CLEVELAND — LeBron James came home last summer to win a championship — one like no other.
He’s two wins away.
Pushed by a crowd howling to see Cleveland’s 51-year title drought end, James scored 40 points, his new sidekick Matthew Dellavedova added 20 and the Cavaliers survived Golden State’s furious fourth-quarter comeback led by Stephen Curry for a 96-91 win over the Warriors on Tuesday night to take a 2-1 lead in the NBA Finals.
James added 12 rebounds and eight assists in 46 minutes, his third stellar performance in his fifth straight finals. The Cavs, who won Game 2 at Golden State for their first ever finals win, now have their first at Quicken Loans Arena. They’ll have a chance to take a commanding 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series in Game 4 on Thursday night.
“This is a great moment and my teammates need me,” James said. “It’s my job to go out and lead those guys, teach those guys, yell at those guys and then come back and tell them it’s OK, let’s move to the next play.”
Cleveland nearly threw Game 3 away.
The Cavs led 92-83 with 51 seconds to go, but got careless with the ball and Curry heated up.
The league’s MVP finally found his shooting touch in the fourth quarter, scoring 17 points as the Warriors, who trailed by 20 in the third quarter, refused to go away. Golden State got a huge lift from reserve David Lee, but they rode Curry, who made five 3-pointers — his last with 18.9 seconds to pull the Warriors within 94-91.
Cleveland then caught a break when referee Danny Crawford blew an inadvertent whistle with 17.5 seconds to go after Golden State appeared to force a turnover. The officials, who have come under scrutiny for several missed calls in the series, then reviewed the play and it was clear that Klay Thompson was out of bounds when he made contact with the ball that Dellavedova was holding in his hands.
James was fouled and made two free throws with 16.8 seconds left. On Golden State’s last possession, Andre Iguodala appeared to get fouled on a 3-point attempt and the Cavs pulled down the rebound to close out a win that nearly slipped away.
“We’ve got some learning to do,” James said. “I’ve always said about this team, the best teacher in life is experience. And that last minute and a half, we’ve got a lot to learn from.”
After the final horn, Warriors coach Steve Kerr came on the floor and gave an earful to Crawford and the rest of his crew, Marc Davis and Derrick Stafford.
Curry finished with 27 points, Iguodala 15 and Lee, who didn’t play in Games 1 or 2, had 11.
James, who has had to play without injured All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, once again was helped by Dellavedova, the pesky Australian guard who hounded Curry for three quarters, dived on the floor for loose balls and came up with a huge three-point play, flinging in a layup with 2:27 left to put the Cavs up 84-80.
After two overtime games in Oakland, Game 3 didn’t have quite the same last-second drama, but it didn’t lack any intensity as players were sprawled on the floor fighting for loose balls like the Browns and 49ers scrambling for fumbles.
The Cavs seemed to take control in the third, building their 20-point lead with a breathtaking 12-0 run that included 3-pointers by James and J.R. Smith. Curry ended the spurt with a 3-pointer, the Warriors closed within 15 entering the fourth and they opened the final period with a 13-2 blast to make it 74-68.
And when Curry dropped a step-back 3, Golden State was within four and closing fast. His layup made it 79-76 and Curry missed a potential game-tying before Dellavedova and James combined on a gorgeous alley-oop. But Golden State wasn’t finished, and Curry, who went just 2 of 15 on 3s in Game 2, put on the kind of shooting display that has made him one of the game’s most captivating players before the Warriors ran out of time.
“Those 3’s Steph had in that fourth quarter, those are the same ones that he missed in the first three quarters,” James said. “He’s just a great shooter.”
As if Cleveland didn’t have enough injuries, Iman Shumpert, one of the team’s top defenders, hurt his left shoulder in the first quarter after running into a clean screen set by Warriors forward Draymond Green. It’s the same shoulder Shumpert injured while he was with New York earlier this season, sidelining him for six weeks.
Shumpert returned midway through the second quarter, knocking down a 3-pointer to put the Cavs ahead by seven but he played virtually with one arm the rest of the way.
James wanted Cleveland’s crowd to be louder than he’s ever heard, and from the moment they entered the building, Cavs fans were in an uproar.
They chanted “Del-ly, Del-ly” during warmups and alternated hollering “Let’s Go Cavs!” and “De-fense” on nearly every possession.
Now two wins from a title, Cleveland is only going to get louder.