CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Sage veteran James Jones summed up Game 3 of the NBA Finals perfectly after the Cleveland Cavaliers 120-90 blowout win against the Golden State Warriors.
"We found us," he said.
The Cavs had one of their best offensive showings of the postseason, scoring 120 points and shooting 48-of-91 (52.7 percent), including 12-of-25 (48 percent) from 3-point range Wednesday night against a defense that seemingly had them flummoxed and searching for answers in the first two games of the series.
But it's how they did it that mattered most.
"I thought we were aggressive offensively, attacking the basket, getting out in transition, running the floor," Cavs head coach Tyronn Lue said following the game. "We talked about it before, that opens up shots for J.R. Smith and those guys in transition. So that's how we have to play."
They also increased the intensity on the defensive end, holding the high-powered Warriors to their lowest point total of the postseason.
Missing MVP – The Cavaliers have made Stephen Curry uncomfortable in the NBA Finals. They are going to play the percentages, even if it means leaving other players open. Curry is the target.
The Cavs are crowding him when he has a live dribble and taking away his space. When he's off the ball, he's getting grabbed, bumped and pushed, with the Cavs using physicality to frustrate him. It's what legend Oscar Robertson suggested this year when taking a veiled shot at the two-time MVP.
"They were playing aggressive defense and they came out with a big punch," Curry said. "I didn't do anything about it or play my game, and for me to do what I need to do to help my team, I have to play a hundred times better than that, especially in the first quarter, to kind of control the game, and I didn't do it."
The Cavs' defense had plenty to do with Curry's struggles, but their offense was a big part of the equation as well.
Criticized for his defense, the Cavs went right at Curry. Kyrie Irving, who scored 30 points and dished out eight assists, blew by Curry at times. Smith shook free off the ball, making Curry pay for any minor slip-up. For the second straight game, the Cavs' approach and the Warriors' willingness to switch on defense, got Curry in early foul trouble, something that also affected his rhythm.
They have made a conscious effort to wear him down and do anything possible to keep him from igniting, even if it means swatting a dunk attempt after the whistle.
"Well, 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," James said. "No matter if it's after the whistle or not. That was just my mindset. 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, even though he still made some."
Curry finished with 19 points on 6-of-13 from the field, including 3-of-9 from the beyond the arc. He had just three assists against six turnovers. His first points came at the 4:05 mark of the second quarter.
The last time Curry was held under 20 points in three straight games was last season, a stretch that started on March 16, 2015.
In three games, Curry is averaging 16.0 points on 43.6 percent from the field, including 40 percent from long distance. Most telling, he's averaging more turnovers per game (5.0) than assists (4.3).
Smothering Klay – The other Splash Brother, Klay Thompson, hasn't fared much better in the NBA Finals, a carryover from last year.
While he struggled against the DeMar DeRozan in the previous round, Smith deserves credit for hounding Thompson and sticking with him while Golden State runs Thompson through a series of screens.
"Never relaxing because they're constantly moving," Lue said of the approach. "And the players have done a great job of doing that. Some other guys have been open because of that, but I thought our team has done a great job of just being aware where Steph and Klay are, and also never relaxing."
Thompson scored just 10 points on 4-of-13 (30.7) from the field, including 1-of-7 (14.2 percent) from 3-point range. It's the third straight game for Thompson being held under 20 points. His first points came at 6:34 of the second quarter.
On a night where Smith rebounded from two poor offensive games, it was his defense that had the Cavs talking.
"All year long that's what he's been doing," James said. "The offense comes very free to him and very easy, but the defensive side is what's making him so great. The contribution that we got from him from the scoring was all predicated on what he did defensively, you know, and he got in great rhythm. He hit some huge shots for us tonight, obviously, but I think it all started on the defensive end where he was much better than he was offensively."
Smith's athleticism allowed him to chase Kyle Korver around in the Atlanta series, keeping the sharpshooter from getting free looks at the basket. The Hawks grew frustrated and brought Korver off the bench. Of course, Golden State won't be doing the same, but Smith has been having the same kind of success as the primary defender against Thompson.
In nine Finals games, Thompson is averaging 14.5 points on 50-of-126 (39.6 percent), including 18-of-60 (30 percent) from beyond the arc.
Smith has been at the center of Thompson's troubles.
"I mean, me and Steph haven't really shot the ball as well as we want to," Thompson said. "That's all right. We're still up 2-1, and law of averages, it will all even out. Just got to keep the confidence high."
Smith gets going – The Cavs swingman denied having any mental hurdle to clear after his Finals got off to another horrid start. After scoring eight points, taking nine shots and making two triples in the two games at Oracle Arena, Smith said all he had to do was make a few shots.
That's what he did on Wednesday night, pouring in 20 points on 7-of-13 from the field, including 5-of-10 from beyond the arc.
"It means a lot," Lue said when asked about Smith's impact from 3-point range. "When he's making those threes and making those shots, it really opens up the paint for LeBron and Kyrie and Kevin and those guys to have space around the rim. If we play fast and play with a pace, he can get out in transition and get those threes, because when LeBron's driving the basketball, two or three guys have to stop him or he's going to get a layup. If not, if they do help, they'll be kicking out to J.R. for shots. Same for Kyrie. When he's in transition, guys have to load up to him and J.R.'s going to be open for shots, so that's what we did tonight."
The Cavs couldn't play fast in Oakland because they couldn't stop the Warriors' offense. That changed in Game 3. It also allowed Smith to keep from getting smothered in the halfcourt while trying to operate against the Warriors' stingy defense.
The Warriors knew it was coming, they knew the Cavs would try to get Smith involved early. They couldn't stop it.
It's not a coincidence that the first offensive play of the game was a screen to get Smith an open look from distance. He missed. But it allowed him to get engaged early. It was the Cavs way trying to get their sniper going.
"It really doesn't do much for my confidence, honestly," Smith said. "I let that side of my brain turn off. I mean, I look at it, it's a great opportunity to start the game off, but I know how I want to dictate the game, and that's on the defensive end and trying to stop Klay as much as I can. Try not to let him catch the ball. Make it tough for him as much as I can, and let that dictate my offense. Let that dictate my offensive transition, get open shots, play from there."
Perhaps Smith didn't feel like he needed Wednesday from an offensive standpoint. But it's the first time he has scored at least 20 points in the NBA Finals and his 3-point barrage helped the Cavs win the battle from beyond the arc, 12-9.
"Well, since 1 and 2, my teammates have been talking to me, stay aggressive, be aggressive," Smith said. "When you get the ball, take your shot. If you don't have it, give it up. But for the most part everybody's been supportive. Since we landed the other day, it was pretty much like a clean slate. Get back in the gym. Get back to our routines. Drive the same route I go to the gym every day, and just get back on our home floor and play the right way."
"I just think he gave us speed," Lue said. "I thought he gave us the physicality on Harrison Barnes, and that we were able to slide LeBron over to Draymond Green, which helped us out a lot. We were able to switch pick-and-rolls and things like that. So just being able to get up the floor offensively, pushing the ball, pushing the tempo, and R.J.'s aggressiveness on the defensive end."Richard Jefferson's spark –With Kevin Love sidelined because of a concussion, Jefferson got the start. Lue liked what he saw.
Jefferson scored nine points and grabbed eight rebounds. He gave the Cavs another threat to attack the basket off the bounce. While his numbers don't stand out, Lue hit on the key point of the move. It moved James to the 4 where he was matched up with Green for most of the night.
Green is the Warriors' heartbeat and James didn't let him get ticking early.
It was a lot to ask, of course, but James' defensive presence took away one of the Warriors' pet sets, the 1-4 pick-and-roll, as James was able to switch onto Curry when needed or contain Green.
Suddenly, some of those open looks that Green received en route to a 28-point scoring outburst in Game 2 were contested shots thanks to the speed and athleticism of James. Some of those easy passes to the cutters were thwarted.
Green was held to six points on 2-of-8 shooting to go with seven rebounds, seven assists and two turnovers. Call it the LeBron effect. It's a much better match up for the Cavs on defense.
Lue's manuever also allowed James to operate from the low post more.
"I just wanted to play a little bit inside and outside," James said. "I started off the game going in the interior and just trying to fan out their defense a little bit. We did a great job of spacing out with R.J., with Ky, and also with Swish, so it gave me a little bit more room to work down in the post.
"I missed a ton of chippies, but I was loving the space that I was getting and my teammates created for me. So just kind of following the game plan. It's something that we wanted to do tonight and were able to execute it."
James seems to play with a different tenacity at that spot. It should continue, even if Love gets cleared in time for Friday night.
Slow starts – The Warriors opened the first quarter with a traditional lineup, attempting to play Andrew Bogut even though the Cavs downsized. It backfired. By the time Bogut exited the game, the Warriors were trailing, 21-8.
After Golden State rallied, cutting the halftime deficit to just eight, Steve Kerr, for some reason, started the third quarter with Bogut again. The lineup produced similar results.
"You mean, like take Bogut out of the lineup," Kerr asked when questioned about his decision to not lean on the smaller lineup that helped the Warriors rally in the first half. "Not really. We thought Boges played well. Boges has done a good job for us in the series. We didn't feel like we had to match what they were doing because of their change in their starting lineup. We can always make a quick substitution. So I don't think that had anything to do with losing the game. It wasn't lineups. It wasn't substitution patterns. We just got our tail kicked."
He has a point, but with Bogut on the court, the Warriors were outscored, 11-3, to open the third. It was a strategic error. All of their hard work, cutting the lead to single digits, was erased in four minutes as the Cavs pushed the lead back to 16.
At that point, it seemed like game over. Starting slow doomed the Warriors.