By Brandon Jefferson
After months of build-up, hype and anticipation, Game 3 of the 2017 NBA Finals brought the tightly contested, back-and-forth affair that was expected when the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors advanced to play each other for the championship. Following two blowouts by the Warriors, the Cavaliers put their best foot forward in an effort to protect their home court.
Ultimately, Golden State found a way to steal a game on the road.
With a 3-0 lead, it is likely that this series is all but wrapped up now. Cleveland did the impossible a year ago when they became the first team in NBA Finals history to overcome a 3-1 deficit, but this Warriors team is a completely different animal. The addition of Kevin Durant has paid off for Golden State and they are a win away from setting history of their own–becoming the first team to finish the postseason undefeated (16-0).
Game 3 will be remembered for Durant’s crippling transition three-pointer, but from the five-minute mark on there were plays by both teams that set in motion the final outcome. Below I’ll take a look at four big plays from both teams and break down what went right or wrong on those highlighted possessions.
A season ago, that moniker was given to the epic chase down block LeBron James made on Andre Iguodala in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals. This year, it was James and Kevin Love (!) combining to deny Iguodala at the hoop.
With the Cavaliers holding on to a slight 110-107 advantage and the Warriors in possession, Durant got past James at the top of the key and drove into the lane. As Cleveland’s defenders (Love and Korver) rotated to help, Korver’s man, Iguodala, was left open on the right block. Durant made the right basketball play–that term will come up again multiple times–and hit Iguodala with a bounce pass for what looked like an easy two points.
However, as Durant was attacking the paint, James had been making his way back into the play. By the time Iguodala corralled the ball James was just a step behind him. Both players elevated and Love (who left Draymond Green open in the corner) jumped as well. A mass of limbs met at the rim and LeBron and Love got just enough of the ball to cause Iguodala’s slam to spin out of the basket.
The Pass (1)
About a minute later the game is still 110-107 Cleveland, this time it is the Cavaliers with the ball. After draining around 17 seconds of the shot clock, the ball is in James’ hands at the top of the key.
Cleveland goes to their bread and butter play, have Steph Curry’s man screen for James. In this instance, that player is Kyle Korver. Golden Stae has used a new gimmick to counter this play, they have Curry hedge immediately (almost lunge at LeBron before the pick-and-roll is initiated) and then recover back to his man, while LeBron’s defender can move underneath the screen and meet James on the other side. James waits for Korver to set the screen on Iguodala and sees that Curry is once again going to jump out at him
James waits for Korver to set the screen on Iguodala and sees that Curry is once again going to jump out at him. Yet, this opens a slither of space between Curry and the Iguodala/Korver screen. LeBron is able to slip through the opening and it forces the Warriors to rotate to prevent James from getting an easy slam at the rim. Green slides off Love and meets James, which causes Klay Thompson to leave J.R. Smith on the wing and help the helper.
LeBron is one of the most cerebral players the NBA has ever seen. He takes a snapshot of the floor and knows that Smith is open on the right wing for a three-pointer. He leaps in the air to keep Green’s and Thompson’s eyes on him and makes the right basketball play by darting a pass to Smith. Smith had been shot ready ever since LeBron split the three players at the top of the key and calmly sinks a wide-open triple to extend Cleveland’s lead to 113-107 with 3:10 left in the game.
The Pass (2)
The game was far from over. The Warriors were able to storm back–more on that below–and only trailed by two points (113-111) with 1:15 left to play. After a timeout, the Cavaliers have the ball right where they want it, in LeBron’s hands at the top of the key. The shot clock is again under 10 seconds and this time Draymond Green is defending James. James uses a couple set up dribbles to get Green’s feet moving and then attacks his high foot and drives left. Green is able to maintain his distance and along with the help coming from Durant, there’s no clear-cut path to the rim for LeBron.
Cleveland found success in Game 3 by using flare screens, backdoor cuts, off-ball rub screens to get open looks for other players when James or Irving attacked the paint. On this play, Love sets a flare screen on Curry (who came down on Love after Durant helped Green on LeBron’s drive) and it gives Korver enough space for an open look in the left corner. James sees this and again makes the right basketball play and gives up a contested look for an open one.
Since being traded to the Cavaliers, Korver has shot an absurd 63.4 percent from the left corner. In Game 3, the shot Korver usually drains with ease was left just short and the Warriors were able to secure the rebound.
James has said that he would make the exact same play in that scenario and it is the correct play to make. The NBA has long been touted as a “make or miss league” and on Wednesday night it was Cleveland that missed shots.
The second most memorable play from Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals was Kyrie Irving draining the go-ahead step-back three-pointer over Curry. Game 3 saw Irving isolated on the right wing again with a chance to put the Cavaliers back on top after Durant gave Golden State an 114-113 lead.
This time, it was Thompson defending Curry. Smith, Curry’s man, started to come over to set a screen for Irving with the idea of forcing Curry–the lesser defender–to switch onto Irving. Yet, Curry did enough to throw off the timing and Irving ended up waiving off Smith’s screen and opted to attack Thompson one-on-one, which he had success doing on his way to a 38-point night.
With the shot clock at 12 seconds, Irving begins to make his move on Thompson. He uses a combination of hesitations, crossovers and between the leg dribbles to try and get Thompson off balance. However, Thompson does a good job of remaining in front of Irving and not giving Irving a lane to attack in either direction. With no opening, Irving instead opts to go for a step-back three-pointer again. At 6’7″ Thompson offers length that the 6’3″ Curry does not and as Irving creates space for his jumper; Thompson is able to close out with a hand up and Irving’s shot clanks off the front of the rim and into the waiting hands of Curry in the paint.
GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
Every time the Cavaliers started to separate from Golden State the Warriors found a way to respond. One of the most important instances of this was when Curry and Thompson combined to embark on a 5-0 run after Cleveland pushed ahead 108-102 with just a bit over five minutes remaining in the game.
With the majority of the crowd on their feet, Curry got away from Irving and tried to draw contact on the drive, but did not get a whistle. The ensuing shot missed the hoop and bounced off the right side of the backboard. Green, sandwiched between Love and Irving gets a hand on the ball and it ricochets back into Curry’s hands. Curry is surrounded by four Cavs (Love, Irving, James, and Korver) but is able to get off a second shot quickly over the extended arms of Love.
Next, it’s Klay’s turn. Curry grabs the rebound and pushes the ball down the floor instantly. Iguodala is making a beeline for the rim down the center and on his right side are Durant and Thompson. Cleveland, who is woeful in transition defense, has four players in front of the play. However, as Curry continues to dribble down the floor the problems begin. First, no one picks up Durant
First, no one picks up Durant because of both Korver and Irving deciding to stick with Iguodala. Curry sees this and passes the ball to Durant after crossing halfcourt. Irving is late closing out to Durant and Smith then takes it upon himself to try and keep Durant from getting an open three-pointer. Yet, that means that Thompson (who has settled in the corner) is wide open for a three-pointer of his own. Durant reads the defense and shuffles the ball over to Thompson and Irving’s late closeout does not effect Thompson knocking down the shot and cutting the lead to one point.
With the lead back up to six points, the Warriors once again get a fastbreak opportunity as Draymond snags a rebound and outlets the ball to Curry. He’s again flanked by Iguodala, Thompson and Durant, but this time it’s a four-on-two advantage for Golden State. Korver and Smith are the two defenders back for Cleveland. Love and James barely make it across halfcourt and Irving might have been better off remaining there with them given the effort he displays in this sequence.
Korver and Smith are the two defenders back for Cleveland. Love and James barely make it across halfcourt and Irving might have been better off remaining there with them given the effort he displays in this sequence. Korver and Smith are the two defenders back for Cleveland. Love and James barely make it across halfcourt and Irving might have been better off remaining there with them given the effort he displays in this sequence.
Korver faced with the task of picking up Curry or Thompson in transition is frozen in space which allows Curry to dribble right past him. That leaves Smith as the last line of defense for Cleveland and much like in Game 1 when Durant got multiple dunks, Smith vacates the paint to close out to a shooter leaving Curry with an unabated path to the basket. Curry’s layup brought an end to a two-minute scoring drought by Golden State and closed the gap to just four points with two minutes and change left to play.
If Curry didn’t finish the play he had a variety of options to choose from. Iguodala is open at the rim before Curry goes for a layup of his own–the block by Love and LeBron likely fresh on Curry’s mind still. Irving’s lackadaisical recovery gives Durant time and space to get off a good look from three and lastly, even with Smith closing out Thompson has ample room to launch a three-pointer of his own if Curry chose to pass the ball to him.
Kevin Durant has been exceptional in the first three games of the 2017 NBA Finals and his skill was on display again during the closing moments of Game 3. After Curry’s layup, the Warriors explored another flaw in Cleveland’s defensive game plan on their next possession. For a majority of the series, the Cavaliers have chosen to switch on pick-and-rolls involving Tristan Thompson. This leaves Thompson isolated against Durant on this particular play, advantage Warriors.
Durant sizes up Thompson and after a couple hesitation dribbles, he takes off towards the basket. Thompson does enough to prevent Durant from having an easy dunk, but Durant just pulls up at the low block and drops in a fading floater over top Thompson instead to bring Golden State within two points.
Next, Durant pulls down the rebound after Korver’s missed three-pointer and pushes the ball up the court to start a fast break of his own. The Cavaliers have enough defenders back to match up with the four Warriors hustling down the court at them. Klay is on the left side with Durant, but his cut through the lane helps set up what becomes the highlight of the 2017 NBA Finals. Irving picks up Klay at the three-point line and Klay’s cut drags Irving away from the play and he also brushes against James. James is then late to pick up Durant and it gives Durant the necessary space to launch a pull-up jumper. Durant sinks the transition three-pointer and gives Golden State an 114-113 lead with 45 seconds left to play.
Irving misses the isolation shot mentioned above and Cleveland lets 12 seconds tick off before fouling Durant who steps to the line and sinks two free throws to extend the Warriors’ lead to three points with 12 seconds left (likely sealing Finals MVP for himself in the process).
Following Durant’s 7-0 run the Cavaliers still had a shot to tie the game with 12 seconds remaining. Coming out of head coach Ty Lue’s timeout, Cleveland advanced the ball down the court. On the resulting inbounds play, the Cavs run a play hoping to get the ball into Irving as he cuts towards the ball. However, the Warriors do a good job of shutting his option off. Durant reads Love’s eyes and as Irving cuts off a screen from Thompson Durant jumps into the passing lane and his length is enough to deter Love from throwing the ball to Irving.
The next progression on this play is to get the ball into James who’s positioned near the low block. James notices that Irving is not going to be open and he flashes to the corner to get separation from Iguodala and make the entry pass easier for Love.
Love hits James in the corner and James feels as if he’s created enough space to get a shot off as Iguodala is closing out. LeBron has made two big defensive plays on Iguodala in the 2016 and 2017 NBA Finals, but it was Iguodala’s defense on James in the 2015 NBA Finals that helped the Warriors win a championship and got Iguodala named Finals MVP as well. Since life’s a circle, it is only right that Iguodala is the one to make the stop on James this time around. As James lifts the ball into the air for his shot Iguodala reaches in and knocks the ball loose from James’ hands and in the scrum that follows LeBron knocks the ball out of bounds.