NEWS OF THE MORNING
No. 1: LeBron on the verge of a dream realized — After two weeks of games, tonight it’s finally time for the deciding Game 7 of the NBA Finals. And for the Cleveland Cavaliers there’s plenty on the line, as they try to become the first team in NBA history to come back from a 3-1 deficit and win a title. It would also be the first championship for the city of Cleveland in over 50 years. As our own Shaun Powell writes, those hopes and dreams are at the mercy tonight (8:00 p.m. ET, ABC) of LeBron James, who hopes to author history with the Cavs…
LeBron returned to Cleveland two summers ago to create a new image for a sobbing city with a sports inferiority complex, and that can only be secured with a championship. That’s heavy. That’s a burden. How many more times will he get this close?
And he’s one win away.
“I don’t think people imagined it this way, the route we’ve taken,” he said.
He was the teenaged basketball messiah from Akron drafted No. 1 by the sad-sack Cavs and therefore planted a seed of hope. That initial tour of duty in Cleveland resulted in one championship appearance, where the Cavs were rudely swept by the Spurs, to be followed shortly afterward by a nasty defection to Miami. After living out his mid-life crisis with the Heat, winning two rings, LeBron returned two summers ago to a hero’s welcome only because Cleveland was just as miserable as when he left, maybe more.
The Cavs last season were simply unlucky, harpooned by injuries and therefore ran out of gas last summer against the Warriors. LeBron was the most important player on the floor, then and now, especially the last two games, both 41-point masterpieces, forcing a winner-take-all Game 7.
His averages in this series: 30.2 points, 11.3 rebounds, 8.5 assists, 2.7 steals, 2.5 blocks in 41.2 minutes of heavy labor. He’s away from Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, his All-Star teammates in Miami who relieved him of all the leadership responsibilities and pressure, and blessed only with Kyrie Irving, which magnifies what he has already accomplished. Win or lose in Game 7, LeBron should be a strong favorite if not a lock for MVP — Jerry West is the only MVP winner on a losing Finals team — and he managed a wisecrack about that.
“The last time I answered a question about MVP, it didn’t go so well for me,” he said, “so I’m not going to do it.”
Why should he? His play speaks loudly and boastfully. If you combine this series with last summer’s, nobody has more points, rebounds, assists or blocks than LeBron. He shot only 40 percent last summer, mostly because he wore down from the load without Irving and Kevin Love, but is far more efficient now. Besides, his defense and especially shot-blocking has been brilliant if barely noticed from the outside; when the subject came up Sunday, he took the opportunity to mention his pet peeve: “I’ve been highly upset that I haven’t won Defensive Player of the Year.”
No. 2: Curry understands stakes are high — Meanwhile, in the other locker room, the Golden State Warriors need to snap a two-game losing streak and get a Game 7 win to validate their argument for best team of all-time status. And as Sekou Smith writes, after fouling out and melting down in Game 6, two-time MVP Stephen Curry knows he has his work cut out for him tonight:
It’s a part of the deal; a part of what he signed up for when he went from a promising All-Star talent to a player whose name gets bandied about, along with LeBron, as the current face of the NBA.
So it should surprise no one that Curry acknowledges what’s at stake in Sunday’s all-or-nothing game and what is being asked of him on the game’s biggest stage.
“Yeah, I need to play my best game of the year, if not my career because of what the stakes are,” Curry said. “So that doesn’t mean scoring 50 points, though. That means controlling the tempo of the game. When I need to be aggressive — well, I need to be aggressive, but when I do need to push the envelope, do it, but do it under control. Do it within the schemes that we’re used to as a team. Focus on the details on both ends of the floor. All those things go into having a great game, and I need to do that.”
Had Curry dialed up a “great” game, by his own lofty standards, a Game 7 showdown might have been avoided. The Warriors led this series 3-1 but failed to seal the deal in each of the past two games.
Draymond Green‘s absence in Game 5 and otherworldly efforts from James and Kyrie Irving in Game 5, and James again in Game 6, certainly played a huge part in this series stretching to Father’s Day.
But Curry’s inability to get into his usual rhythm and flow, particularly on the offensive end, has no doubt played just as significant a role in the Warriors being unable to cash in on the cushion they built up earlier in this series.
They still have a chance to cap their record 73-win regular season in style, but they’ll have to do so with a monster Game 7 effort, from Curry and Klay Thompson and Green as well.
There’s more than just a game on the line, whether any of the people involved want to admit or not. Legacies, reputations and seats in the hierarchy of today’s game are also at stake.
“Sure,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who won five titles as a player and endured and thrived in the Game 7 atmosphere during his career. “Reputations from the critics, and that’s all a part of the machine that the NBA is, and that’s why we all make a lot of money. That’s why it doesn’t bother me. So everybody’s reputation is at stake in terms of legacy or whatever and what people write, but in terms of people that matter — your family members, your friends, your teammates, the people in the organization — nobody’s reputation is at stake.
“We’re trying to win a game, and it doesn’t change anything about anybody on either team, win or lose. It changes the narrative for the media, and that’s the deal. That’s the deal we accept when we sign up for this stuff.”
No. 3: Role players could play huge role in Game 7 — While the expectations in Game 7 certainly center around the play of prime time players such as LeBron James and Stephen Curry, they clearly aren’t going to get it done alone. As Steve Aschburner writes, players like Kevin Love and Andre Iguodala might have significant impacts on their team’s fates, as well:
The stakes are as high, maybe higher, than Iguodala, Love or any of those involved could have daydreamed on asphalt. The Warriors have a chance to cap their historic 73-9 regular season with a second consecutive championship — or become the first Finals team to ever blow a 3-1 series lead. The Cavaliers are poised to deliver to sports-mad Cleveland its first major championship in 52 years — or to give that city another reason to anguish and flinch, with LeBron James not getting any younger.
Problem is, neither Iguodala nor Love is positioned well to play the last 48 minutes of this season — or perform some heroics in the dwindling final seconds of their imaginations — the way each would prefer.
Iguodala is vital to his team’s chance of winning but he isn’t healthy. Love, in a cruel twist on last year’s postseason, is healthy but not all that vital.
Athletes dream, reality laughs.
Iguodala is facing one of the most grueling tasks in sports — defending James — while dealing with a sore back. It limited his effectiveness at both ends, stripping him of lift on his shots (forget about dunks) and on rebounds, causing him to wince at contact, slowing him in trying to stay in front of or chase down the Cavs’ locomotive leader. At one point, Iguodala staggered to the Golden State bench as if in search of a recliner.
“You just try to will yourself to do it,” Iguodala told reporters after the Warriors’ workout Saturday, a session that was devoted mostly to physical treatment and rehab for him. “I felt in a bad position in Game 6, but saw a lot of things and still made a couple plays. A few things I couldn’t quite do, but I felt like there was a way around it. So figuring it out, and the main thing is not using it as an excuse. I’m still trying to find a way.”
Iguodala said the injury was more of a fluke, “a perfect storm” of sitting through the Warriors’ long flight to Cleveland after Game 5, a hotel bed, the fatigue of a 100-plus game season and the workload he’s had in the Finals cast thanklessly as coach Steve Kerr’s “LeBron stopper” (or at least “slower”). He has received nonstop attention from the team’s medical and training staff and predicted he would be fine Sunday.
“I’m glad we caught it early as opposed to happening in a Game 7,” Iguodala said. “You just try to will yourself to do it.”
A year ago, Iguodala changed The Finals when Kerr swapped him into the starting lineup for center Andrew Bogut, going small in mid-series. He wound up as Finals MVP. Now he’s just trying to stay on the floor long enough to block James from winning that award — which the Cleveland star might snag anyway, win or lose, given his dominance.
Kerr said he wouldn’t have Iguodala on any sort of minutes leash. “It’s Game 7 and he’s Andre Iguodala, so we know he’ll be out there,” the Golden State coach said.
No. 4: Kerr wants Warriors to embrace the moment — For a team that seemed to breeze to a record 73 wins in the regular season, the Golden State Warriors have had a considerably bumpier road in the postseason. After coming back from a 3-1 deficit in the Western Conference Finals, the Warriors have now seen their own 3-1 lead in The Finals get whittled down to nothing. And as Scott Howard-Cooper writes, Steve Kerr is doing his best to make sure the Warriors are ready for the biggest moment they’ve faced yet…
“If you don’t feel pressure in a Game 7 you’re probably not human,” Kerr said after the final practice for the final game. “I told our guys that. Of course they’re going to feel pressure. Of course there’s going to be some anxiety. But how lucky are we to feel that pressure. You could play on a lottery team your whole career and just make a bunch of money and go watch the playoffs every year. That sounds great.”
A sliver of sarcasm — the very end — and a big slab of straight truth. And point taken. The Warriors would rather have been wringing champagne out of their clothes by now or basking in these Bay Area afternoons made for a parade, so washed with sunshine and blue skies, as a closing act of dominance to a season they have mostly commanded from the start. But Kerr had it right: This is still a very good place to be, at home with the season on the line.
In a series tied even though Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson have been nowhere near their peak superhero Splash Brothers powers against a team they have at times controlled in these same Finals.
While the Warriors are acknowledging feeling pressure, there is no sign of panic while staring at the possibility of losing three in a row for the first time since November 2013, the season before Kerr arrived. The flight back from Cleveland after losing Game 6 by 14 points was, Curry said, “was fun because we were very, very kind of light. The attitude was really positive.” Harrison Barnes called the chance to play again “for the most part a great opportunity.”
“Well, we’re human, so when you go from up 3-1 to 3-3 it’s disappointing,” Kerr said Saturday. “But you get a couple of days, you kind of take stock. You think about where we are. We like our positioning. We like our chances. We’re at home with a chance to win the championship. You can’t ask for much more than that. And our guys are recharged already today and probably (will be) even more so tomorrow and will be ready to roll.”
With the chance to cement the storyline the way they want.
“It’s kind of the thing when you look at us on film or we look at ourselves on film, the kind of spark, you just don’t see kind of that rhythm and that flow and just the energy that we play with the offensive end,” Curry said of the Warriors of the past two outings. “Obviously we lost Game 5 and 6, not so much because we missed open shots, but also because of our defensive breakdowns. So it’s kind of you can look at and nitpick both sides. But at the end of the day, I don’t know why we haven’t been ourselves. You can look at what we haven’t done, but I couldn’t tell you the reason that we’ve been lacking in those areas besides it’s just a long, hard grind and journey to win a championship, and anything’s liable to happen. The only thing that matters is we have one game left to figure it out. At the end of the day, if we’re standing on a podium tomorrow, who cares how we got there. We got there. So that’s kind of the thing that we have to play for tomorrow.”
SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Ten years ago, there was another Game 7 in the 2006 NBA Finals, between the Dallas Mavericks and Miami Heat. ESPN put together an oral history of those Finals … Bryan Colangelo and the Sixers have a big week ahead of them … LeBron says he’s a mentor to Ben Simmons … The Charlotte Hornets are leaving all options open for the NBA Draft … Catching up with Lakers’ guard Jordan Clarkson