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Cleveland Cavaliers unofficially lost the NBA title in the final minutes of Game 3

By Chris Fedor • Jun 14, 2017 at 4:30 PM

OAKLAND, Calif — In the hours after the Cleveland Cavaliers' Game 3 loss, Kyrie Irving was despondent, still beating himself up over his missed step-back 3-pointer with less than 30 seconds remaining. Kyle Korver was in agony, replaying his missed corner triple, what could have been the biggest shot of his career.

Both players took the defeat hard because they knew its true meaning. Everyone in the organization did. It was more than one loss.

"I thought we played well, got better each game, but against good teams you can't give away games like Game 3 at home and then expect to come here and win in a hostile environment," Cavs head coach Tyronn Lue said Monday night. "When you have them beat, you have to beat them. You can't go back and forth or teeter on the fence. You have to beat them."

That fateful Wednesday night, the Cavaliers had the Warriors right where they wanted them. The Eastern Conference champs believed going into the series that they could rattle the star-studded Dubs, that the 67-win juggernaut would burst when pressured.

Just one year earlier, the Cavs were the more poised Finalist. Members of the organization felt that trait would again be one of their few advantages.

At home, clinging to a six-point lead after a J.R. Smith triple, the Cavs finally had that late-game advantage. It was all they needed to shatter the Warriors' aura of invincibility, hand them their first postseason loss and allow the doubt, seemingly left over from last year's collapse, to creep back in.

Then, a little more than three minutes later, the Cavs were left stunned, the game -- and the title -- having slipped through their grasp. In that pivotal 3:09, a stretch dotted with questionable decisions on offense to go with a few baffling defensive breakdowns, the Cavs learned that the Warriors indeed had the mental strength needed by a champion.

Tested for one of the few times during a spotless postseason, the Warriors responded like champions, proving that talent alone didn't thrust them back onto the game's biggest stage.

That night, the Warriors didn't panic or fold. Not even Irving's offensive outburst could demoralize them.

Instead, they began to erase some of the nightmares that haunted an unfriendly arena. Their success laid the foundation for the NBA title that awaited in Game 5. The Finals officially ended Monday with the Warriors' 129-120 win, a dominant 4-1 series finish. But two games prior is where the Cavs' championship hopes faded.

This summer, when they reflect on the season and try to use that Finals heartbreak as fuel for a 2017-18 return, the Cavs will spend much of the off-season bemoaning Game 3.

"It stings. It hurts us all," Tristan Thompson said. "We all sacrifice for the betterment of this team. And you guys see how close of a group we are. It starts from the top -- Coach Lue and the coaching staff. They put in a lot of time with us and got us prepared and gave us a good game plan. But we just fell short. It hurts right now."

Cleveland rallied to win the next game, avoiding a Finals sweep with an historic shooting performance that breathed life and hope into the fan base. But the Warriors had ultimately accomplished exactly what they wanted on their trip to Cleveland, winning one of two and going back west for a coronation in front of the hometown fans.

Despite some Cavaliers trying to play mind games -- the pressure was all on the Warriors, right? -- that was never reality.

The minute the Cavs squandered Game 3, the pressure shifted to them. A minuscule margin for error going into the series shrunk even more and any chance of another triumph would require near-perfection against the league's best.

The Cavs had to win four straight against a team whose longest losing streak was three. There were 126 teams that fell behind 3-0 in an NBA playoff series prior to the Cavaliers and none climbed all the way back. Those were the odds.

The Cavs were better Monday than in either of the first two road losses in the Finals. They came out swinging, as the magnificent shot-making from Game 4 carried over to the early portion of Game 5. The Cavs buried eight of their first 10 shots, attacked the basket relentlessly and took an early lead that sent feelings of trepidation through Oracle Arena.

But the Warriors kept fighting back. For the Cavs, their margin for error had shrunk to less than one bad game or poor quarter. It couldn't allow even a bad stretch at the wrong time.

But that came in the second period, as the Warriors went on a 21-2 run over a 4:30 stretch. It was reminiscent of the Warriors' 11-0 charge to finish Game 3, with numerous plays that will be recounted in the next few months.

Smith missed 3-pointer. Kevin Love missed a layup, as did Irving. James missed a fadeaway, Korver a 3-pointer. Irving and Love did the same, sandwiched around a blocked James trey.

Those numerous missed chances will certainly lead to an off-season of what ifs.

Welcome to the Finals. That's the line between jubilation and torment. Every series of the Cavaliers-Warriors Finals trilogy had its turning point.

In 2015, it came during the second half of a Warriors Game 3 loss, a night Curry started shaking free of the Cavs' defensive stranglehold.

Last June, it was the final minutes of Game 4, when James tossed Draymond Green to the floor and stepped right over him disrespectfully, an act of a desperate man trying to give his team any advantage. James smartly baited Green, causing the volatile small forward to lose his cool, swing at James' groin earning a Game 5 suspension. That incident opened the door for Cleveland's historic comeback and the Cavs charged right through it.

This year, it was poor Game 3 stretch capped by Durant's stare-down dagger in front of James, a ruthless triple that ended Cleveland's last-gasp attempt to defend its title.

"You just pick yourself back up and you keep pushing and you keep going," Irving said. "And it's fueling me inside right now, I can feel it. I'll talk to all my teammates, look them in the eye and tell them that I'm proud of them because it was an unbelievable season. I mean, there's so many moving parts and I couldn't be more proud to be part of an even better organization, including my teammates that I'm around constantly every day.

"A few things that can you take away from the series, but the only (way) to go is to grow from here."


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