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Cavaliers grind past the Warriors' talent for 2-1 Finals lead

LeBron James and the Cavs are halfway through to pulling off the most stunning upset in NBA history.

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

NBA Finals Game 3: Cavaliers 96, Warriors 91  Series: Cleveland leads 2-1

The Cavaliers are way less talented than the Warriors. As a team they don't have the shooting, the passing or even the speed of the juggernaut from Oakland, that much is obvious. They're two games from a championship, however, after their latest grind-fest, a 96-91 triumph that gave the delirious Cleveland crowd their first home win in a professional team sport's crowning stage since Jim Brown was carrying the ball for the Browns in the 60's.

And they're doing this, preventing the Warriors from even scoring in the 60's until the fourth quarter the past two games, precisely because they know they're the less talented team. It's possible that a healthy Cavs squad with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love complementing the extraterrestrial could've found themselves in this same spot, up 2-1 against the favored Warriors, but those games would've been pyrotechnics and laser shows. They wouldn't have been 72-55 through three quarters.

When LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade in Miami, the prevailing wisdom was that they would overwhelm the rest of the league with their explosive offensive talent. And eventually, they did evolve into an incredibly efficient attack. What made the Heat a very good team almost from the beginning though, while their stars were figuring out how to work together with and without the ball, was their ultra-aggressive, trapping, switching defense that lived in passing lanes and created turnovers by the bushel. They won two championships just as much because of their defense than their offense, if not more so.

By 2014 though, the Heat were running on fumes. Their role players were old and creaky. Bosh had lost some of his verve in hedging out all the way to the three-point line and being able to recover back to protect the rim. Wade was a liability in transition. Miami still made it out of the weakened East, but they were more reliant on offense, and the talent of James in particular, than ever.

Against the Spurs, who passed and shot like few teams in NBA history, never mind anyone in the Eastern Conference, the sated Heat tried to run and gun with them, tried to match three for three. They acted like they were the favorites and were too proud to match San Antonio's scrap and effort. They didn't do anything to slow their rhythm and pace. They didn't play angry and didn't have the Spurs hunger. By the end of Game 5, after having absorbed their third straight blowout loss, they were relieved it was over.

James has had a million interviews and commercials about his motivations for returning to the Cavs, but I believe he was being honest and genuine here in his "I'm coming home" essay for Sports Illustrated announcing his return.

I want to win next year, but I'm realistic. It will be a long process, much longer than it was in 2010. My patience will get tested. I know that. I'm going into a situation with a young team and a new coach. I will be the old head. But I get a thrill out of bringing a group together and helping them reach a place they didn't know they could go. I see myself as a mentor now and I'm excited to lead some of these talented young guys.

Certainly Irving and Love, and to a lesser degree Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters are talented, but it's tough to argue that James left Miami for a better roster on paper than the one he left. No, the appeal had to be the chance to play with younger, fresher, hungrier talent. Guys who hadn't won anything and weren't satisfied. Guys who would dive on the floor and scramble on defense like their hair was on fire and crash the boards at both ends. James wanted to play with people who'd match his desire. Maybe that wouldn't be Irving and Love necessarily, but he was determined to find a new group of role players than the graybeards he had in Miami.

And that takes us to the present, with Matthew Dellavedova diving all over the floor recklessly and relentlessly, expending so much of himself that he needed an IV to treat severe cramping after the game. The Australian flummoxed Stephen Curry for the second straight game for most of three quarters, helping the Cavs steadily build their lead. Unlike Game 2 where Dellavedova was every bit the disaster as the man he was lauded for shutting down, this time around he pumped in 20 points, including the game-turning "and-1" drive against Curry with Cleveland leading by just one late.

The Cavs had led by 20 at one point late in the third quarter against a shell-shocked Warriors team who had everyone on the roster save for Andre Iguodala go cold simultaneously. Klay Thompson couldn't come close to matching his Game 2 heroics, Harrison Barnes was so humiliated from getting taken to the woodshed by James to answer on the other end and Draymond Green was all bark and no bite as he's been all series long.

Curry finally found his stroke in the fourth quarter, scoring 17 points on a number of high-difficulty attempts, but he was aided in his efforts by an unlikely source in David Lee, who Steve Kerr dusted off the bench in complete desperation. Lee was more effective on the business end of the pick-and-roll than the struggling Green and quicker to kick the ball to open targets in the corner despite his rustiness. Green was so out of rhythm that after Dellavedova's three-point play gave the Cavs an 84-80 lead, Curry threw a blind, behind-the-back pass out of bounds when he was trapped, expecting Green to pop out to the three-point line as he has all season. Green was five feet away, well inside the line, watching helplessly as the ball flew out of reach. James canned a three on the next possession and the Warriors never got closer than three the rest of the way.

Lee's terrible defensive instincts against the pick-and-roll was the main reason he fell out of Kerr's rotation in the first place, but perhaps he wouldn't be as much of a liability against the Cavs, who Iso James so much and don't possess prolific scoring threats elsewhere on the front line. Kerr has to do something to revive his offense because Green can't seem to finish against Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov and his jumper is broken. He's also not getting any calls because the refs are tired of his incessant whining.

I agree with Haralabos Voulgaris, if I'm Kerr I start Lee and Iguodala the next game. I'm not sure what more Kerr needs to see with that Barnes/James match-up. James zooms past him so quickly that Andrew Bogut or Festus Ezeli don't even have time to step over in time to challenge. Barnes offers nothing offensively when his jumper isn't going, either. Iguodala, on the other hand, is not only the Warriors most effective defender on James, but he can dribble and pass and initiate the offense on occasion, freeing Curry to work off the ball. Shaun Livingston can also be helpful in that regard.

I suppose all these lineup machinations I'm proposing justify mentioning James in some depth, oh, 1,200 words into the recap. He had his best game of the Finals so far on Tuesday, and was particularly brilliant in the second half on the way to 40 points (14-of-34), 12 rebounds, 8 assists, 4 steals and 2 blocks. James sank four big free throws to ice the game in addition to that big three and he also forced two turnovers from Curry in that stretch (one coming on a play where it looked to all the world that he plain tackled the dude). James took the briefest of rests to begin the second and fourth quarters, and dominated the game in every single way conceivable despite the heavy workload. He controlled the tempo throughout, walking the ball up the floor and grinding the pace to a halt, seemingly taking the full allowed eight seconds to get the ball past the half-court line on every possession and then the full shot clock.

It doesn't matter if he generates a good shot or a bad one Cleveland via a shot or a pass, as long as the possession is not a live ball turnover, it's a win for the Cavs, getting them 24 seconds closer to the finish line. They're not winning these games so much as surviving them with a lead when the clock runs out. Love and Irving are long gone, "Delly" is in traction after games, Iman Shumpert left for a time with a shoulder injury and James is moving around like a mummy just walking to and from the postgame podium. They're playing 6.5 guys and doing it with smoke and mirrors. And they know it.

It's ironic, for a fella who never went to college, that James has the whole squad embracing an NCAA Cinderella mentality.

See, this guy gets it.