RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
In the NBA Finals, the underdogs are riding high. Heading into the tournament, the Cleveland Cavaliers were written off by many after injuries to star players. But Cleveland now leads the Golden State Warriors two games to one after another riveting contest last night. The Cavs won 96 to 91 and NPR's Tom Goldman was there. Good morning.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: All right. So after Game 2 on Sunday in Oakland, Cleveland's LeBron James challenged his hometown fans to bring the energy when the series shifted back to Cleveland. And did they do it?
GOLDMAN: Well, tell you what, take a listen. You be the judge.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Cheering).
GOLDMAN: Now, Renee, there is angst built into this wild cheering, part of the us against the world vibe in Quicken Loans Arena. The Jumbotron played a video with a guy exhorting the crowd, talking about overcoming the pain of the past. All of this feeling built up, of course, by 51 years of sports frustration. That's how long it's been since a Cleveland pro team won a championship. So that was pretty much the noise for three quarters as the Cavs defense once again stymied Golden State and the Warriors's best player, league MVP Steph Curry. The Cavs built a 20-point lead and it looked over.
MONTAGNE: But, I gather, it was not over, judging by the close final score. What happened in that final quarter?
GOLDMAN: Yeah, the Warriors picked up their energy. They became the aggressors. They mounted a fierce comeback. Curry started hitting those unbelievable long-range three-pointers. Veteran big man David Lee came off the bench and played really well. The Warriors got within one, but they couldn't get over the hump. Still, they considered the fourth quarter a positive sign, although head coach Steve Kerr sounded a little peeved that his team didn't get it going until late. Here's Kerr.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
STEVE KERR: Things aren't going our way, it doesn't matter. You got to fight through it. You got to bring energy. You got to bring life. You got to bring some emotion. And obviously, when the shots go in, it's easier to do that, but you got to do that when the shots aren't going in.
GOLDMAN: So, Renee, we're assuming we're going to see a lot more upbeat, emotional Warriors team early on in tomorrow's Game 4.
MONTAGNE: And, Tom, how surprising is it that we're talking about the Warriors with their heads down and the Cavaliers pretty much pushing them around for much of this series?
GOLDMAN: Oh, you know, it's very surprising. It's defying expectations, which is why players don't listen to expectations. Golden State was the best team in the league with the beautiful, fast-paced style of play. Cleveland was limited, we thought, with two all-stars out because of injury. But the Cavs have developed this new gritty defensive identity, which they're riding to the hilt right now. Also, LeBron James is taking another giant step toward basketball immortality with his play so far - 40 points last night along with 12 rebounds, eight assists. He's averaging 41 points a game for the first three games of this series.
MONTAGNE: And just briefly, Tom, we would be remiss if we did not mention the other Cleveland star of this series, the unlikely Matthew Dellavedova, another big night for him.
GOLDMAN: A playoff high 20 points, some amazing hustle plays again, and more of the great defense he showed in Game 2 when he helped shut down Steph Curry. Delly - and that's a lot easier to say than Dellavedova. Delly is becoming this cult favorite in Cleveland. He's the embodiment of what they're doing right now - scrappy, relentless, overlooked and wildly successful so far.
MONTAGNE: Tom, thanks very much.
GOLDMAN: You're welcome.
MONTAGNE: That's NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman speaking to us from Cleveland, Ohio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.