The Golden State Warriors, themselves champions of impossibility, could only be undone by the unthinkable. LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers provided it. After trailing 3–1 in a championship series steering toward certain doom, the Cavs dramatically reversed course to win three straight games—the last a 93-89 victory in Game 7 on Sunday—and claim the 2016 NBA title. Such a thing has never been done in the history of the league. Cleveland is the first—just as it becomes the first team to ever topple a 73–win titan, the likes of which the NBA had never seen before.
All of this from a Cavs team that, on its surface, is utterly imperfect. The iso–hungry Kyrie Irving put on a shot-making display worthy of the Finals lore. Kevin Love, who had seemed out of sorts for much of the series, keyed critical stretches with his rebounding and contributed to a significant, winning margin during his minutes on the floor. Cleveland got the requisite burst of scoring from J.R. Smith and some timely defense from Tristan Thompson. Underscoring it all was James, just the kind of ballast that can take these sometimes disparate parts and move them to a championship sensibility. The greatness of LeBron James has never much been in doubt to those paying attention. A title like this, however, is incontrovertible in a way that cannot be denied. One of the greatest players the game has ever known delivered in every respect.
It was James who soared in to crush sure–thing layups on three occasions, each of them devastating. It was James who brutalized mismatches and punched through the final point to protect Cleveland’s lead. It was his activity in traffic that gave Golden State fits over the back half of this series, his jumper that helped to earn a seventh game and earn timely points in the fourth quarter, and his playmaking that brought the floor to balance. In the end, he totaled 27 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists. James did not win this championship alone, but he won it as a player of comprehensive mastery.
Do not give in to the persuasion that Golden State in any way played a poor series. The NBA championship was awarded by a margin of four points, if only because it was mandated to be. This odd, oscillating series played to a virtual tie after 336 minutes. With the final 48, the Warriors and Cavs delivered a perfect distillation of the series: a peak-level exhibition of basketball greatness and the ongoing effort to disrupt it. Neither team could ever quite shake the other. There is no better way for a season to end, and though so much of the Warriors’ season will be brought to referendum by their Game 7 demise, they did their season proud.
Their verdict simply came down to the space of a single possession. Irving hit a leaning, step–back three–pointer over the top of Stephen Curry to put the Cavs up, 92–89, with roughly a minute remaining. Dozens of other shots and moments could have turned the outcome but this one made for a moment—that in which the Warriors’ dreams of completing their dream season finally seemed to slip away. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson could never quite settle. The enduring memory of their playoffs’ end was that of the two best shooters in the league missing shots they would expect to make under any other circumstances but these.
That’s what happens in a Game 7—even one in which the Warriors did so much right in their finishing efforts. One can’t say enough about the gutsy performances of Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala, for example, and it’s not as if Curry and Thompson no-showed the night. This performance was enough to win it all. That the math didn’t quite work out that way was a function of basketball’s beautiful and humbling volatility. None in the Warriors’ organization will soon quiet the pangs of their near-makes and small mistakes.
The nightmare could begin anywhere: Curry’s careless turnovers, a nondescript defensive error, or even the resources that were committed to building up the supporting cast. Festus Ezeli, after bumbling his way through the series, was force-fed early offense. Open Warriors gave up their own looks to swing the ball to the struggling Harrison Barnes. Anderson Varejao was left so open in the second half that there was no choice but to pass him the ball, no matter how it might squander Golden State’s possessions. Those efforts never really paid off and some of Steve Kerr’s lineup choices backfired accordingly.
Such minor decisions bleed in the binary of the series but claim incredible consequence. We’ll always remember LeBron at his best, Irving’s shot to the moon, and the euphoria of a Cavaliers championship. Yet we can never forget that it was through even the most seemingly trivial plays that Cleveland won it all and Golden State lost everything.