The venue changed. So did the stakes. A very important player entered the equation.
But sixth months after their incredible seven-game NBA Finals, Warriors-Cavaliers once again ended with Cleveland players enveloping their star in jubilant hugs along the baseline as the buzzer sounded.
Kyrie Irving – who replaced LeBron James as the center of postgame attention – hit a heavily contested fadeaway over Klay Thompson with 3.4 seconds left to give the Cavs a 109-108 win an an instant Christmas classic.
Though this was only one regular-season game – Golden State won both regular-season matchups with Cleveland and 73 games last year – both teams played with incredible intensity in this budding rivalry. As much as both teams will downplay the significance, this was no ordinary regular-season game.
“It’s Christmas,” said a beaming Irving, who had 25 points, 10 assists, seven steals and six rebounds.
The Warriors nearly played Grinch. But just as they blew a 3-1 lead in last summer’s Finals, they blew a 14-point fourth-quarter lead and a three-point lead with the ball and 45 seconds left today.
Richard Jefferson ignited Cleveland by dunking on Kevin Durant in the fourth to end an 11-1 Golden State run – especially because Jefferson then received a technical foul for winking at Durant:
Jefferson’s dunk over Klay Thompson later in the period required no additional taunting:
By that point, the Cavaliers were right back in the game, and their confidence only grew.
LeBron James – who finished with 31 points, 13 rebounds, four assists and two steals – dunked as if he were trying to tear down the entire hoop:
Draymond Green, who spent most of the game threatening to get a second technical foul and got a technical last week for hanging on the rim too long, held up his palms in bewilderment. What would it take for the Warriors to get a break against Cleveland?
They thought they answered that question last July.
Their league-altering newcomer excelled today. Durant scored 36 points, another excellent Christmas performance by the former Thunder star. He kept Golden State clicking as Curry started slow, and the question that hovered over the entire season gained prominence: How will anyone stop these Warriors? Stop one of their MVPs, and you still have to contend with the other. Golden State won the first, second and third quarters. And it’s not as if Curry just disappears. His 3-pointer untied the game with 1:14 left.
But, a possession later, Irving stole the ball and drove for a layup. Then, came a little controversy.
The Warriors’ penultimate possession ended in a clear shot-clock violation, but officials reviewed it anyway – giving the Cavs, who were out of timeouts, a chance to diagram a play. Golden State also subbed out Curry during the stoppage, which seemingly shouldn’t have been allowed and made it easier for Thompson to guard Irving. (Update: The NBA says the 24-second violation made a sub permissible.)
But Irving still hit the big shot against the Warriors – his second in two matchups, dating back to Game 7.
On Golden State’s final chance, Durant stumbled with the ball, and time ran out.
Welcome to the rivalry, KD. The Warriors’ talent keeps falling short against Cleveland’s perseverance.
That could change, of course. These teams face each other again in Oakland on Jan. 16. They could also meet in an unprecedented third straight finals.
After this hard-fought, exhilarating contest, that’d be a delight.