CLEVELAND: LeBron James gathered his teammates outside the locker room before taking the floor Wednesday night (Thursday in Manila) to deliver a simple but poignant message.
“Follow my lead,” he told them. “And do your job.”
The Cleveland Cavaliers did. As a result, they’re still alive in the NBA Finals.
James had 32 points and 11 rebounds, Kyrie Irving scored 30 points and the Cavaliers never trailed in blasting the Golden State Warriors 120-90 for their first win in this series. The Warriors still lead the series 2-1 with Game 4 Friday at Quicken Loans Arena.
J.R. Smith broke out of a shooting slump to score 20 points on 7-of-13 shooting, including 5-of-10 on 3-pointers.
Cavs coach Tyronn Lue started Richard Jefferson at small forward in place of Kevin Love, who sat out with a concussion. James shifted into Love’s spot at power forward and the Cavs looked like a completely different team than the one that was crushed by a total of 48 points in the first two games at Oracle Arena.
“We’ve tried a lot of different lineups that haven’t worked,” Lue said before the game. “We’ve been big, we’ve been small. But putting LeBron at the 4 and trying to match their speed I think will help us out a lot.”
Tristan Thompson had 14 points and 13 rebounds, including seven offensive rebounds, and James handled Draymond Green better than anyone else has in this series. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson went scoreless in the first quarter as the Warriors fell behind by 20 on another off shooting night from the Splash Brothers. They finished a combined 4-of-16 from 3-point range.
James all but guaranteed a victory after calling Wednesday a “must-win” game and a “do-or-die” situation since no NBA team has ever rallied from a 3-0 deficit. Then he went out and played like it. James bear-crawled across the court chasing after a loose ball, then soared high for a lob dunk when his head was even with the backboard. He even swatted away a Curry shot during a dead ball in the second half to deliver a subtle message to the Warriors.
Irving, likewise, responded with arguably his best performance of the series. James took over some of the ball handling, freeing up Irving to focus more on scoring at times and he still finished with seven assists.
The Cavs were better with two stars instead of three, leaving a dilemma if Love is cleared before Friday. Irving scored 16 points in the first quarter and the Cavs raced out to a 33-13 lead while Curry’s shooting problems continued. Curry is shooting 44 percent in this series, including 10-of-25 from 3-point range.
The Cavs led 51-43 at the half without any scoring from the bench. In fact, Iman Shumpert took the only two shots from a reserve, but he had to be pulled early in the second quarter after killing four possessions in a matter of minutes with turnovers and questionable shot selection.
His 3-pointer early in the fourth quarter was the only basket scored by a Cavs reserve.
Yet the Cavs led by 20 in the first quarter and maintained a lead throughout the first half because Thompson and Curry went scoreless in the first quarter and the Splash Brothers missed their first nine shots. Thompson scored their first basket on a drive with 6:34 left in the first half, and Curry followed with his first basket less than two minutes later.
Curry scored 19 points and Thompson finished with 10. Harrison Barnes had 18 points for the Warriors.
Thompson played most of the night hobbled on a sore leg. He suffered a thigh contusion in the first quarter after he was hit on a screen from Timofey Mozgov. Thompson retreated to the locker room temporarily before returning.
Green finished with six points, seven rebounds and seven assists on 2-of-8 shooting. He scored 28 points in Sunday’s Game 2 victory over the Cavs.