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Key: One Win Away
This is all the Cavaliers could have asked for – especially after falling behind in the NBA Finals, 2-0, and then 3-1 – to have a one-game shot at the title.
The Warriors were hoping to have scheduled their parade by now after having those two-game advantages – but they’ll take Game 7 at Oracle Arena, where they dropped only two regular season and one postseason home games before the Wine and Gold knocked them off on Monday night. The Cavaliers made things really interesting three nights later, when they went wire-to-wire against a team that suddenly looks frustrated.
LeBron James turned in yet another Hall of Fame-worthy performance on both ends – netting 41 points on 16-for-27 shooting, including 3-of-6 from long-range and 6-of-8 from the stripe, adding 11 assists, eight boards, four steals and three blocked shots in Cleveland’s 115-101 win.
Tristan Thompson, as he has through most of the series, set the physical tone and doubled-up with 15 points and 16 boards. J.R. Smith was perfect from the floor in the fourth, Kyrie was spectacular again and even Dahntay Jones made some big contributions in a short stint off the bench.
The Warriors are banged up and definitely missed the presence of Andrew Bogut, who’s out for the series with a left knee injury. And Andre Iguodala gutted through the second half of Friday’s affair with a bad back. Steph Curry fouled out late in the fourth and lost his cool afterward and Golden State dropped back-to-back games for the second time this season.
If the Cavaliers can make it three, they’ll have made NBA history and broken a 52-year drought. They have much work to do.
Key: Crowning Glory
As brilliant as Kyrie Irving has been in the Playoffs, and again in the Finals. Steph Curry has flashed his MVP form and Klay Thompson has, at times, been unstoppable. But in Cleveland’s seven-game set with Golden State, LeBron James has asserted his dominance as the greatest player in the game when push comes to shove.
The numbers don’t say it all, but they are mind-blowing. Over the past two NBA Finals – James’ fifth and sixth consecutive trips to the summit – he’s averaged 33.0 points, 12.3 boards and 8.7 assists. He’s now dropped 40-plus on the Warriors five times in those 12 contests, including the previous two on Monday and Thursday night.
And as locked in as James is on the offensive end – shooting 53 percent from the floor over his last four games and 50 percent from deep over the past two – LeBron might be even more laser-focused defensively. The four-time MVP has blocked nine shots over the past three games – including some huge second-half swats in Games 5 and 6 – and has 16 steals in the series, including four each in Games 2 and 6.
Numbers aside, LeBron has been the team’s rock when things looked bleak earlier in the series – putting the team on his shoulders and willing the Wine and Gold to the two biggest wins in franchise history.
But the biggest one is still on deck. The Warriors are banged up and their confidence is slightly shaken – and he knows it. And an angry road crowd simply fuels his fire.
He’s one win away from truly joining the Association’s all-time legends and becoming the author of one of the greatest stories in sports history
Key: Changing of the Guard
With 4:42 to play in regulation in Game 6, Steph Curry’s emotions boiled over after getting whistled for his sixth foul and being sent to the showers by Scott Foster. Curry chucked his famed mouthpiece into the stands and the league lightened his wallet for the outburst.
Curry left the game having scored 30 points, going 8-of-20 from the floor, 6-of-13 from beyond the arc.
There’s no doubt that after struggling offensively early in the series, Curry has figured out the Cavaliers defensively – averaging 31.0 points over his last three, shooting 45 percent from long-range. It’s the reason he was the NBA’s unanimous MVP and has taken the trophy in back-to-back seasons.
But the Wine and Gold have also flummoxed him on the defensive end – finding himself trying to check LeBron James on the switch or stay in front of one of the most dangerous point guards in the league in Kyrie Irving. Cleveland’s physicality has taken a toll on the sharpshooting guard, who’s been in foul trouble through three games of the 2016 Finals.
But the Cavs also know he’s prone to bouncing back with a monster performance at home.
Kyrie’s already had some monster performances in the Finals – topped by his 41-point outburst in Oakland on Monday night, sending the series back to Cleveland with 17 points in the fourth quarter. After Irving’s disappointing 10-point performance in Game 2, he’s scored 30 points, 34, 41 and 23 – averaging 32.0 points per over that span and proving that no stage is too big for the 24-year-old phenom.
If he can flourish under the bright lights one more time, he might be bringing a souvenir with him on the flight home.
Key: Looking for Love
As the Finals have progressed, the storylines have settled in.
LeBron’s all-around greatness and Kyrie, as usual, has gotten better as he’s gone along. The Splash Brothers have displayed their long-range dominance. Tristan Thompson has been a blue-collar beast in the middle. Both benches have come back to Earth.
But there is one circuitous storyline whose completion could determine the 2016 NBA Champion – and that’s the tale of Kevin Love.
The third member of Cleveland’s Big Three, the man so instrumental in the Cavaliers’ journey to the Finals has struggled to find his rhythm in June.
After a solid outing in the series opener – doubling-up with 17 points and 13 boards – the three-time All-Star has averaged 6.3 points and 3.5 boards per over his next four outings. He played less than 12 minutes on Thursday night in Cleveland – getting in foul trouble early and finishing with seven points, three boards and a pair of assists.
The Warriors have had to go very small with Bogut finished for the series – essentially starting Draymond Green at center in Game 6. And although he indicated in his media availability on Wednesday that the Warriors would have won Game 5 with him, the All-Star forward didn’t make a major splash the next night – finishing with eight points on 3-for-7 shooting, leading Golden State with 10 points and six boards.
The dueling forwards, Love and Green, are two of the game’s most versatile players at their position. And they could easily hold the key to the NBA title.
Key: Reserve Judgement
Heading into this year’s Finals, who could have predicted that the Cavaliers bench situation would be what it is heading into the deciding Game 7?
In the run-up to the Finals, Channing Frye was one of the cornerstones of the entire offense – averaging 10.9 ppg on 58 percent shooting from long-range against Atlanta and Toronto. Matthew Dellavedova led the 2016 Playoffs in assist-to-turnover ratio through the Eastern Conference bracket and was the underdog hero of Cleveland’s epic run to the Finals in 2015.
But both have seen their minutes reduced in this year’s seven-game set. Instead, Mo Williams and Dahntay Jones have seen some key minutes, with Iman Shumpert as a steady defensive presence.
Richard Jefferson has been a revelation off the bench for Cleveland all season and represents a massive upgrade over last year’s situation at the backup-3 – especially at this point in the season, averaging 56 percent from the floor while joining Tristan Thompson in doing much of the dirty work needed to win a title.
For the Warriors, Shaun Livingston has calmed down after doing in the Cavaliers through the first two games of the series, but Leandro Barbosa has stayed hot – including a 14-point effort on Friday. Anderson Varejao has been a thorn in Cleveland’s side, as he had been for the Cavs over the years – and he’ll take an even bigger role in Game 7 with Bogut on the shelf.
The Wine and Gold already know that role players play better at home in the postseason. They need to ensure that Golden State’s reserves don’t go off on Sunday night – and that they can continue to get solid contributions from theirs.
For as many superstars as this year’s Finals boasts, as is so often the case, a role player might make the play that decides the NBA Championship.