CLEVELAND — LeBron James is doing more than ever. With the Cavaliers missing two All-Stars, he has no choice.
“I’m so outside the box right now,” he said.
And two wins from a championship — one like no other.
Pushed by a crowd howling to see Cleveland’s 51-year title drought end, James scored 40 points, his new sidekick Matthew Dellavedova added 20 and the Cavaliers survived Golden State’s furious fourth-quarter comeback led by Stephen Curry for a 96-91 win over the Warriors on Tuesday night to take a 2-1 lead in the NBA Finals.
James added 12 rebounds and eight assists in 46 minutes, his third stellar performance in his fifth straight finals. The Cavs, who won Game 2 at Golden State for their first ever finals win, got their first at Quicken Loans Arena, which shook from start to finish. They’ll have a chance to take a commanding 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series in Game 4 on Thursday night.
Through three games, James has played 142 of 154 possible minutes, scored 123 points and taken 107 shots. With Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love out with injuries, it’s all on James to deliver. So far, he has.
“I’m just trying to do whatever it takes to help our team win,” he said. “It’s the finals, and it’s whatever it takes. This is a totally different challenge.”
Cleveland nearly threw Game 3 away. The Cavs, who led 92-83 with 51 seconds left, had to withstand a scoring flurry by Curry.
The league’s MVP finally found his shooting touch in the fourth quarter, scoring 17 points as the Warriors, who trailed by 20 in the third, refused to go away. Golden State got a huge lift from reserve David Lee, but they rode Curry, who made five 3-pointers — his last with 18.9 seconds to pull the Warriors within 94-91.
Cleveland then caught a break when referee Danny Crawford blew an inadvertent whistle with 17.5 seconds to go after Golden State appeared to force a turnover. The officials, who have come under scrutiny for several missed calls in the series, then reviewed the play and it was clear that Klay Thompson was out of bounds when he made contact with the ball that Dellavedova was holding in his hands.
James was fouled and made two free throws with 16.8 seconds left. On Golden State’s last possession, Andre Iguodala appeared to get fouled on a 3-point attempt and the Cavs pulled down the rebound to close out a win that nearly slipped away.
“We’re a young group,” James said, “and like I told the group, ‘It’s OK.’ We haven’t been in a lot of these situations, if any, with this group.”
Curry finished with 27 points but had three turnovers in the final minute. Iguodala scored 15, Klay Thompson, 14 and Lee, who didn’t play in Games 1 or 2, had 11.
Despite the loss, Curry feels he’s now in a rhythm.
“I think I found something when it comes to how I’m going to be able to attack their pick-and-rolls,” Curry said. “I’ll keep that in the memory bank going into Game 4.”
James once again was helped by Dellavedova, the pesky Australian guard who hounded Curry for three quarters, dived on the floor for loose balls and came up with a huge three-point play, flinging in a layup as he fell with 2:27 left to put the Cavs up 84-80.
Dellavedova was treated for cramps and did not appear at the postgame news conference. The Cavs said he received IVs and was taken to the Cleveland Clinic for further procedures.
He left everything on the floor.
“He’s going to throw his body all over the place,” James said.
After two overtime games in Oakland, Game 3 didn’t have quite the same last-second drama, but it didn’t lack any intensity as players were sprawled on the floor fighting for loose balls like the Browns and 49ers scrambling for fumbles.
The Cavs seemed to take control in the third, building their 20-point lead with a breathtaking 12-0 run that included 3-pointers by James and J.R. Smith. Curry ended the spurt with a 3 and the Warriors opened the final period with a 13-2 blast to make it 74-68.
Curry, who went just 2 of 15 on 3s in Game 2, hit a couple did-he-really-just-do-that 3s in the fourth that have made him one of the game’s most captivating players before the Warriors ran out of time.
Still, they’re confident they can come back again.
“I’m telling you that right now,” Thompson said, “if we get our offence back, which we will, we’re going to win this series.”
As if Cleveland didn’t have enough injuries, Iman Shumpert, one of the team’s top defenders, hurt his left shoulder in the first quarter after running into a clean screen set by Warriors forward Draymond Green. It’s the same shoulder Shumpert injured while he was with New York earlier this season, sidelining him for six weeks.
Shumpert returned midway through the second quarter, knocking down a 3-pointer to put the Cavs ahead by seven but he played virtually with one arm the rest of the way.
“We can’t afford another injury,” James said, forcing a smile.
James wanted Cleveland’s crowd to be louder than he’s ever heard, and from the moment they entered the building, they tried to oblige.
They chanted “Del-ly, Del-ly” during warmups and alternated hollering “Let’s Go Cavs!” and “De-fense” on nearly every possession.
Now two wins from a title, Cleveland is only going to get louder.
Tom Withers, The Associated Press