CLEVELAND — Kyle Korver couldn’t seem to get to sleep on Wednesday night. He tried to disconnect, to separate himself from what he’d just been through — rimming out a 3-pointer from the left corner with a two-point lead and 52 seconds left in Game 3 of the 2017 NBA Finals, a shot he made 59 percent of the time during the regular season and has drilled at a 46.7 percent clip during the 2017 postseason, a shot created by the penetration and vision of LeBron James and a shot the Cleveland Cavaliers brought him in specifically to make in this specific situation.
He ate some chicken tortilla soup, took a sleeping pill, and read a book about Kobe Bryant. (Who better than the Mamba to inspire you to forget the last miss and move onto the next make?) Still, sleep wouldn’t come.
“We all had plays that we want back, and certainly a shot I had in the corner was one that I thought it was in,” Korver said during the Cavs’ Thursday media session. “It left my hand. It felt good.”
It wasn’t. It wasn’t, and Kevin Durant grabbed the rebound, and six seconds later he’d dotted James’ eye to turn a two-point deficit into a one-point Golden State Warriors lead, driving the dagger into Cleveland’s heart and putting the Cavs on the brink of a long, hard summer.
“Obviously, I don’t think anyone slept last night,” Korver told The Vertical. “Tough night to sleep.”
After that sleepless night, the Cavs went back to work on Thursday, looking for any answer they could find to the only question that matters: How in the hell do you come back from that?
Coming off 96 minutes marked mostly by Warriors domination in the Golden State, the Cavs made their presence felt Wednesday night. They took the fight to the Dubs at Quicken Loans Arena, with James continuing to rage against the dying of the light, and Kyrie Irving making his long-awaited arrival in the Finals.
They flipped the script in the third quarter, turning what had been the Warriors’ haymaker in Games 1 and 2 into a grind-it-out proving ground by holding star scorers Durant, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson to nine points on 10 shots in the frame — seven fewer than Irving managed by himself, as the Cavs stormed to a 94-89 lead heading into the fourth quarter. They stayed the course, keeping Durant and Thompson at arm’s length early in the fourth and taking a six-point lead on a J.R. Smith triple from the right wing with 3:09 to go.
For the first time in the series, they were right there. And then … they weren’t. And now, two nights after the sucker punch, they have to find a way to summon up an even greater store of energy, an even better game, even more firepower and grit and solutions. How do you do that? How, after being reduced to rubble, do you come back strong enough to survive 48 hours later?
To hear the Cavs tell it, the process starts with remembering everything before the Warriors’ late-game flurry.
“I liked the way we competed,” said Cavs head coach Tyronn Lue. “I thought we played hard. I thought we really scrapped. But we just have to clean up a few mistakes. Fouling teams in the penalty, offensive rebounds, getting back in transition, things like that. But for our overall grit and toughness, I liked the way we competed.”
Said Cleveland forward Kevin Love: “We were exactly where we wanted to be, with two, three minutes to go. A real tough game on both ends for them, put pressure on them on the defensive end and offensively we pushed the pace and got a lot of what we wanted. At the end of the day, we gave ourselves a chance, and it came down to the last few possessions, and we … both teams executed, got a lot of good looks, but ultimately, they hit shots when they needed to.”
Whatever the reason — the length and aggression of Golden State’s defense, fatigue, a cruel twist of fate — the devil was in those details for the Cavs. Just 3-of-18 on corner threes and 7-for-30 on uncontested threes, per SportVU player tracking data shared by NBA.com’s John Schuhmann. A 0-of-8 mark in the final 3:08, including five misses from long range, and two last-quarter turnovers that turned into four Warriors points. A list of defensive miscues long enough for Lue to detail a half-dozen by name during his Thursday media session, which gave Golden State new life at points in which Cleveland had a chance to put its collective foot down.
“We were playing hard. We had great effort. It was just mental lapses,” Cavs guard J.R. Smith said. “Different times we were supposed to switch out, we didn’t switch, or supposed to trap, we didn’t trap. And those things can cost you a game, which it did for us. So we just got to be better mentally and just try to work through it.”
Coming back 100 percent physically promises to be hard enough, especially with James and Irving having left a pound of flesh and a pint of blood on the court in their 44-plus minutes in Game 3. Recovering mentally and emotionally from a game that left a grizzled competitor such as James “drained” is an even tougher ask.
“From a physical standpoint, you just try to do everything possible to recover. But from a mental standpoint, there is no other option, other than to prepare for Game 4 as best you can,” Irving said. “That’s it. This is as much as it was for all the games. This is as do-or-die as possible as I’ve ever faced in my career. So we understand what’s at stake: our whole entire season. There’s really no other decision other than to leave it all out there.
“You just can’t let the emotions linger on, as best you can. Like I said, there’s no other choice. There’s no other choice.”
Golden State guard Shaun Livingston said after Game 3 that the Cavs “threw their best shot tonight, I think.” Even so, the Warriors refused on Thursday to entertain the notion that they’d finished off Cleveland, repeating variations of the same mantra — you want to get it done, you don’t want to mess around, you’ve got to stay in the moment, etc. They expect an even tougher fight come Friday night.
“We were able to take the punch, the many punches that they threw, and were able to come out with a win,” Draymond Green said. “But close-out games are always the hardest. This is a team that’s going to come out and say, ‘We’re down 3-0. We’re not laying down.’ They’re going to come out and fight. We know we have to try to pull a full 48 [minutes] together if we want to close this thing out.”
The worry if you’re a Cavs fan? That a Death Lineup chokehold and a hail of Durant jumpers are all the Warriors need to erase the best full 48 Cleveland can muster in a matter of moments.
“I feel like if we come in with the same energy, same effort, physicality, as we did in Game 3, we give ourselves a good chance to win,” James told reporters on Thursday. “Now, does that result in a win? It’s to see. Because we played well in Game 3, and they were able to get that one as well. … It’s been a long season, and you hate for it to end this way. So mentally and physically, I got to prepare myself for that.”
All that’s left for the Cavs to do, then, is get off their feet and try to get some rest before facing the toughest challenge of their professional careers — this time, hopefully, without the unforced errors and late-game lapses that put them on the verge of elimination.
“Watching the film, there’s so many things that we can do so much better. Just mental mistakes and not getting back on defense and messing up some coverages,” Korver said. “We have another level to go to, is what I’m saying, and I think that’s what we can hold onto and give us confidence for Game 4.”
Then, with a smirk, he added: “Got to win one in a row before you can win four in a row.”
More from The Vertical:
• Why K.D. was destined to join Golden State
• Harsh reality: Cavs are cooked – now and forever
• Confession of LeBron: ‘I’m drained right now’ after another Finals loss to Warriors