LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers Defeat Golden State Warriors to Force Game 7

June 17, 2016

BN-ON367_0616nb_M_20160616232527James scores 41 points while foul trouble hampers league MVP Stephen Curry
LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Golden State Warriors, 115-101, Thursday at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, pushing the NBA Finals to a Game 7. ENLARGE
LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Golden State Warriors, 115-101, Thursday at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, pushing the NBA Finals to a Game 7. Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images

CLEVELAND—For weeks, the Golden State Warriors, arguably the greatest team in NBA history, have been playing with fire.

Their backs were against the wall during the Western Conference finals, where they fell behind 3-1 in a best-of-seven series with the Oklahoma City Thunder before mustering just enough heroic shooting to complete an improbable comeback. They had a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals over the Cleveland Cavaliers, but their most fiery and versatile player, Draymond Green, ended up hitting LeBron James in the groin late in Game 4, which triggered a one-game suspension. Without Green at home on Monday, Golden State dropped Game 5, in which fellow starter Andrew Bogut suffered a series-ending knee injury.

That led to Thursday’s Game 6, where the Cavs opened the game with an explosive run and never looked back, winning 115-101 at home to force a Game 7 in Oakland on Sunday.

Thursday’s result marked just the third time, in 33 tries, that a team down 3-1 in the Finals rebounded to force a seventh game. No club has ever come back from 3-1 to win the league championship.

The nature of Cleveland’s win, with the Warriors looking unglued at times, makes Sunday’s matchup even more interesting. Andre Iguodala, the star perimeter defender that Golden State has used most often on James, limped through much of the game and never looked comfortable with a tight back.

And most noteworthy: two-time MVP Stephen Curry, who was in constant foul trouble Thursday, looked as annoyed as he ever has, drawing an ejection from the game after throwing his mouthpiece into the crowd when called for a sixth and final foul.

The ejection—which will undoubtedly draw Curry a fine, but almost certainly nothing more with Game 7 on the horizon—also took place after James made a huge block on Curry, which brought the crowd at the Quicken Loans Arena to life again.

“It was a long walk [back to the locker room], because you don’t want to foul out and don’t wanna leave your teammates out there,” said Curry, who said he’d never been ejected from a game before. “But while I was walking back there, I immediately started thinking about Game 7.”

As Curry’s frustration was boiling over, James—who had been the unquestioned best player in the world before Curry’s rise over the past two years—had completely taken over the game, first with his pinpoint precision as a passer and later with his scoring. He poured in 18 straight points for Cleveland during one stretch through the third and fourth periods, and finished the contest with 41 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds. The showing came one game after he’d logged 41 points to help force a sixth game.

Kyrie Irving, who had scored 30 points in three consecutive games for Cleveland, finished with 23 despite hurting his foot during the third quarter of play.

Cleveland dominated early, holding the Warriors scoreless for the first five minutes of action before going up 31-11. The Warriors’ 11 points were the fewest scored by a team in the first quarter of an NBA Finals game during the shot-clock era.

The Warriors trailed by as much as 24 at one point, but made a handful of runs, cutting their deficit to seven at times during the second half. Yet they could never manage to recover from their dreadful start. Curry shot well from afar, hitting six of 13 from deep and scoring 30 points, while Klay Thompson poured in 25 of his own. Yet the team got nothing out of Harrison Barnes, who shot 0-for-8 and went scoreless, while Iguodala and Green combined to score just 13 points.

Going into the game, Golden State figured to have more success than it did in Game 5. Aside from getting Green back, coach Steve Kerr downsized to start the game with his team’s dominant “death lineup,” which features five players who can all handle the ball and space the floor with their shooting. But the Cavaliers, who have struggled at times to match Golden State’s lethal small-ball lineups, were able to counter quickly Thursday—in part because they were forced to.

Kevin Love, Cleveland’s third star who is slow-footed defensively and doesn’t fit into the tempo of this series, was sent to the bench a minute and a half into the action with two quick fouls. That allowed the Cavs to push the pace more, and they ultimately finished with 19 fast-break points for the evening, beating the Warriors at their own game to an extent.

The Cavs’ victory in Game 6 guaranteed that this year’s Finals rematch would go longer than last season’s, when the Warriors beat a short-handed Cleveland club, four games to two. The irony is that, while this series has been incredibly compelling on paper, the games have all looked one-sided. All six contests so far have been decided by 10 points or more—making it the first Finals in league history to fit that bill.

But at this point, all anyone cares about is which team will prevail on Sunday: Cleveland, a city that hasn’t won a title in a major professional sport in 52 years, or Golden State, which is trying to follow through on a season in which it won more games than any other team in NBA history.

Asked about that dynamic, and whether the season would ring a bit hollow if the Warriors can’t cap the season with a championship, Thompson said it would. “One-hunded percent,” Thompson said. “We expected to win another NBA championship coming into this season, so it’s either win the whole thing or bust for us.”