CLEVELAND — As LeBron James and Kyrie Irving poured in shot after shot Wednesday night in Game 3 of the NBA Finals, Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr said he kept repeating the same message to his players.
“They’re going to get tired,” Kerr recalled saying, speaking of James and Irving. “Stay in front of them. Force them into outside shots, if you can. Fatigue will play a role.”
Ultimately, Kerr believes fatigue did play a part in his team closing the game on an 11-0 run en route to a 118-113 win that gave the Warriors a 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.
“We just felt like the way they play, Kyrie and LeBron had it going the whole game, but that’s pretty taxing to go one-on-one the whole game,” Kerr said. “Both those guys were amazing, 38 and 39. But that takes a lot out of you.
“And I think when you get guys playing 45, 44 minutes, basically attacking one-on-one the whole game, it’s — you hope eventually it’s going to take its toll,” Kerr added. “I wasn’t sure after a while; they just were going nuts. But I think that we just stayed with it, and our defense finally kicked in.”
James scored 39 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and tallied nine assists in about 46 minutes. Irving finished with 38 points in about 44 minutes.
But the Cavaliers missed their final eight shots, and overall, they shot 3-of-20 on contested shots in the fourth quarter, with James and Irving going 1-for-10.
Neither James nor Irving admitted to being tired.
“No, only missed shots,” James said. “We missed shots. I gave everything that I had, so at times throughout the game I was tired, but that’s just because I was just playing as hard as I could. But I was able to get second and third and fourth winds. I don’t contribute as losing this game because we got tired. We missed some shots, and they made some.”
Said Irving: “It’s the Finals. We had our horses in. Myself and Bron, eclipsed the 43-minute mark, playing pretty well, then they made some big-time plays down the stretch. They’re a juggernaut of a team, do a great job of spacing out the floor, keeping a high tempo and just made some big-time plays down the stretch. You got to give credit when credit is due.”
Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said after the game that he knew going in that he would need to play James and Irving heavy minutes, especially late, to give Cleveland a chance.
“I knew it was going to be a tough game for us,” Lue said. “And for us to win, I knew I had to give LeBron at least a two-minute blow in that first quarter, because in the second half, he might not get a blow. So Kyrie was playing well, the game was on the line, so I decided to stick with those guys, being at home, down 0-2.”
Did his two stars ultimately run out of gas?
“I don’t know. Great players, they always dig deep and have their will to win. And they gave us everything they had,” Lue said. “Durant made eight straight points that was very critical, three big shots, and that’s why they brought him here, for those situations. I thought our team scrapped and competed. I can’t be disappointed with the effort and how we played, but they made the plays down the stretch that we didn’t execute defensively or offensively, and they took advantage of it.”
If Irving and James seemed tired, Warriors guard Klay Thompson said he didn’t think it showed until the final minutes.
“Those guys had to do so much for them and they were doing it tonight, and they got better contributions from their bench. But I think we have an advantage in our depth; they don’t have as much depth as we do,” Thompson said. “But those guys can win you a game, and you almost saw it tonight in LeBron and Kyrie.
“So if we have the same result Friday, those guys both have a great game, but we got to limit their other guys to not having big games. And didn’t seem like they got tired, but they might not show it, but it’s hard to do that for 48 minutes.”
Asked about Kerr’s message that James and Irving would eventually wear down, Kevin Durant said he doubted it ever happened.
“It didn’t look like it to me,” Durant said. “I mean, they both shot over 50 percent from the field, over, yeah, 50 percent. My math’s not really good, but they shot over 50 percent, they both had almost 40 points, and they did it for 40-plus minutes. They played extremely well, but I just think we stayed in front of them late in the game and got to contest some shots and rebound the basketball. But they had it going all night, you got to give them credit.”
James also was asked about it being physically and emotionally draining to have such a small margin for error against a talented team. His answer ventured into the topic of fatigue.
“On me, personally. I mean, obviously, it’s physically and emotionally draining because I give everything to the game and want to put myself and my teammates in a position to be successful,” he said. “… I lay it all on the floor, and I did that tonight, gave everything that I had, both mentally and physically. So obviously, I’m drained right now, ready to get home. But you’re going against a team like this and you put together a game like we had where we had an opportunity, it’s definitely draining.”