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Jerry Sullivan: Hot-shooting, emotional Cavs live to play another day

CLEVELAND -- Honestly, I didn't know if the Cavaliers had this in them. They were coming off a crushing loss in Game Three two nights earlier. No NBA team had won any playoff series after falling down 3-0, and eight of the last nine to lose the first three in the Finals had been swept.

You wondered if they had the will to extend the series, necessitating a plane ride to Oakland. What was the point? The Warriors had won 30 of their last 31 games and hadn't lose a meaningful game with Kevin Durant in four months. They were being anointed as the best team of all time.

But the Cavs had other plans. On an astonishing, emotionally charged Friday night at Quicken Loans Arena, they reminded us you should never underestimate the heart of a champion, especially when it beats inside the chests of Kyrie Irving and LeBron James.

They didn't go quietly, like so many teams have in a 3-0 hole. The Cavs put on a stunning offensive show, setting Finals records with 86 points in the first half and 24 total three-pointers as they beat the Warriors, 137-116, to send the series to a fifth game.

Cleveland made it clear from the opening tap that they weren't going down easily, that they had no intention of being the hapless pawn in Golden State's run to a 16-0 postseason, a dubious historical footnote.

The Cavs responded as we've come to expect from a LeBron James team, with ferocity and passion, as if to say 'Not in our house, not tonight." For one night, at least, they reminded us they were the defending NBA champions and threw a shiver of doubt into the supposedly unbeatable Warriors.

The Cavs got rousing performances from players who had struggled in the first three games: Tristan Thompson was a force on the boards early; Kevin Love had 23 points and hit six threes; J.R. Smith came to life with 15 points, all on three-pointers.

But as usual, it was James and Irving who rose to the moment. Irving, who had beaten himself up for his missed fallaway jumper in the clutch late in the third game, scored 40 points and made 7 of 12 threes after missing all seven in Game Three.

"The magnitude of the games, especially the last game, it hit me in a very deep place," said Irving. "You want to play extremely well and know it's do-or-die. You hear some chatter going on through the Warriors locker room, them wanting to end it here. It was another do-or-die and we had to leave it out there."

James was magnificent, attacking the rim, making crisp passes in the half-court offense and giving pause to anyone who buys the recent narrative that Kevin Durant has surpassed him as a player. James is the best player in the game, and he proved it again.

He finished with 31 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists. There's no calculating what it means for him to perform at such a high emotional level, despite a 3-0 hole and the universal belief that his Cavs had no chance to win this series.

There he was, attacking Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, two of the finest defenders in the league, and converting a three-point play on the break. Later, he drove the lane, flipped the ball high off the backboard, caught his own carom and dunked it to give the Cavs a 96-77 lead.

There was a defiant, audacious quality to the Cavs' performance. Teams generally melt when they go down 3-0, in any sport. They lose their emotional will. James's grew stronger. I've never seen a more emotionally inspired game from a team on the verge of being swept.

"We're a resilient group, a resilient team," Love said. "We've been in this situation before. Every series is different, every game. But we never count ourselves out. Every game we have a great game plan and we expect to win. Right now, it's becoming one game, one quarter, one possession at a time."

Everyone got caught up in it, including the crowd and even the officials. At one point, James and Durant jawed at each other. Draymond Green, ever on the edge, got one technical and appeared to pick up a second, disqualifying T until the refs decided Steve Kerr had committed the first.

"We knew we had to be physical," Love said. "That's who we are ... there were a lot of fouls on both sides, but that's part of it. We feel that should be part of the game."

You expected the Warriors to go on one of their patented offensive runs and get back in it. The Cavs were again engaging the Warriors at a frenetic pace. You wondered if it would catch up with them again, as it had Wednesday.

But James and the Cavs wouldn't let up. They continued raining three-pointers on the NBA's best three-point defense. They had a Finals record of 20 by the end of the third quarter.

"Our defense was not sharp," said Warriors head coach Steve Kerr. "They were sharp and got it rolling. I think the big thing was they brought a level of physicality that we did not match. It was an emotional game. We knew they were going to come out and fight. It's what you expect at this level."

James hit a step-back three to end the third, giving the Cavs a 115-96 lead. The Warriors hadn't given up more than 115 points in a game since Jan. 6. It was that sort of night at the Q. And still, you felt the Warriors had one more run in them.

Not on this night. James set up Richard Jefferson for a layup, then hit a jumper to make it 124-105. Midway through the fourth quarter, LeBron had another triple-double. No one was doubting the Cavs' energy now.

As the game clock wound down and the day clock struck midnight, I thought how different it would feel if the Cavs hadn't blown that six-point lead at the end of Game Three. The series would be tied and the Finals rubber match between these remarkable rivals would be coming down to a best-of-three.

"We have to go there for Game Five and it'll be unbelievable," Irving said. "We have to hit them first and we're relishing the challenge. We welcome all  challenges.. But I'm glad we got monkey off our back by winning one game against this great team."

The Cavs have a daunting task ahead. They have to win three in a row, two on the Warriors' home court. They did it last season, but this is a more monumental hill to climb. A year ago, Green was suspended for the fifth game. Steph Curry had a bad knee. The Warriors were without center Andrew Bogut.

But whatever happens, Friday was a proud, defiant night for the defending champions. The playoff motto in town is "Defend the Land." At least they defended the "Q" and told the mighty Warriors, you're not celebrating here. Forget 16-0.

Maybe people should stop debating whether the Warriors could beat the great NBA teams of the past and wait until they beat the team in front of them.

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