- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 9, 2016

CLEVELAND — With a roar and a rip, LeBron James pulled his warmup top off. The national anthem was moving through its last bars, but James could not wait. He screamed, testing the buttons of his wine-colored jacket as he pulled it apart in a manner befitting Superman; hands to the middle, then outward.

James calmly said Tuesday that Game 3 of the NBA Finals had moved to a must-win level, knowing that history and common sense supported his theory. The Cavaliers were down, 2-0. Information hinted more at a sweep than a comeback, with the series on the way to being another element in Cleveland’s downtrodden athletic lore. James had returned to his home state only to run into an historically dominant team. The stonewalling was no surprise in Cleveland. James opened the night appearing ready to fight.

By the end, he was able to sit at ease well before the game ended in a 120-90 Cavaliers victory, cutting the Warriors’ series lead in half. He sat upright on the extra pad he puts on top of an already cushioned chair, reminding everyone that he is somehow 31 years old now, his NBA career having passed its midway point.

James shook teammate Iman Shumpert when the clock rolled to its end. He slapped hands with the other starters who were seated near him. The Cavaliers’ 30-point win against the Warriors — who are one win from having the most total victories in a single season — was the second-largest of the season. It was a throttling that started soon after James emphatically discarded his pregame attire, teetered briefly in the second quarter, then was confirmed at the start of the third. The most optimistic of the optimistic chanted, “Cavs in six!” in final fits of delirium.

“The only change is just playing hard,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said. “I think competing for 48 minutes.”

Every bit of James is anchored into Cleveland, hitched to the pursuit of title, so when his woeful Game 2 was pockmarked with turnovers and sour faces, his leadership and legacy was questioned. On Tuesday, he vowed to be better in Game 3. On Wednesday, he was.

It wasn’t easy in the middle. He had problems in traffic, repeatedly missing at the rim after making his first four field goals. James clunked seven consecutive shots at one point. Many were in the lane where he was off-balance, a positional oddity for a man of such force. But unlike the first two games, there was help around him. Kyrie Irving’s isolationist play was a boon for one evening. J.R. Smith was finally open to shoot. Both of those occurrences were leveraged by James‘ drives, even the ones he missed. The end was a full line for James: 32 points, 11 rebounds, six assists, a near-identical line to his work in Game 6 against the Toronto Raptors to advance to the Finals. Irving scored 30 points, Smith 20.

Notably, the Cavaliers’ joy arrived without Kevin Love playing. Love was out for the game because he was still being treated for a concussion from Game 2. Richard Jefferson — 15th-year Jefferson, not the smooth aerialist just into the league from Arizona — started in Love’s place. Lue said Jefferson added more speed. More importantly, he allowed the Cavaliers to shift James onto Draymond Green. Cleveland was still able to throw multiple bodies at the Warriors’ Stephen Curry, but with James on Green, it muted much of the danger of doing so. If Cleveland had to switch a screen, it was James moving onto the ball. If it stayed at home, it was James in the middle harassing Green, who has been such a potent playmaker when teams overload against Curry and Thompson. Each had a woeful evening.

“They came out and played like a team with a sense of desperation, like their season was on the line,” Green said. “And we came out and played like everything was peaches and cream.”

Lue was mum about what was to come for Love. If he is ready for Game 4 on Friday, Lue will be faced with the same issue that has circled Love since he arrived in Cleveland. Somehow, it needs to figure out how best to use his skills. So far, that hasn’t been accomplished. Considering Wednesday night’s result, the topic will be even more of a challenge for Lue now. He believes the team playing fast is the best way to counter Golden State. That’s the last thing Love enables.

Losing Game 3 of a playoff series has become a trend for the Warriors. It’s happened in four consecutive series, including last year’s Finals against Cleveland, putting Golden State in a 2-1 hole at the time. Each series this season, Game 3 has gone to the opponent. Though none were an egregious thrashing like Wednesday night.

“No matter who you’re talking about, when a team plays poorly, the team deserves criticism,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said. “The coach deserves criticism, the players. I always tell our guys, that’s why we get paid. We don’t get paid to show up and shoot baskets every day. We get paid because we’re going to get a lot of criticism, and we deserve it tonight.”

James will gladly pass it along to them.

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