There's only one way to properly prepare for Thursday's Game 4 of the 2015 NBA Finals: Expect the unexpected.
On paper, the Golden State Warriors are the deeper, healthier and more talented team in this series. But it's the Cleveland Cavaliers who hold a 2-1 series lead after following their franchise face and one unlikely leader to a 96-91 win in Tuesday's Game 3.
Four-time MVP and two-time champion LeBron James continued cementing his status as the best player in this series with 40 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists, four steals and two blocks. But second-year guard Matthew Dellavedova, starting in place of the injured Kyrie Irving, may have stolen the spotlight with 20 points, five boards, four assists and a slew of difference-making hustle plays.
The Warriors scored 36 of their 91 points in the fourth quarter alone, which helped them trim a once-20-point deficit all the way to one. But their comeback bid ultimately fell short, giving the Cavs control of this series and the chance to put a stranglehold on it before leaving Northeast Ohio.
|NBA Finals Schedule|
|4||Thursday||June 11||9 p.m. ET||Cleveland||ABC|
|5||Sunday||June 14||8 p.m. ET||Oakland||ABC|
|6*||Tuesday||June 16||9 p.m. ET||Cleveland||ABC|
|7*||Friday||June 19||9 p.m. ET||Oakland||ABC|
|Source: NBA.com (*if necessary)|
How Much Fuel Is Left in Cavs' Tank?
The Cavs have been the aggressors for nearly the entire series. Somehow.
Cleveland is down two All-Stars (Irving and Kevin Love) and one uber-valuable glue guy (Anderson Varejao). Head coach David Blatt is running out a seven-man rotation against the deepest team in the league. The Cavs are playing at a sloth-like pace and have wrapped a wet blanket around the Warriors' fiery transition game.
Cleveland's low-fuel light should be illuminated by now, but this team has used its second, third and fourth winds to continue its relentless play on both ends of the floor.
"They don't just defend, they refuse to break even when they bend," wrote the Plain Dealer's Terry Pluto. "They don't just cover, they swarm. They don't just hustle, they belly-slam across the floor for loose balls."
They have imposed their will on this series and sit two wins short of a title. But is it only a matter of time before fatigue sets in?
James has played 142 of the series' 154 minutes. Dellavedova was hospitalized with severe cramps after his 39-minute effort Tuesday, per Tom Withers of the Associated Press. Iman Shumpert hurt his left shoulder Tuesday and sat for nearly 12 minutes before returning.
There is no margin for error on Cleveland's side.
Can the Warriors Build On Their Fourth-Quarter Comeback?
Golden State looked lost for the first three periods of Game 3. The offense fell into a rut it could never get out of. The defense had no answers for James.
Making matters worse, the 67-win Warriors looked as if they accepted their fate.
"I didn't like our energy. I didn't like our body language for much of the first three quarters," Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said, according to Bruce Jenkins of the San Francisco Chronicle. "This is what we have to fight through."
But something happened over the final 12 minutes. MVP Stephen Curry caught fire, scoring 17 of his team-high 27 points in the final frame. David Lee, playing for the first time this series, brought some badly needed energy and added nine points of his own (and 11 overall). The Warriors scored more points that quarter (36) than they did in the second and third combined (35).
Did Golden State finally figure out Cleveland's suddenly stout defense? Or did the Warriors simply take advantage of a team that was running on fumes and a little too comfortable with a 20-point lead?
Those answers should become clear early in Game 4.
Obvious Adjustments Each Team Must Make
Cleveland: Never Stop Moving
If James' miraculous performance in this series feels historically special, that's because it is. He now holds the Finals record for most points over the first three games of a series with 123, per ESPN Stats & Information.
But his teammates can't sit back and watch history unfold. Even with Cleveland constantly going the isolation route with James, his supporting cast must move around him to keep the defense honest, give him passing lanes to exploit and put themselves in prime offensive rebounding position.
James has been forced to become a volume shooter. He has attempted 107 field goals through the first three games and only connected on 43 (40.2 percent). The Cavs have found surprising contributions elsewhere (Dellavedova's 20 points in Game 3, Timofey Mozgov's 17 during Sunday's overtime win), but none of their complementary pieces have been consistent sources of offense.
The Cavs will not (and should not) go away from their James-centered attack. As Kerr noted, James' methodical attacks have helped Cleveland dictate the style of play, per Fox Sports Ohio's Sam Amico:
But the Cavs need to make things happen around the King. They did that in Game 3.
Their off-ball movement looked better than it has all series before that clunky fourth quarter. The non-LeBron shooters enjoyed a 50 percent success rate from the field (21-of-42) and nearly topped that number from the perimeter (7-of-15, 46.7 percent). If Golden State tightens the defensive screws on James, his teammates must pick up the slack.
Golden State: Find a Sense of Urgency
The Warriors have yet to win a first quarter in this series. They have carried a deficit into intermission during all three games.
The bright lights may have bothered them at first, but this previously untested roster now has 139 NBA Finals minutes under its belt. The stage should not be an issue anymore.
Golden State is missing a critical intangible: energy. As Kobe Bryant tweeted, the Warriors aren't playing like they realize what's at stake:
The Warriors' strength in numbers is a wasted weapon if they don't bring the right effort inside the lines. They need to force the issue offensively and push the pace as often as possible. They averaged a league-best 20.7 fast-break points per game during the regular season, according to TeamRankings. They only had four Tuesday and have just 35 in the series.
Cleveland doesn't have enough runners to survive a track meet with Golden State. The Warriors have to figure out how to create more opportunities in the open court. If the starters can't spark something on their own, Kerr might have to break out his small-ball lineup early and often.
Cleveland: Matthew Dellavedova
Every NBA Finals seems to bring a surprise hero to the forefront. Dellavedova looks like he might fill that role in this series.
He as much as anyone embodies Cleveland's whatever-it-takes mentality. The same guy who owns a career 4.7 points-per-game scoring average just dropped 20 in the biggest game he's ever played.
He's also a major reason Cleveland has managed to hold Curry in check. The MVP has shot just 5-of-20 against Dellavedova over the last two games, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Curry has gone 10-of-23 against everyone else during this stretch.
"He plays as hard as he can every day," Blatt said of Dellavedova, per Ann Killion of the San Francisco Chronicle. "He plays right. He’s not afraid. He plays courageously."
In terms of talent, Dellavedova is immensely overmatched. But hard work is a powerful skill of its own, and one he has seemingly mastered.
His challenge now is to find some consistency. The Cavs need more than his floor burns, especially if Curry's hot shooting down the stretch carries over to Game 4.
Golden State: Draymond Green
Draymond Green has been the Warriors' rock all season, but he's crumbling at the worst possible time.
Dating back to Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals, he's shooting an anemic 24.4 percent from the field and 7.7 percent from three. Even when wide-open looks are there, he's not confident enough to pull the trigger.
His scoring has a tendency to fluctuate, but this brutal stretch appears to have affected all aspects of his game. He was averaging 5.3 assists in the postseason entering this series. He's had eight total so far. The Cavs have played him perfectly, sagging off him at the perimeter and daring him to drive. They are taking away his passing lanes and denying him at the rim.
With Cleveland hounding Curry on pick-and-rolls and forcing the ball out of his hands, Green—whose back is bothering him—is going to be heavily involved in Golden State's offense. Curry is the only Warrior averaging more than Green's 82.3 touches per game this postseason.
There is plenty of production to be found in those four-on-three chances. Lee provided a tremendous spark as Curry's pick-and-roll partner, feeding the ball to open teammates or finishing plays on his own. When Green is right, he can do both of those things and hit the long ball. His one-man fast breaks could be key in helping Golden State control the tempo.
But his confidence needs to return in a hurry for the Warriors to survive. Golden State has too many players slumping—Harrison Barnes went scoreless in Game 3, Andrew Bogut has 10 points in the series—to compensate for a struggling Green.
Matthew Dellavedova vs. Stephen Curry
Welcome to the 2015 Finals, folks. Up is down, left is right and a former undrafted player is more than holding his own with this season's MVP.
The Dubs don't need to win this matchup; they have to dominate it. That didn't come close to happening in Game 3, when Curry only had seven more points, two more assists and four more turnovers than his counterpart.
If the Warriors are going to find their way back into this series, Curry has to lead them there.
"Whether I'm making shots or not, I've got to stay—I'll use the word 'vibrant'—just kind of having fun out there," Curry said, per ESPN.com's Ethan Sherwood Strauss. "Because the team definitely feeds off my energy and the joy for the game."
Dellavedova has helped suck the joy out of Golden State's attack. While James' heroic efforts have kept the Warriors off-kilter, Dellavedova's dogged defense on Curry has mitigated their best weapon.
Curry needs to snap out of this funk quickly. He has to take better care of the basketball and become more aggressive fighting through double-teams. When open shots present themselves, he has to knock them down (he's shooting 4-of-14 on uncontested shots over his last two outings).
This isn't solely about offense, either. Curry has to improve his defensive effort. Dellavedova is a 38.6 percent shooter for his career. He shouldn't be torching Golden State's defense like he did in Game 3.
On the other side of this coin, Dellavedova can't let Curry find his rhythm, and Cleveland's folk hero might have to fill the No. 2 scoring role again. The Cavs shouldn't have any chance of winning this matchup on paper, but logic left this series a long time ago.
Stopping James isn't really an option. Golden State would be more than happy to settle for containment if it could.
The Warriors haven't overloaded on him yet, and he's feasting on everything they're giving him. When he has a chance to score, he's converting. When passing is a better option, he's sending perfect deliveries to his teammates.
It's almost impossible for one player to win a series. But the stat sheet says that's essentially what James is doing, via Synergy Sports:
That shouldn't be sustainable. Not even for James. Not against the NBA's top-ranked defense.
The Cavs have momentum on their side, a raucous crowd behind them and easily the best player in this series. But the Warriors are one win away from going back to the Bay with home-court advantage in a best-of-three battle.
Between Curry's late-game surge and Lee's emergence, Golden State has reasons to feel confident, not to mention a slew of potential contributors who might only need one make to get themselves going.
Cleveland doesn't have the bodies to bury Golden State. The Cavs are playing above their heads; the Dubs haven't brought anything close to their best in this series.
That should finally change Thursday night.
Prediction: Warriors 99, Cavaliers 93