OAKLAND — There will be no more questioning of LeBron James‘ legacy.
He played three of the best games in NBA Finals history back-to-back-to-back — including a Game 7 triple-double of 27 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists. It earned him the NBA Finals MVP Award. It earned the Cavaliers the first-ever comeback from 3-1 down in the NBA Finals. The Cavaliers looked like a beaten team after those first four games, but the suspension of Draymond Green opened the door a crack and LeBron blasted that door open and pulled his teammates through.
He got help, most notably Sunday from a Kyrie Irving step-back three with :53 seconds left that ended up being the game-winner. The Cavaliers held the Warriors scoreless for the final 4:39 of the game, with the Warriors scoring 13 points in the fourth total. Cleveland executed better on both ends when it mattered most in a Game 7.
“Really it was a couple of key plays,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said of the fourth quarter advantage. “Kyrie hit an incredible shot, really well contested, and then LeBron had the two plays back-to-back where he got fouled on the three and then made a three. That kind of swung things in their favor.”
Cleveland won the NBA Finals with a 93-89 victory Sunday in as entertaining and close a Game 7 as any of us may ever see.
It is the first title ever for the Cavaliers.
It is the first for the city of Cleveland in any major sport since 1964.
“I told my guys before the game: Listen, there is a game to be played, but there’s not many guys, there’s not many teams that get an opportunity to be in the NBA Finals in a Game 7. There’s just not….” LeBron said. “I just told the guys: Don’t take this for granted. Don’t take it for granted. Let’s go out. Our coaching staff gave us a great plan; let’s go execute it.”
One year ago, it was the Warriors celebrating on Cleveland’s home court, this year the Cavs flipped the script. Kerr said his team was stunned.
The Cavaleirs did it by attacking inside all night — Cleveland had 48 points in the paint, 20 more than the Warriors.
Golden State tried to balance that out with threes, but in the fourth the Cavaliers overplayed the perimeter and the Warriors did not make them pay with back cuts and dives to the rim (as they had done to so many teams throughout the season). When the Warriors needed a three late, Stephen Curry could not shake free of Kevin Love for a good look, and at the other end LeBron ended the game with a free throw following a painful fall after Draymond Green foul on a dunk attempt.
“A lot of it was kind of myself kind of leading the charge and settling too much,” Curry said postgame. “At home in the fourth quarter, I felt like we could go for that dagger punch and didn’t really put any pressure on the defense getting to the paint and trying to force the issue that way, and really just kind of settled too much. That’s something that is tough to kind of swallow with the opportunity we had in front of us.”
This game was not always pretty — Game 7s rarely are — but the Cavaliers attacked, and played with more force and grit.
Golden State’s Festus Ezeli got the start (to preserve Andre Iguodala’s sore back for later in the game), and the Warriors went to him a few times early because the help came from his man — and he was 0-of-3, two of them missed dunks (one blocked by Tristan Thompson). Plus Kevin Love literally ripped a rebound out of his hands. Love was not much better, starting 1-of-4. So both were out midway through the first and it was a small ball game. In the first quarter the Warriors hit five threes, but they shot 33 percent inside the arc and the Cavaliers owned the glass, 16 to nine. Love had seven boards on his own. The result was a 23-22 Cavs lead after one.
The second quarter was dramatic, but close most of the way — the Warriors kept hitting threes (10-of-21 in the first half), the Cavaliers kept getting buckets inside and some old-fashioned three-point plays. The drama included LeBron rejecting a Curry shot, again, and a little trash talk.
But the story of the first half was Draymond Green, who had 22 points hitting 5-of-5 from three, plus six rebounds and five assists. He pushed the Warriors out to a 49-42 halftime lead.
Green finished the game with 32 points on 11-of-15 shooting, plus he had 15 points and nine assists. But the Warriors were not going to win this game unless he got help, and he never did. For the game Curry had 17 points on 19 shots, Klay Thompson had 14 points on 17 shots.
Cleveland started the second half on a 12-5 run behind two threes from J.R. Smith and more poor play from Ezeli, and the score was quickly tied 54-54. But Curry answered that with a 5-0 personal run that included a blocked shot on defense.
Cleveland had its own 11-0 run in the middle of the third pushed their lead out to six points, and it was really all about them exposing Anderson Varejao on both ends of the court (the Warriors missed the injured Andrew Bogut badly this game). Barnes finally came in and scored the next four points for Warriors. It didn’t take long before the game was tied 71-71, and at the end of three it was 76-75 Warriors after three.
Midway through fourth, the Cavaliers were up three, and Oracle was nervous. The Warriors were swinging the ball to open players, as they have all season, but the open shots from role players were not knocking down the shots they had all season to propel the Warriors to 73 wins.
So Stephen Curry hit a contested three. Next trip down the court, Klay Thompson hit one. The Splash Brothers had the Warriors up three. But when it mattered most, the Warriors went cold in the face of the Cavaliers’ pressure defense (in a way they did not against Oklahoma City last round).
“I thought both teams played exceptional defense in the fourth quarter,” Kerr said. “Shots were hard to come by. The few that we did have that were open we weren’t able to knock down. But this is kind of how it goes in Game 7.”
“We missed shots down the stretch, they missed shots down the stretch, but they hit the big one, Kyrie’s three,” Green said.
Cleveland made enough plays to earn the win.
And bring the first title to Northeast Ohio in 52 years.