CLEVELAND — LeBron James didn’t need to play like a man possessed, not with the Cavaliers playing like a team possessed. But James did anyway.
Showing more emotion and playing with more passion than he had in the first two games of the NBA Finals, James was nothing short of brilliant Wednesday night. James scored 32 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and passed out six assists — and he got the help he needed to get the Cavaliers get back in this series against the Warriors.
Back home, the Cavaliers blew out the Warriors, 120-90, in Game 3 at Quicken Loans Arena. The Warriors lead the series 2-1, but coach Steve Kerr challenged their character after this game, calling them “soft” several times. Game 4 is Friday night here, where the Cavaliers are 8-0 this postseason.
“This was about one team being emotionally fired up and angry about being down 2-0 and another team being comfortable,” Kerr said. “We weren’t tough enough. We were soft. We were soft tonight.”
The Cavaliers were a desperate team after losing the first two games to the reigning champion Warriors by 48 points. They knew if they fell behind 0-3 there would be very little chance of winning the championship. It’s never happened in NBA history.
Playing without Kevin Love because of a concussion, the Cavaliers found everything that was missing in the first two games. They defended, made shots, were more aggressive and made sure the Warriors felt their presence from the tip. Cleveland led by 20 in the first quarter.
James, who didn’t agree with Knicks president Phil Jackson saying he needed take a page out of Michael Jordan’s book and play like “a man possessed” in Game 3, attacked from the very beginning.
“My teammates got me going, told me to be aggressive,” James said. “That’s what I was.”
He wasn’t alone.
Kyrie Irving started fast with 16 first-quarter points, and finished with 30 and eight assists. Ex-Knick J.R. Smith, invisible before Wednesday night, found his shot. Smith was 5-for-10 on three-pointers and scored 20 points. Tristan Thompson had 14 points and 13 rebounds, including seven offensive boards.
Two-time MVP Steph Curry and Klay Thompson continue to be non-factors. They scored 19 and 10, respectively. Neither All-Star has scored 20 in the Finals. Thompson was 1-for-7 from three.
Love, who took part in a portion of Wednesday’s shootaround, wanted to play, but he remains in the NBA’s concussion protocol. Cavs coach Tyronn Lue inserted veteran forward Richard Jefferson into the starting lineup for Love, and he made an impact. Jefferson had nine points and eight rebounds.
It will lead to speculation that Jefferson should stay in the starting lineup and Love come off the bench when he returns. Lue wouldn’t reveal his plan if Love can play in Game 4.
“I’m not going to tell you,” Lue said.
The Cavaliers looked overmatched before Wednesday night and seemed like they wanted to let the Warriors know they would be in for a long night.
Cleveland raced out to a 9-0 lead, extended to 15 less than seven minutes in and were up 33-13 after Irving’s second consecutive three-pointer. At that point, Irving had outscored the Warriors 16-13 and held a 16-0 advantage on Curry and Thompson, who sustained a bruised left thigh in the first but returned.
The Warriors’ All-Star backcourt didn’t score its first points until a Thompson drive with 6:34 left in the second quarter. Curry’s first and only basket of the half came with 4:05 to go. He had more turnovers (three) and fouls (three) than points (two).
Despite that, the Warriors were within 51-43 at the half. But the Cavaliers came out in the third quarter much like they did in the first. A 21-5 run led to a 70-48 advantage with 5:49 left in the third.
Curry finally got going after that, scoring 13 of the Warriors’ next 20 points, including a four-point play. But the Cavaliers didn’t let up. They were up 89-69 heading to the fourth, and the lead continued to grow.
“We weren’t ready to play,” Kerr said. “They just punched us right in the mouth at the very beginning. Soft, we were just extremely soft.”