LeBron James is going back to Cali
This is how we got to Game 7
In the Western Conference finals, the series changed the moment Oklahoma City Thunder’s Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant laughed at the concept of reigning league MVP Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors being an underrated defender. The Thunder, despite once being up 3-1, didn’t win another game. On Sunday, Cleveland Cavalier LeBron James has a chance to complete his own version of the “Curry Comeback.”
Following James’ impeccable Game 5, the talk heading into Game 6 centered on whether he could maintain that high level of play with Golden State’s Draymond Green on the floor.
Yes, he can.
James’ 41 points, eight rebounds, 11 assists, four steals and three blocks (and only one turnover) in Cleveland’s 115-101 victory Thursday night was an instant classic, forcing a Game 7 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California, on Sunday.
“At the end of the day, I’m going to give my teammates everything that I got. I’m gonna give my coaching staff everything I got in Game 7 and I’ll be satisfied with the result,” James, who scored or assisted on 27 straight points (he scored on 18 consecutive), told sideline reporter Craig Sager after the game.
Given the past 12 months — in particular the past week — arriving at a Game 7 just seems poetic. Had it not been for O.J.: Made In America, the Cavs and Warriors would have the best reality series on television, a series defined by five distinct elements:
The element of boredom: The first three games of the series — a highly anticipated rematch of the 2015 NBA Finals — were nothing short of mundane, decided by a total of 78 points. James hadn’t morphed into an Avenger yet. The Splash Brothers were still relatively dry.
The element of surprise: Things changed late in Game 4 when someone pressed the Buffalo Wild Wings button. Golden State won the game, taking a commanding 3-1 lead. And Curry had his best game of the series up to that point. Life was on the up-and-up for the Warriors. Until it wasn’t. Green may or may not have flopped. James stepped over him. Green took a swipe at James’ man region — allegedly calling him a “b—-” and, somehow even worse, a “f— boy.” James said he’s a father. Green didn’t care, doubling down on his original point. All hell broke loose.
From this moment on, the Finals have been high-quality theater. Klay Thompson, in so many words, called James soft. His pops, former NBA player Mychal Thompson, agreed, bringing up the annoyingly hilarious “LeBron wouldn’t survive in the ’80s” debate (though he’s since partially fallen back on that). James’ “high road” comment ticked off Curry’s wife, Ayesha, who is now firmly in the driver’s seat for best supporting actress in a drama award should Golden State win Sunday.
And then James donned The Undertaker T-shirt.
The element of domination: Even with Green suspended, the Warriors still had the champagne sitting on ice in their locker room at Oracle Arena in Game 5. But, look … this isn’t saying James and Kyrie Irving went full-fledged Stone Cold Steve Austin in Game 5 with co-41-point showings. But this also isn’t saying they didn’t go full-fledged Stone Cold Steve Austin in Game 5, either.
WWE Hall of Fame announcer Jim Ross is, essentially, the conscience of every Cleveland Cavaliers fan right now.
The element of conspiracy: James followed up a legendary Game 5 with an equally legendary Game 6. Curry, who had 30 points (and looked dominant at times), fouled out and was ejected after throwing his mouthpiece, accidentally hitting a fan. But that was enough to start the conspiracy theories, with Ayesha Curry leading the charge.
Contrary to popular belief, Thursday night was not the worst officiated contest since Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference finals (though Warriors head coach Steve Kerr directing shots at the refs following the game was a chess move). Golden State got a raw deal on some whistles, including two phantom fouls for Curry. “It was just frustration, and also kind of hilarious the way the last two fouls and me blowing up kind of unfolding,” the reigning two-time MVP said after the game. But both teams finished with 25 fouls. The free throw numbers were all but even, a 32-29 edge for the Cavs.
And it’s hard to rig Golden State’s Harrison Barnes going 0-for-8 (or 2-for-14 the game before). It’s hard to rig a 20-point deficit in the first half. It’s hard to rig Green being all but a nonfactor in Game 6. It’s hard to rig…this.
— ESPN (@espn) June 17, 2016
Which leads to the fifth, final and most important element.
The element of the unknown: Golden State’s at home, so it’s got that going for them. The Cavs have won the last two and James is playing like a hybrid of Above the Rim‘s Kyle Lee Watson, Blue Chips‘ Butch McRae and a military tank, so they’ve got that going for them. There are no more advantages.
Does Golden State avoid its first three-game losing streak of the season at the absolute worst time? Does Curry, following a Game 6 that led to his first ejection of his career, return with a bounce-back game for the ages? Is this the biggest sports moment in Cleveland history? (The answer is yes.) Does Cleveland’s Kevin Love finally leave a mark on the series? Does James have one more #FreightTrainJames performance in him?
Questions will continue to arise over the next two days. But if there’s any mindset that defines Game 7s, it was perhaps best articulated by heavyweight boxing champ Muhammad Ali, a man who knew a bit about big stages and the sacrifice it takes in chasing immortality.
“I hated every minute of training,” Ali said, “but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.’ ”