CLEVELAND: De-fending champion Golden State and the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers rallied around underperforming stars on the eve of Friday’s (Saturday in Manila) turning point fourth game in the NBA Finals.
The Cavaliers trail the best-of-seven series 2-1 despite a 120-90 romp Wednesday that has many questioning Cleveland’s need for injured forward Kevin Love and why NBA Most Valuable Player Stephen Curry of the Warriors has had only a so-so finals start.
“What made it easier is we played harder. It didn’t have anything to do with Kevin,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said. “He’s eager to play and we definitely need him back.”
Trying to bring Cleveland its first sports champion since 1964, the Cavaliers used aggressive defense and physical play to remain unbeaten at home in the playoffs, but must win again to level the series ahead of game five Monday back in Calfornia.
“It’s the same mindset,” James said. “We can’t afford to go down 3-1 and go into their building and give them confidence, so it’s a do-or-die game for us still.”
Curry, the NBA scoring champion and steals leader as well as a record-setting 3-point shooter, has struggled to find his rhythm and was overpowered by a blistering Cavs start in game three after two blowout home wins to open the series.
“The first six minutes of the game is going to be important for us to let them know we’re here,” said Curry. “It’s all about our effort. They are going to play with the same energy.
We have to stop that force and come with more effort and more focus.”
Curry backed coach Steve Kerr’s calling the Warriors “soft” in game three.
“We were,” Curry said. “They were more physical. They were more purposeful about what they were doing.”
That was in part because Cleveland tweaked the starting lineup due to Love’s absence after suffering a concussion in game two. It forced James into Love’s role and changed matchups that opened more scoring chances.
“He’s able to make one dribble and get to the basket,” Lue said of James. “He’s also a great passer from there. He’s able to scan and read the floor, and it’s harder to double-team him from that position.”
Love could be back Friday
The resulting rout had some calling for Love to stay out, although he practiced Thursday and if no concussion symptoms return would be available on Friday.
“I just seen it on his face,” James said. “It was that ‘I hate that I’m going through this’ moment, ‘I feel like I’m letting you guys down’ moment, without him actually even saying it. So before we left the locker room, I know Kyrie [Irving] embraced him. I did as well.
This is what a team is all about for them to pick their brother up in a time of need. It was uplifting to him, for sure, and it was for our team as well.”
Irving scored 30 points after only 10 in game two but wants Love back inside as well.
“When a great player like that isn’t playing, guys need to step in and play at a higher level,” Irving said. “What we did in game three was definitely a valiant effort for him and we dedicated that game to him.”
Added teammate J.R. Smith: “Kevin’s an unbelievable player. We’re a better team when Kevin’s on the floor.”
“He was very upset but LeBron and Kyrie and those guys told him, ‘We’re going to win this game for you, so get yourself healthy,’” Lue said. “He was all happy after the game so it was a big moment for us, but we definitely need him back.”
Foul play cools Curry
Curry blames his woes on being whistled for early fouls.
“Getting into foul trouble the last two games and not letting myself get a rhythm because of that,” Curry said. “You’re worried about staying on the floor and the lack of aggressiveness.”
Golden State’s Klay Thompson will play with a bruised left thigh after what he called a dirty game-three kneeing from Cleveland’s Timofey Mozgov.
“It doesn’t really hold you back. It’s just nagging,” Thompson said. “You’ve just got to play through it.”