116 victory. The Cavaliers set quite a few records in the process, as their 49-point first quarter, 86-point first half, and 24 three-point makes were all records for any NBA Finals game.
Cleveland's dominant performance in Game 4 was certainly unexpected, even though it came after a close Game 3 that nearly swung their way and altered the course of the series. However, the Warriors have controlled most of the action in these Finals, despite their demoralizing loss in what could have been the closeout game. While the Cavaliers will have a new lease on life after their crushing victory, all signs point to the Warriors closing out the gentleman's sweep with a Game 5 win in Oakland.
1. Cleveland's Role Players Arrive
After barely showing up for the first three games, Cleveland's role players finally showed up in their Game 4 victory. J.R. Smith was arguably the only player to arrive before Game 4, and he repeated his solid showing in Game 3 on the offensive end while holding Klay Thompson to just 13 points after he exploded for 30 the night before. Tristan Thompson grabbed 10 rebounds on Friday night, nearly matching his combined total of 11 through the first three games. Deron Williams scored his first points of the series, including Cleveland's record-breaking 19th triple on a beautiful sequence with 32 seconds left in the third quarter:
The Cavaliers had been relying heavily on their Big 3 for most of their offense in the first three games. Kyrie Irving barely showed up for the first two games, and Kevin Love fell flat in Game 3. However, the Cavaliers are at their best when LeBron and Kyrie can carve out space on their way to the rim and dish out to open shooters behind the arc. Despite the Warriors' designation as a jump-shooting team, the Cavaliers actually made more three-pointers during the regular season than anyone besides the Houston Rockets. If the Cavaliers manage to force a Game 6 back in Cleveland, they will need their role players
Despite the Warriors' designation as a jump-shooting team, the Cavaliers actually made more three-pointers during the regular season than anyone besides the Houston Rockets. The Cavaliers were 20 for 76 (26.3%) on their open and wide-open triples in the series before Game 4 and hit 24 of 45 overall on Friday night. If the Cavaliers manage to force a Game 6 back in Cleveland, they will need their role players to take advantage of their open looks and take at least some small amount of pressure off of their three All-Stars.
2. Steph Curry Falls Flat
Before Game 4, there was a legitimate debate over which of Kevin Durant or Steph Curry would win Finals MVP. While Durant was always the heavy favorite given his contributions on both ends of the floor, Steph Curry at least had a legitimate case given how essential he is to the Warriors' offensive flow. However, Curry fell flat at just the wrong time in Game 4. Some might argue that the Cavaliers were allowed to be a little too physical with Curry at times during this game, but Curry was
However, Curry fell flat at just the wrong time in Game 4. Some might argue that the Cavaliers were allowed to be a little too physical with Curry at times during this game, but Curry was ineffective all night in what could have been a historic night for his team. Curry finished with 14 points on 13 shots, including a miserable two for nine shooting performance from beyond the arc. He did manage to dish out 10 assists, but he paired that with four turnovers and ineffective defense on J.R. Smith for most of the night. Cleveland repeatedly attacked Curry in pick and roll situations, and he did little to discourage those attacks.
While Curry is arguably the league's most valuable offensive player because of his unparalleled shooting gravity, he is at best an average player on the defensive end. Game 4 was one of those nights where his mediocre defense slipped to liability status. Although Curry will not be able to jump to an elite defensive level before Monday night, Steve Kerr will have to take a long look at the game film from Friday night to find ways to counter-act Cleveland's game plan of attacking Steph relentlessly on the defensive end if they are to avoid a repeat performance of Game 4.
3. Kevin Durant Stands Alone
Steph Curry may have slipped out of Finals MVP contention after Game 4, but Kevin Durant continued to stake his claim to the trophy after another spectacular performance in Game 4. Durant was ineffective from beyond the arc (matching Curry's two for nine mark from deep); however, he made up for it by relentlessly attacking the rim to the tune of a game-high 16 free throw attempts and 35 points on just 22 shots.
Durant was not his usual destructive self on the defensive end in Game 4, but he was more effective on that end than most of his teammates. Durant finished the night with the highest Net Rating among Golden State's four All-Stars, and was also the only starter besides Zaza Pachulia to shoot above 40% on the night.
It might seem premature to crown the Finals MVP before the end of the series, especially since Cleveland overcame a 3-1 deficit this past year. However, Cleveland's performance in Game 4 was a record-setting outlier, and the other three games in the series point to a marked Golden State advantage. Unless Steph Curry wins Game 5 by himself and Durant disappears from the picture (or if Cleveland pulls off the all-but-impossible comeback), Kevin Durant can exercise his championship demons with a ring and a Bill Russell trophy.
4. Draymond vs. the World
The referee controversy over Draymond Green's technical fouls dominated the headlines after a confusing, to put it lightly, third-quarter incident. As the home crowd showered him with boos, Draymond continued to embrace his role as the NBA's villain:
Although Draymond had a decent game, leading both teams with 14 rebounds and putting up 16 points on 16 shots, his defense left a lot to be desired as Cleveland ran roughshod over the normally stellar Warriors defense. However, Draymond has fully embraced his role as enemy #1 in Cleveland. He even went so far as to question the fanbase's intelligence in his post-game interviews.
Some might argue that Draymond has not learned from his suspension last year. That certainly appeared to be the case in this game, as he hit both Iman Shumpert and Tristan Thompson in the face on two separate plays, both of which could easily have been whistled for flagrant fouls. That being said, Draymond's fire has carried him throughout his career, and molded him into the Defensive Player of the Year favorite and multiple All-NBA nods. Fans may question the wisdom of some of Draymond's emotional outbursts, but they cannot question his dedication to his team nor his dedication to winning at all costs--even when he goes out of his way to draw the ire of his opponents.
5. An Ode to LeBron James
LeBron James is probably on his way to losing his fifth Finals in eight tries. Fans who look to compare his career to Michael Jordan's will declare that, for whatever asinine reason, losing in five Finals is far less impressive than going 6-0 in the Finals despite being swept out of the first round multiple times. They will somehow hold LeBron's presumptive loss in these Finals against him, even though Jordan never faced a playoff opponent that would even come close to matching any of the three iterations of the Warriors that LeBron has faced.
The Cavaliers have outscored the Warriors with LeBron on the floor in these Finals, and have been destroyed with him on the bench. Cleveland outscored the Warriors by seven points in LeBron's 46 minutes in Game 3 -- and were outscored by 12 points in his two and a half minutes on the bench. The Cavaliers were +32 with LeBron on the floor in his 41 minutes in Game 4 -- and were outscored by 11 with him on the bench. Cleveland started the fourth quarter with LeBron on the sidelines and quickly gave up a 6-0 run before he re-entered the game.
If Cleveland's inability to score or defend without LeBron was not enough to convince the world of his importance, LeBron also submitted another ridiculous play for his ever-growing highlight reel:
It is still too early to place LeBron ahead of Michael Jordan in the all-time rankings. However, it would be beyond ignorant to count his presumptive loss in the 2017 Finals as a black mark on his record. Russell Westbrook will probably win this year's MVP award due to his 30-point triple-double average for the season. LeBron is currently averaging a triple-double in the NBA Finals against arguably the most stacked team in the history of basketball.
The Golden State Warriors will in all likelihood close out these Finals in Game 5 on their home floor. They will be able to hoist a trophy that can, at least in part, make up for their disappointing defeat last season. However, this series should only serve to highlight the incredible performance of LeBron James, who is still the best basketball player in the world. His Finals record might not be as unblemished as that of the GOAT, but anyone who counts LeBron's spectacular playoff performance against him is either the world's most hardened LeBron hater or simply has not been paying attention. The Warriors might be bringing the title back to Oakland, but they should pour one out for the living legend who did everything in his power to keep that trophy in Cleveland.