The Cleveland Cavaliers aren’t yet on the brink of elimination, but they find themselves in a virtual “must-win” situation as they head home for Game 3 of the 2016 NBA Finals. LeBron James and Co. need a win on Wednesday, looking to take four out of five games against the Golden State Warriors, who have gone 87-14 in the regular season and playoffs combined.
What was supposed to be one of the great finals in recent years has been a one-sided affair. The Warriors outscored the Cavs by 48 points in two games at Oracle Arena, and a lot is going to have to change in order for Cleveland to have a chance to get back in the series.
Golden State has done most of their damage without much help from the league’s first ever unanimous MVP. Stephen Curry scored just 11 points in Game 1, and the Warriors pulled away from the Cavs in Game 2 as the sharp-shooting point guard sat on the bench with foul trouble, finishing with 18 points in just 25 minutes. Klay Thompson hasn’t had to put up big numbers either, averaging 13 points per game.
Unlike last year’s finals, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving have played in both Game 1 and Game 2. But the two stars that make up the final two-thirds of Cleveland’s Big 3 haven’t been a factor for Cleveland, and for James, it’s the same story as last year. The Cavs have needed James to play at an all-time level just to compete, and when he struggles, Cleveland has no chance.
Since Game 4 of the 2015 finals, the Warriors have figured out how to avoid letting James take over like he did when the Cavs took a 2-1 series lead a year ago. Having yet to lose a home game, Cleveland still remains confident in their chances, but there is little on the court to indicate that Game 3 will be much different from the first two games of the series.
"I don't think we are discouraged," Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue told The Vertical. "We just know we have to play better. We've got to get to the level they're playing right now, but I don't feel we're discouraged."
The Cavs aren’t the only ones that believe they’ll hold serve at home. Despite being blown out twice in a row, Cleveland is a one-point favorite, via VegasInsider. After the Cavs averaged 83 points per game at Oracle Arena, the over/under is 206.5.
Through the first three rounds of the playoffs, Cleveland looked to be a formidable challenger to Golden State, winning 12-of-14 games, many of them by comfortable margins. The Cavs made three-pointers at an historic rate, even sinking 25 in a game against the Atlanta Hawks. But as James is one assist shy of averaging a triple-double, his teammates have come up short.
Irving is shooting 33.3 percent from the field, and his defense has been just as bad. After scoring 17 points on 17 shots in Game 1, Love scored five points and grabbed 3 three rebounds in 21 minutes on Sunday night before he missed most of the second half with a concussion. His status for Game 3 is unknown, potentially giving James even less help.
James kept the Cavs in Game 2 for the first half by totaling 14 points, seven assists, six rebounds and four steals. But he had a brutal third quarter, and when he entered the final period with just 19 points and seven turnovers, the game was already in hand for Golden State.
James has filled up the stat sheet, playing the role of Cleveland’s leading scorer, No.1 rebounder and offensive facilitator, as well as the team’s top defender. But he hasn’t been as good as the Cavs have needed him to be, and that hasn’t been the case for just this series.
When the Warriors beat the Cavs on Christmas Day, they held James to 10-26 shooting, A few weeks later when Golden State won by 34 points in Cleveland, James scored 16 points on 16 shots.
Since the 2015 Finals, LeBron has shot 33-of-80 for 83 points against Golden State.
— Ethan Strauss (@SherwoodStrauss) June 6, 2016
It stands to reason that James’ teammates will improve upon returning home. Cleveland is unbeaten at Quicken Loans Arena in the playoffs, going 33-8 at the venue in the regular season. Going 12-45 from three-point range at Golden State, the Cavs' shooters are likely to improve from behind the arc. Cleveland missed a number of shots from point blank range in the first two games, and the East’s top team can get back in the series by getting some of those shots to fall on Wednesday.
But the Cavs have struggled in the paint because of the Warriors’ defense, and they aren’t getting many good looks from three-point range. Draymond Green is the early frontrunner for finals MVP, and he has a penchant for playing well against the Cavs.
The Warriors seem to have the Cavs’ number, and changing venues might not be enough to help Cleveland get by the defending champs.
Prediction: Golden State over Cleveland, 105-99