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Warriors vs. Cavaliers: No. 16

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Golden State looks to capture the title in a self-described “must-win” against Cleveland.

2017 NBA Finals - Game Three Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

After an entire season of over-reactions, hypotheticals, debates, injuries and more, the time has finally come; the Golden State Warriors are one victory away from defeating the Cleveland Cavaliers and claiming the 2017 NBA title. Not only that, if they manage to win Game 4 of the NBA Finals, they will be the first team in league history to go 16-0, sweeping the playoffs.

But in order to do so, they will have to go through a desperate Cavaliers team. There is no doubt that Game 3 was a demoralizing loss for Cleveland, but LeBron James and Kyrie Irving proved that they are as dangerous as they come.

Cleveland’s best shot

James and Irving combined for 77 points in Game 3, and for three and a half quarters, they were able to relentlessly attack the rim. Irving in particular played an amazing game around the hoop, finishing in the paint against countless Warriors defenders. He has essentially forced Kerr to cut Ian Clark’s minutes because the moment Clark steps on the floor, Irving pounces on him, turning the game into an extended Uncle Drew commercial.

Yet despite these heroics, it was Durant who had the defining moment of the night, hitting a clutch go-ahead three-pointer to give the Warriors a 114-113 lead with 45 seconds left in the game.

And while 77 points from two players is impressive, it’s not something new for this Warriors team. In Round 1 of these playoffs, the Warriors faced a dynamic duo in C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard. Those two combined for 74 points in Game 1 of that series, but lost by 12.

Although James and Irving made those 77 points at a fairly decent clip — a combined 31-for-56 — Durant, Curry and Thompson combined for 87 points on a combined 55 attempts.

What James and Irving did in Game 3 may have been their best shot. But at this point, there just aren’t any huge adjustments that can be made by Cleveland. The Cavaliers will just have to hope they can have a repeat performance from their stars, but with a different outcome.

Team vs. Talent

Durant will most certainly be named Finals MVP if the Warriors eventually win the title, but there is no question that the Warriors owe their success to their team-first approach to the game. Take Cleveland’s scoreless final three minutes in Game 3 for example. In that stretch, you have the following:

  • Two easy shots by Durant and Stephen Curry that stemmed from a defensive rebound and a screen by Draymond Green.
  • Klay Thompson forcing Irving into an incredibly difficult scoop lay-up and step-back three, both of which missed.
  • Andre Iguodala making a game-sealing defensive strip of James.
  • Clutch shots and free-throws by Durant and Curry.

And therein lies the problem for Cleveland. While James and Irving are supremely talented, the Cavaliers can devolve into a playground-esque “your turn, my turn” offense. In fairness to James, when it is James’ “turn,” he does it all. He drives, shoots, posts up and whips passes around the court with precision and speed unlike any other player. But Irving feeds off of one-on-one isolation plays that reduce his team, including James, to spectators.

By contrast, the Warriors offense is about finding the open man, not finding “the man.” A tricky side-effect of this pass-happy offense is a tendency to get loose with the ball, resulting in turnovers. But in the end, the Warriors have amazingly talented players who also fit together.

And this is absolutely pivotal when playing James. Players can’t try to out-talent James because he’s unquestionably dominant. But every Finals series that James has lost has not been to superior talent, but to superior teams. The San Antonio Spurs in 2007 and 2014, the Dallas Mavericks in 2011, and the Warriors in 2015 and possibly 2017.

Unless and until James and Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue can create a better system for their team, defeating the Warriors on Friday will be an uphill battle.