CLEVELAND — The NBA Finals has advanced from an inevitable coronation to a winding series of attrition. What you thought you knew LeBron James surely stuffed through the basket a few fast breaks ago. What’s left is one epic, 48-minute fight for history.
Cleveland, the motley crew built to appease James and confuse everyone else, finally makes sense. Golden State, a consistent thrill in a loose new era of the NBA, looks tired, injured and lost. These are two remarkable, dissimilar developments that have turned a series the Warriors once led three games to one into a winner-take-all Game 7 on Sunday in Oakland.
Twice, the Warriors have been unable to close out the Cavaliers, the latest failure coming during a 115-101 loss Thursday night at Quicken Loans Arena. All of a sudden, Cleveland is surging. And Golden State is cramping.
One elusive victory from a second straight championship, one elusive victory from capping a record-setting 73-9 regular season with a historic title, the Warriors appear to have little left, other than grit and moxie, and it’s awfully hard to fend off James using intangibles.
And now Cleveland’s hopes are down to a single triumph, too. One more victory and the Cavaliers will become the first team in NBA Finals history to overcome a 3-1 series deficit. This is only the third time in 33 tries that a team trailing 3-1 has forced a Game 7. One more victory, and the Cavaliers will end a 52-year championship drought for the city’s pro teams. And what a fashionable way it would be to exorcise a demon, winning three straight times against an opponent that doesn’t lose in bunches.
Most troubling for the Warriors is that they don’t appear to be panicking or choking. Certainly, they aren’t playing well, but you would be doing the Cavaliers a disservice if you focused only on Golden State. Led by James, the best player of his generation, Cleveland is using length, athleticism, speed and the extraordinary shot-making ability of James and Kyrie Irving to change the momentum. Meanwhile, the Warriors are fading. After seven months of great basketball, they’re a lumbering, limping and lethargic version of themselves.
After forward Draymond Green was suspended for Game 5, the Warriors fumed privately and wanted to end the series in Oakland to make a point. In the past, it had been that simple. A focused and ornery Golden State equaled victory. But that didn’t happen.
On Thursday night, there were reports that Golden State was “locked in” — their favorite word for focused — and ready to end this series. Instead, Cleveland led by as many as 22 points in the first quarter, and the Warriors were out of sorts all night. It’s not as simple as talent and will right now.
And then there are the injuries. Andrew Bogut suffered a left leg injury in the third quarter of Game 5, and he’s out for the rest of the series. While he hadn’t played well, Bogut was missed in Game 6. Golden State put Andre Iguodala in the starting lineup and slid Green over to center, employing its “Death Lineup” — one of the most effective rotations in the NBA — from the opening tip. All it got the Warriors was a 20-point deficit.
Early in Game 6, Iguodala injured his back and moved gingerly for the remainder of the game. So Bogut is out, Iguodala is hobbling, and Steph Curry is still playing through a knee injury from earlier in the playoffs. These aren’t excuses for why the Warriors have lost a 3-1 lead. But they are reasons to wonder whether this team has a Game 7 left in it.
Standing in their way will be James, who is playing even better than he did during last year’s Finals, when he carried the shorthanded Cavaliers and helped them extend the Warriors to six games. James finished with 41 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds on Thursday. It was his second straight 41-point game. He is shooting jump shots with confidence. That’s supposed to be the weakest part of his game, but James has made 7 of 14 three-pointers over the last two contests.
One year ago Thursday, the Warriors won the first championship of the Curry/Klay Thompson/Steve Kerr era. James, who was in his first season back in Cleveland after four years in Miami, was left to watch another team celebrate on his home floor. A year later, he was hugging his teammates and engaging in secret handshakes.
On the other hand, Curry, who had 30 points, fouled out with 4 minutes 22 seconds remaining, and the normally mild-mannered MVP lost his cool. He threw his mouthpiece and was ejected.
“He had every right to be upset,” Warriors Coach Kerr said. “He’s the MVP of the league. He gets six fouls on him. Three were absolutely ridiculous.”
As the Cavaliers left the court, chants of “One more win!” echoed through the arena. Just a few days ago, the thought seemed crazy, but it has come to this: One game, for the championship. One game, for history.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.