In this leave-no-doubt campaign for the Golden State Warriors, Stephen Curry and his crew of fun-loving executioners have made it their duty to demoralize foes, break their spirits and then merrily dance around their carcasses. After the first two games of the NBA Finals, the Warriors had LeBron James so flustered, so worried that he would be the last conquered soul on the defending champions’ quest for immortality, that he broke from his normal postgame routine and rushed to the first bus out of Oracle Arena to immediately watch film.
On the lengthy ride back to the team hotel in San Francisco after Game 2, James broke down the Cleveland Cavaliers’ pathetic performance while seated next to James Jones, the lone teammate to join James on his six straight trips to the Finals. Before the team flew back to Cleveland for Wednesday’s pivotal Game 3, James had already decided what adjustments needed to be made. And more importantly, James determined that he wasn’t going to be the one to let the Warriors ruin his plans for the franchise without at least making one more trip back to the bay.
“I’ve seen him long enough to know. He was getting ready to take it to another level,” Jones told The Vertical after James turned the tables on the Warriors with a performance worthy of his regal, self-anointed nickname. In the biggest game since he decided to return to Cleveland and restore hope for Northeast Ohio, James hushed the increasing swarm of critics for at least one night by scoring a game-high 32 points to lead the Cavaliers to a 120-90 romp of the team that won an unprecedented seven consecutive games against him, dating back to last season.
James had to take a pelting for a few days about his inability to inspire a seemingly over matched team and had to hear Phil Jackson make a plea – which has become oh-so-annoying throughout his career – for him to be more like Mike. That outside chatter meant little to James because he never needs any reminders about what’s at stake. He has arguably more invested in making sure this season doesn’t end in embarrassing fashion than anyone else in the Cavs organization. Unfairly or not, he has been subjected to concerns about his legacy and where he ranks among the all-time greats when – based on the above-the-rim acrobatics he continues to pull off at age 31 – he still has several more years for a resolution on those matters.
On Wednesday, James’ only responsibility was knocking down the obstacle in front of him – a Warriors team that came out of nowhere to destroy the league last season, won 73 games this season and threatened to hand him his first playoff sweep since he was a 22-year-old wunderkind not quite ready for the San Antonio Spurs. Before the game, James brought his teammates together and told them, simply, “Follow my lead.” Those who know him best knew what that meant without even asking. He wasn’t going to be Michael. He wasn’t going to be Magic. He was going to be LeBron. And that was going to be enough.
“There’s no question, he’s the leader of this team and he doesn’t have to demonstrate it in ways that others want him to demonstrate it for it to be evident,” Jones told The Vertical.
James didn’t need to dominate the action, even with Kevin Love sidelined because of concussion protocol. Instead, he deferred to Kyrie Irving and let the explosive point guard wobble the Warriors with an onslaught of 3-pointers and dribbling wizardry. For once, Curry was made to look silly as Kyrie Irving shook him with his wicked handle, sending the clown prince of humiliating Vines flying out of the picture before knocking down a jumper. But Irving let James take over in the second half, connecting with the four-time MVP on an alley-oop in which a man with more mileage than a used pickup proved he can still kiss the sky.
“Some people may say it’s a bad pass, but I wanted to see something great,” Irving said, “and for him to do that, it was awesome. It was awesome.” James not only solved a nearly yearlong riddle, but he also reveled in never giving his unlikely tormentors any semblance of hope. In what has become a Finals trend, Curry has been slow to influence the series the way a regular-season MVP should. The Cavaliers have established some bully ball to knock Curry as he sprints around screens, sending him off course or to the floor. Curry hasn’t found much room to operate, but the Warriors were able to exploit the attention he and Klay Thompson received in the first two games as Draymond Green and other role players thrived. That wasn’t the case in Game 3 as Curry’s teammates mimicked his befuddled stumble across the court.
“I’m disappointed that I didn’t do anything to help my team win,” Curry said. “It’s not about living up to a certain expectation other than the one that I have for myself, and I haven’t done that. … I’ve got to be better.”
A second-half flurry in Game 3 of last year’s NBA Finals helped Curry find his groove, but James wasn’t interested in letting him have a repeat performance after scoring just two points in the first half Wednesday. During a dead-ball sequence in the second half, Curry scooped up the ball and attempted a shot at the rim. Though it wouldn’t count, James jumped up to swat the ball.
“When you have the greatest shooter in the world trying to get an easy one or trying to get in rhythm, it’s our job to try to keep him out. No matter if it’s after the whistle or not. That was just my mindset,” James said. “Anytime, if you’re a great player and you see the ball go in, no matter if it’s after the play or during the play, then you start feeling it. Not that you feel good because you know what you’re capable of, but it helps. So I didn’t want him to see the ball go in.”
Golden State is still waiting for the real Curry to finally show up, but the Cavaliers no longer have those concerns. James was the leader, the scorer, the defender, the distributor and the force of nature that Cleveland needed him to be to avoid rolling over against a team that for so long, for too long, has had its number.
Walking out of the Cavaliers’ locker room after the game, James was wearing sunglasses and nibbling on a piece of baked chicken when rapper 2 Chainz, waiting outside, spotted him and shouted, “King!” James licked his fingers, shared a handshake and a hug with the rapper before 2 Chainz cracked a joke about the food on James’s plate. James leaned back and chuckled before heading to the postgame podium, smiling about the only time all night he would let someone else get the last laugh.