What Went Wrong for the Golden State Warriors in Game 3

Jun 8, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving (2) celebrates in front of Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson (11) and forward Harrison Barnes (40) during the four quarter in game three of the NBA Finals at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 8, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving (2) celebrates in front of Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson (11) and forward Harrison Barnes (40) during the four quarter in game three of the NBA Finals at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports /

If the Warriors are the villains this time around, they got caught monologuing last night.

Last night, the Golden State Warriors got knocked to the mat by a Cleveland Cavaliers squad that looked every bit like the one that steamrolled the entire Eastern Conference.

They got shelled from behind the arc, were defended well, and maybe worst of all, they got out-small-balled. In the face of endless chatter that maybe they didn’t deserve to be in their position, everything that didn’t work in the first two games finally did. Their starters overwhelmed the Warriors, and the game was essentially over in the third quarter.

The question is, what happened?

The Cavs’ starting lineup for Game 3 was an interesting one. They moved LeBron James to power forward (somewhat expected), started what has to be an elaborate animatronic of Richard Jefferson (also somewhat predictable), and left Tristan Thompson (the surprise), Kyrie Irving, and J.R. Smith where they always have been. This choice of starters is where most of the problems for the Warriors began and ended; it seems odd at a glance, since it’s not truly small with Thompson in it, and it’s certainly not a big lineup with LeBron at the four. What it does do is leave Tyronn Lue with lots of options on the bench.

This is the first time that Steve Kerr has been beaten coaching this series. He didn’t go small at the right times, and he didn’t have answers for some of Lue’s counters. Thompson is athletic enough that he’s not a total loss in the speed column when small-ball lineups look to run. The fact that Lue can use a lineup that’s semi-small but keep in a more traditional big man than Draymond Green is huge, because it forces Golden State to try and answer with one of their bigs. Andrew Bogut isn’t as quick or explosive. Festus Ezeli can be an offensive liability when he tries to do too much.

Normally that wouldn’t be a huge issue, since Bogut has been fantastic so far. That’s where the athletic small guys come in. Bogut’s not dangerous to Cleveland on perimeter switches, and he’s not quick enough to handle any of their other four starters in this lineup. Most of the time, he also can’t keep up with Thompson on the boards. The speed and shooting for the Cavs in this setup largely neutralizes what he brings to the table because he’s only there to counter Thompson on offense, except there’s nothing other than rebounds being asked of him.

When Thompson isn’t in and Cleveland stays small, their center becomes Channing Frye, a dangerous perimeter player with legitimate passing ability. Golden State doesn’t have any big men that answer well on the perimeter defensively. Last night, Cleveland essentially made Bogut unplayable.

Another interesting move was countering the Warriors bench when they went big in the second. Rather than trying what Kerr often does and trying to outrun the tall Golden State bench with a small lineup (which doesn’t work for Cleveland’s bench because half of them aren’t big perimeter threats), he went bigger, unleashing Timofey Mozgov to counter Ezeli’s athleticism.

Of course, this is all meaningless if the Cavs’ small lineup doesn’t hit its shots. It did last night. Irving wasn’t going to stay cold the whole series, but he went off. J.R. got his shots. They attacked Stephen Curry on the perimeter fairly often, and it paid off this game. The most troubling part, however, was LeBron hitting shots outside of 5 feet.

Matchup issues aside, the absolute worst thing that could happen to the Warriors in this series (outside of a Draymond Green suspension) is LeBron finding his jumper. A huge part of their defensive gameplan so far has been betting against his shooting outside the restricted zone and covering his secondary options. If he becomes enough of a threat to start dragging interior defenders out of the paint, it creates huge issues for Golden State on defense.

Big men won’t be able to stay inside when he gets forced outside, and perimeter players will need to compensate, opening the door for perimeter shooters and back-door cuts. It’ll become a lot harder to hide Curry, and miscues on defensive switches will become far less forgiving if Lebron pick-and-pops become a legitimate threat.

Jun 8, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) dribbles the ball as Cleveland Cavaliers guard Iman Shumpert (4) defends during the second quarter in game three of the NBA Finals at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports /

Finally, the Warriors need the Splash Brothers if they want a win away. The bench can’t do it all, and the Cavs are visibly feeding off of a rabid Quicken Loans Arena crowd. Curry got it going a bit towards the end, but it was way too little too late. Thigh contusions aside, Klay Thompson had nice stretches, but looked poor offensively most of the game.

Part of that is how much better the Cavaliers looked on defensive switching in this game. They covered on the perimeter better than they did in the first two games, and trapped effectively, generating Curry turnovers. That being said, Thompson and Curry did not play intelligently early on.

As spectacular as guarded pull-up threes and faders are, there is absolutely no reason those should be happening in the opening five minutes. The Warriors’ first few shots were heavily guarded, off-balance shots from the perimeter that missed badly, and allowed Cleveland to leap out to an early lead the Dubs never recovered from. They even managed to waste a good game from Harrison Barnes, who’s been quiet so far this series. Curry needs to be more aggressive, and they need to shoot smarter. There’s no reason they should be taking desperation shots early in an away game in the NBA Finals.

This might seem harsh and reactionary, but it’s deserved after last night’s loss. There’s no good defense for the other team’s shots dropping, but the Warriors looked downright complacent at times, and they didn’t play a smart brand of basketball most of the game. They’re supposed to be the Mountain here; if they aren’t careful, they’ll end up as Oberyn.

It can’t be said enough: the Cavaliers are dangerous, and not to be underestimated. There’s too much talent there, and it’s hubris of the worst kind to assume that LeBron James is going to lie down for a sweep.

It’s still a good bet that they will recover. They should still be the favorites in Game 4, and to finish out the series in Oakland next week. That being said, they need to be careful and stay hungry. Two wins does not a series make, and taking one in Cleveland is the best way they can close this out. It just won’t be easy.