CLEVELAND -- For the Warriors, it was worse before it was over. Before Golden State officially, finally lost Game 3 of the NBA Finals to the Cleveland Cavaliers 96-91 on Tuesday night, they looked hopeless and borderline humiliated.
With 2:52 left in the third quarter, the Warriors were down 20, having scored an anemic 48 points on 60 shots. Stephen Curry was mired in a 2011 LeBron James Finals moment, having scored five points on 2-of-9 shooting.
Everything shifted late, but it didn't change the result. David Lee entered the game and made incisive plays off pick-and-rolls. Curry uncorked six 3-pointers, a few of which didn't look physically possible. They finally ran. They finally ran offense. Now we're left to consider whether this was a team finding itself, or an aberrational moment amid a collapse.
The question is whether this is a repeat of their Western Conference semifinal series, which the Warriors won in six games after going down 2-1 to the Memphis Grizzlies. That's the party line from Golden State.
"This reminds us so much of the Memphis series," Klay Thompson said.
There's a difference, though. After Game 3 against the Grizzlies, the Warriors' locker room was calm, cheerful even. There was an obvious belief that this was mostly a matter of open shots finally going down.
After Game 3 in Cleveland, players were defensive, annoyed. After a reporter asked Draymond Green whether the players needed to "pump each other up," the response wasn't altogether inviting.
"Whatchu' mean? Like we living in some pity party? We need to go talk to each other? Like we going to go pity together and try to get each other going? I can tell you right now, you far off with that one, bro," he said.
There was angst over opportunities lost.
"I mean, that shot [Matthew Dellavedova] hit when we were down one when Steph fouled him, that was just lucky, man," Thompson said. "I guarantee he doesn't practice that shot so -- big player though -- and we're not going to let this game deflate us."
Thompson and Green both espouse confidence and all but promise a better result in a massive Game 4.
When asked about his reluctance to shoot 3-pointers, Green said, "Kind of haven't been shooting it with confidence, huh? I'll say it. But it'll be different on Thursday."
Thompson issued a prediction: "If we get our offense back, which we will, we're going to win this series."
For the Warriors to reclaim their offense, they'll need their MVP to save them. The 67-win Warriors have the reputation of a stacked team, and this is largely true, at least when it comes to defensive talent. Offensively, the Warriors leverage Curry's incredible shot-making to cover up flaws. When he struggles, everyone struggles.
"Whether I'm making shots or not, I've got to stay -- I'll use the word vibrant -- just kind of having fun out there," Curry said. "Because the team definitely feeds off my energy and the joy for the game. So if it's not going our way, or not going my way specifically, I've got to find different ways to get us going."
Until Curry's stretch run of 22 points in the last 15 minutes, he had been stymied by Dellavedova, Iman Shumpert and the capable switches of Tristan Thompson. Even James Jones got in on Cleveland's Curry Rules, denying him after basket inbounds passes at every opportunity.
The spell was broken when Curry started taking "bad" long-range shots. Earlier in the game, he was trusting his teammates. That trust wasn't rewarded. Harrison Barnes finished Game 3 with zero points. Green, whose back is ailing, was 2-of-10 from the field. The Warriors at their best feature Green making pick-and-pop 3-pointers. It's crucial for Golden State's spacing. His slump and subsequent hesitation is helping Cleveland grind this offense to a halt. On one key Warriors turnover, Curry passed to Green, expecting him to be at the 3-point line. Green, who had just missed his last trey try, was nowhere near the arc.
There's something to the "vibrant" description. Golden State is best offensively when Curry's playing loose, dancing with the ball, unleashing shots that would get a regular player benched. Otherwise, the Warriors aren't playing the "sexy, cute" basketball that James described as Cleveland's antithesis.
Speaking of James, he's draining the life from the Warriors, one isolation possession at a time. He was great on Tuesday night, scoring 40 points in 45 minutes of bludgeoning offensive play. He also protected the rim and hit clutch free throws.
Right now, one-man brutal ball is besting vibrant ball. The team that's fun, the one where everyone seemingly gets along, is losing to a squad with a fissure between its coach and some of its players. (It's noticeable when Dellavedova is the only Cavs player to return coach David Blatt's postgame hug attempts.)
For the Warriors to reverse this offensive implosion, they must somehow rediscover their freewheeling selves. That's easier said than done on this big a stage. The Warriors are saying it will happen. Curry is saying it will happen.
On Thursday, we'll learn if vibrant can survive the Finals crucible.