OAKLAND, Calif. — These are the moments that create legends. In Game 7 of the NBA Finals on Sunday night, the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers were tied inside the final minute of one of the great games in the history of the league, on the grandest of stages.
And with one flick of his wrist, Kyrie Irving not only launched himself into the annals of history, but he also smashed a 52-year curse.
Irving’s three-pointer with 53 seconds left lifted the Cavaliers to a 93-89 victory in front of a stunned sellout crowd inside Oracle Arena, ending the city of Cleveland’s 52-year championship drought and making the Cavaliers the first team to recover from a three-games-to-one deficit in NBA Finals history.
“History was made tonight,” Irving said. “This was one for the books. Literally one for the books.”
After Stephen Curry had missed a pull-up three-pointer with 1 minute 14 seconds remaining, Irving found himself isolated on the right side of the court as the shot clock wound down. Irving, the definition of a tough-shot maker, rose up and drained the three — giving Cleveland the lead for good.
Curry — who wound up going 6 for 19, including 4 for 14 from three-point range, for 17 points in an underwhelming performance — then came down and missed another shot with 30.7 seconds to go, sending the ball back to Irving, who finished with 26 points, and the Cavaliers. And after Irving drove to the rim and had his initial shot blocked by Andre Iguodala, he found a cutting LeBron James coming down the lane.
James was fouled hard by Draymond Green, landing hard on his right arm and — at least at first — appearing to be too injured to continue. But he eventually got up and, after missing the first free throw, drained the second to complete a triple-double of 27 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists along with three blocks — including a ridiculous chase-down block of Iguodala to prevent a go-ahead layup with 1:50 remaining.
James was a unanimous choice for his third Finals MVP, to go along with his third championship, after playing all but 71 seconds of the decisive game. It was the final act James needed to complete the promise he brought to the city when, after being born 40 miles south in Akron, Ohio, he was drafted first overall by the Cavaliers 13 years ago.
Curry tossed up one final three-pointer as the clock ran down, one that bounced harmlessly away, and as time expired the Cavaliers sprinted onto the court and surrounded James, who appeared to collapse under the weight of the moment and the release of a lifetime’s worth of emotions.
“I came back for a reason,” James said while wearing the net around his neck and with his children around him on the dais. “I came back to bring a championship to our city.
“I’m coming home with what I said I was going to do.”
The sense of history was palpable inside the arena Sunday night, with the stakes impossibly high for both teams. For Golden State, it was one more chance to finish off what would be the greatest season in NBA history, capping a record-setting 73-win regular season with a second straight championship. For Cleveland, it was a chance to end a half-century’s worth of heartbreak and for James to deliver what would be the signature moment of his spectacular career.
And for the first time in a series that has seen everything else, the Warriors and Cavaliers proceeded to play a tight, compelling game more than worthy of such an occasion. Emphatic blocks, fearless drives, three-point bombs, 20 lead changes and 11 ties — this game offered everything.
The Finals was irrevocably altered when Green was suspended for Game 5 after accumulating too many flagrant foul points — giving Cleveland the opening it needed, down three games to one, to make this a series again. So it was fitting Green was the player who kept Golden State in the game throughout the first half of Game 7.
Known for his all-around ability at both ends of the floor, Green stood out most Sunday for his three-point shooting — normally the specialty of teammates Curry and Klay Thompson. Green — who finished with 32 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists — had 22 points in the first half, including going 5 for 5 from three-point range, to make up for Curry and Thompson going a combined 5 for 17 from the floor for 14 points.
The Warriors went into the locker room with a 49-42 halftime lead. And after both teams traded the lead back and forth in the third, the Warriors entered the fourth with a 76-75 lead, 12 minutes away from another title.
But it wasn’t meant to be.
“We had a phenomenal season,” Warriors Coach Steve Kerr said. “Obviously we did something that’s never been done before. Couldn’t finish it off.”
Since the end of the regular season, the expectation had been that the past two months would be little more than a coronation.
Reality, though, turned out to be far different. Knee and ankle injuries derailed Curry’s playoffs, and he never consistently recovered the form he showed during his unanimous MVP regular season.
Then Green was suspended, changing the course of these NBA Finals after it had appeared the Cavaliers were close to being sent home for the summer after losing Game 4 at home.
Cleveland took advantage of it and, with one flick of Irving’s wrist, erased a half-century’s worth of pain and frustration.