Game 3 of the NBA Finals on Tuesday night followed a predictable script. The Cavaliers, seizing on the momentum of a bruising Game 2 victory and a rabid home crowd, built a huge lead and looked unstoppable. Golden State, the consensus better team of the two, played with an alarming lack of urgency — failing to understand yet the difference between not panicking and not grasping the moment — until it was basically too late and the Cavaliers had swiped away a 96-91 victory and a 2-1 series lead.
We didn’t learn much Tuesday that we didn’t already know. LeBron James is exerting his will in ways that are both familiar and transcendent. Steph Curry, when locked in, is a worthy MVP as a shooter but does not yet have LeBron’s battle scars. The Cavs have an impossibly small rotation that is being held together by glue and the best player on the planet. The Warriors are still adjusting.
In Thursday night’s Game 4, however, we will gather new information. In short, it will tell us everything we need to know about these two teams and the winner will win the series.
The historical edge is with the Cavaliers; in NBA Finals history, the team that takes a 2-1 series lead has an almost shockingly huge advantage, ultimately going 47-9 when it comes to winning the entire series.
The 2014-15 body of work edge is with the Warriors, who are three-point favorites in Vegas despite the game being in Cleveland.
But of course none of that will really matter in the context of 48 (or more) minutes of basketball Thursday. That vacuum of time will be all about how much LeBron can muster after a playoffs — and particular this series — in which he has already exerted so much mentally and physically. My guess is he’ll have plenty, but my guess is that so will the Warriors.
If the Cavaliers didn’t have Golden State’s attention after two overtime games in California — one a Warriors escape, one a Cavaliers escape — they most certainly do now. The question now is, how mentally tough is this Golden State team? Because while Thursday’s game will be about making shots, it will more so be about grinding, digging and finding a way to win.
That type of game and style has overwhelmingly favored Cleveland so far, but as much as Golden State might prefer to win pretty, I think the Warriors are going to have to at least get a little ugly to prevail.
If Golden State can do that, the Warriors will win the series in 7. If not, it’s the Cavs in 6 (maybe even 5). It might not be the best game of the series, but it will be the most important so far and the most fascinating by far.