CLEVELAND - LeBron James began the night by bowing to Cleveland royalty Jim Brown seated courtside and ended it by moving one step closer to carving out his own legacy not only in this town but in basketball history.
James scored 40 points and led the emotionally charged Cavaliers to a 96-91 victory over the Warriors in Game 3 of the NBA Finals in front of a loud, raucous crowd at Quicken Loans Arena.
The Cavaliers are up 2-1 and can take a commanding lead in the best-of-seven series if they can protect home court again tomorrow night.
Cleveland once again made Golden State look nothing like the team that won a league-best 67 games. The Cavs led by 20 points in the third, 17 to start the fourth and withstood a late Steph Curry-led flurry and inspired play from former Knick David Lee to win the game.
No one gave the short-handed Cavaliers much of a chance against the Warriors. But James is willing the Cavaliers in this series and has them two wins from securing Cleveland's first pro sport championship since 1964. It would be James' third in his career.
James shot 14-for-34, grabbed 12 rebounds, had eight assists and four steals. He's averaging 41 points, 12 rebounds and 8.3 assists in the series. His 123 points are the most through the first three games in Finals history. "I'm just trying to do whatever it takes to help our team win," James said. "If it's high-value shooting, high-volume rebounding, whatever it takes to win.
James hit a huge three with 1:44 left, stole the ball from Curry twice in the last 54 seconds and made six foul shots in the final 51 seconds, including two with 16.8 seconds remaining to ice the game.
Unheralded point guard Matthew Dellavedova had another impressive game, and made some big plays down the stretch. He scored 20 points, had five rebounds and four assists.
Curry, the NBA MVP, started slowly, but finished with 27 points. He had an uneven game and committed six turnovers, including three costly ones in the final 2:04. "Steph never loses confidence," coach Steve Kerr said. "I just thought he lost a little energy and life."
Curry scored 17 in the fourth, and hit back-to-back three-pointers that cut it to 94-91 with 18.9 seconds left. On the ensuing inbounds play, the Cavaliers appeared to turn over the ball. But after it was reviewed the call was overturned because Klay Thompson's foot was out of bounds when his hand was one the ball.
This time the Cavaliers inbounded it successfully to James. He was fouled and put the game away.
James isn't only the best basketball player on the planet. Kerr said he's the best athlete as well. "Can you find another one?" Kerr said. "Maybe American Pharoah? He's arguably the best athlete that any of us have ever seen in terms of size and speed and strength. He's a force."
All of that was on display Tuesday night, and especially in the third quarter. James accounted for 24 of the Cavaliers 28 points in the quarter. He scored 13 and assisted on three three-pointers and a dunk in the third.
But the Warriors got a big lift from Lee in the fourth. Making his first appearance in the series, Lee was 4-for-4 with 11 points and four rebounds in 13 minutes. He helped spark a 25-9 fourth-quarter Golden State run.
A Curry three with 2:45 left trimmed the Cavaliers' lead to 81-80. In need of a huge play, Dellavedova delivered for the Cavaliers. Coming around a screen, Dellavedova was fouled and he just flung the ball up and the shot banked in. He completed the three-point play with 2:27 remaining.
"He's playing and we're playing the way we want to play," Cavs coach David Blatt said. "I thought he was great. He controlled the game, and he helped his team play the way we wanted to play."