Given Cleveland’s 115-101 win over Golden State in Game 6 Thursday night, the NBA Finals now promises history, regardless of outcome.
To put this Sunday’s matchup into perspective: should the Cleveland Cavaliers win Game 7 of the NBA Finals, they will be the first and only team in 33 tries to win a Finals series after trailing 3-1. They are only the third team behind the Rochester Royals (1951) and the Boston Celtics (1966) to push the series to seven games amid such dire 3-1 series deficits.
Contrarily, the Golden State Warriors, with a loss, will have tallied as many defeats in the postseason as they had in the entirety of their historic 73-win campaign, evidence that the NBA’s second season is far more grueling than its first.
As victors, the Cavaliers would win the franchise’s first ever title, and the city’s first championship since the Cleveland Browns won their last crown in 1964, right on the cusp of the Super Bowl era.
As defending champions, the Warriors would win their second straight title, capping off a celebrated 73-win regular season on a particularly emphatic note, pacing them alongside the 1996-1997 Chicago Bulls as the greatest NBA team of all-time.
These playoffs have proven a test of endurance for the Warriors. Prior to their first round series against the Houston Rockets, a series Golden State would ultimately win in five games, their back-to-back MVP Stephen Curry, unanimously so this past regular season, sprained his ankle and would be limited in the first game of the series, a 104-78 blowout of Houston at the Oracle Arena, in which Curry scored 24 points on 5-of-7 from behind the arc. The tweaked ankle forced Curry out of Games 2 and 3.
Thanks 4 all the prayers & messages. Can feel all the positive energy. God is Great! All things considered I’m Gonna be alright! #DubNation
— Stephen Curry (@StephenCurry30) April 25, 2016
In Game 4 in Houston, Curry slipped on moisture on the court, effectively spraining his right MCL, ousting him from the rest of the series and a portion of the Warriors’ next series in the Western Conference semifinals against the Portland Trailblazers. By Game 4 of that second round tilt, Curry would triumphantly return, scoring 40 points, 17 in overtime, an NBA record in any OT frame, to ferociously encourage Golden State toward a 132-125 victory. The Warriors would go on to win the series 4-1 against a lesser Portland team, beneficiaries of playing a hobbled Los Angeles Clippers team, who watched Blake Griffin suffer various leg injuries and Chris Paul break his elbow, the round before.
Against a high octane, Russell Westbrook lead Oklahoma City Thunder club, who ousted the San Antonio Spurs, a team that posted its greatest ever regular season in terms of win total, the Warriors were mired in a 3-1 series deficit and looked finished. Thanks to the heroic efforts of Curry, the leading scorer of Game 5 (31), Klay Thompson, leading scorer of Game 6 (41), who scored 19 in the fourth quarter on five threes, and Curry, top scorer again in Game 7 (36), the Warriors pushed past the Thunder despite tremendous play from Westbrook and Kevin Durant, who might very well have played his last game in OKC with free agency pending this summer.
Ultimately, the Warriors’ Western Conference finals victory would result in a rematch of last year’s Finals matchup against the Cavs.
For different reasons entirely, the Warriors faced the threat of losing its most vocal leader, Draymond Green, whose penchant as a pest magnetized his feet to the nether regions of Oklahoma City Thunder’s Steven Adams on two occasions, the second of which amounted to a fine and ejection.
Green was not so fortunate in repeating the act on LeBron James in Game 4 of the Finals, which resulted in his being suspended for Game 5 of the NBA Finals, which the Warriors lost 112-197 at home after taking a decisive 3-1 lead in the series.
“I move on from the suspension. That was Game 5; we’re here in Game 6, so it’s behind us.” – Draymond Green https://t.co/hT8bWbFRc4
— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) June 16, 2016
Now, without Andrew Bogut (bone bruise in his leg), the Warriors’ best rim protector alongside Green, and Andre Iguodala hobbling with a balky back, Golden State, despite holding homecourt advantage in Game 7, face the real possibility of being on the receiving end of losing a series despite going up 3-1, just desserts perhaps for benefitting from Draymond Green not being suspended at any time during the Thunder series when they were down 3-1 themselves.
On the other hand, the Cavaliers barreled their way to the NBA Finals, going 12-2 against the Detroit Pistons, Atlanta Hawks, and Toronto Raptors in three consecutive rounds, winning ten in a row to start the postseason, even going a 23-day stretch between the first and second rounds having played only four games. The dominance and rest restored Cleveland’s efficiency, which saw Kyrie Irving and LeBron James completely eviscerate their competition, their magnum opus coming in Game 5 of the NBA Finals, when the pair became the first duo to score 40 points or more each in a single NBA Finals contest. In that Game 5, LeBron also accrued 16 rebounds and 7 assists, a transcendent performance that saw his jump shot return in full force: he went 4-of-8 from distance, a figure not fathomed on a consistent basis since his earlier Miami days (the trend would continue in Game 6, where LeBron went 3-of-6 from deep).
Then, in Game 6, Cleveland’s last home game of the postseason, LeBron took the wheel, again scoring over 40 points, becoming only the sixth player in NBA Finals history to muster back-to-back 40 point games. To go with his 41 points, the product of some incredible dunks and alley oops, LeBron managed 8 rebounds and 11 assists, regularly involving Tristan Thompson, whose 15 points and 16 rebounds were a revelation without Bogut inside to stop him. Irving, with 23 points, continued his efficiency, hitting all seven of his free throws, a feat he accomplished with only a minimal interior presence to thwart him. Despite Kevin Love‘s relative absence in the box score, the Cavs have benefitted from LeBron’s dominance and Kyrie’s proficiency, which was severely lacking in last year’s Finals with the Duke product and lottery pick scrambling with a gamut of injuries.
Before last night, Irving had scored one more point in the series than LeBron, even despite a horrid Game 2 performance. In the series, Kyrie is averaging 27.3 points, functioning as one of the game’s best one-on-one players, touting a prowess for ball-handling that knows no equal. While LeBron will turn 32 next season, Irving will only be 24, with many elite years left in him. Essentially, Kyrie is proving his worth to a club that, with his full presence in the lineup, they could hypothetically be working on its second title. Here is to LeBron and Cleveland brass not forgetting this point, should they choose brashly to blow the roster up in the offseason.
Consequently, Stephen Curry was both the Warriors’ brightest spot and its worst enemy in defeat in Game 6. Curry, Golden State’s leading scorer, managed 30 points on 6-of-13 shooting from the perimeter; his last three was his 27th of the series, setting an NBA Finals record for three-pointers made, breaking a previous mark established by the Spurs’ Danny Green against LeBron’s Miami Heat in 2013.
Curry would foul out late in the fourth quarter, triggering a rather petulant act: Curry threw his mouthpiece at an unsuspecting fan, who just so happened to be Andrew Forbes, son of minority Cavs’ owner Nate Forbes. Despite an eventual apology, Curry was ejected and he, along with Steve Kerr, will be fined $25,000 a piece, the head coach receiving his punishment for criticism of the referees, who, by Kerr’s standards, proclaimed three egregious calls against his MVP.
Alas, Curry let the tension of the moment get to him, and now he, along with his poor shooting club that managed 11 points in the first quarter of Game 6 despite being the most efficient offense in 24 years, has found himself amidst undue pressure, with momentum and mounting injuries (Bogut and now Iguodala) swinging the series in Cleveland’s favor, even if they will play arguably the most pivotal game as far as LeBron’s legacy is concerned on the road.
— PJ Media (@PJMedia_com) June 17, 2016
In gauging the Cavs’ and the Warriors’ performances in this series, one aspect remains crystal-clear: even if Cleveland loses the series, they tout two players worthy of consideration for the newly minted, Bill Russell NBA Finals MVP award in LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, the former of whom makes a far more compelling case.
According to The Ringer, Bill Simmons’s newly branded website, Danny Chau reports that prior to last night, LeBron, in sixteen elimination games, amassed 518 points, nine more than the Golden State Warriors managed as a team in the first five games of the 2016 NBA Finals. With his 41 points on Thursday night, LeBron now has 559 points in seventeen games, going 9-8 when faced with elimination, scoring a staggering 32.9 points a game in the process.
To this point, with 181 points, 68 rebounds, 51 assists, 13 blocks, and 16 steals in total across six games, LeBron is leading all players in such outputs, averaging 30.2 PPG, 11.3 RPG, 8.5 APG, 2.2 BPG, and 2.7 SPG throughout these NBA Finals.
In last year’s Finals, James averaged 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds, and 8.8 assists per contest. Given this feat, LeBron now holds the distinction as the first and only player in NBA Finals history to lead his team and the opponent’s team in all three areas. Had he pushed last year’s series to seven, LeBron would have been the first NBA Finals MVP since Jerry West in 1969 to win the award despite featuring on the losing side.
With a loss on Sunday night, LeBron could very well earn that dubious honor anyway, although James appears committed to bring a title to his home state and end the city of Cleveland’s championship drought.
Such a feat cannot be taken for granted: villainized after his 2010 “Decision” to “take his talents to South Beach,” LeBron, having played in six straight NBA Finals, has once again curried the favor of his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers, and could very well leave an impact on his franchise greater than any player in any sport could possibly imagine, especially given the magnitude of LeBron finally delivering a Larry O’Brien Trophy to the woeful “Mistake by the Lake.”
All it takes is one more transcendent performance from LeBron to bring home that one elusive title for Cleveland. Given these last two games, the odds appear to be in King James’s favor.