OAKLAND — There were quips about Ayesha Curry’s conspiratorial tweets, extended reflections on the notion of pressure, and positive health updates for Kyrie Irving and Andre Iguodala, who are both cleared to play, but the overriding message from Saturday’s practice session at the Finals was simple: Let’s jump it up and get on with Game 7.
An extra off day for travel only heightened the anticipation for the players and coaches on both sides. The Warriors are eager to get back home and move past a regrettable Game 6 that ended with Stephen Curry’s mouthpiece in the stand and coach Steve Kerr blasting off at the officiating.
“I need to play my best game of the year, if not my career, because of what the stakes are,” Curry said, leaning into the burgeoning hype that has swallowed this series. “Four out of the six games I've played pretty well to my expectations, my standards. I need to take it up another notch for Game 7, and that's what the greats do.”
Meanwhile, the Cavaliers—riding two straight wins driven by two straight epic performances from LeBron James—have every reason to believe they’ve got the defending champs on the ropes.
“The word everyone likes to use in sports is ‘pressure’," James said. “I don't really get involved in it. But I guess, in layman's terms, pressure [is] an opportunity to do something special. … Anybody that's ever played the game of basketball or done anything at any level, to be able to have an opportunity to have one game for it all? You take it.”
The Finals was rich in storylines when it opened more than two weeks ago and Sunday’s Game 7 sets up as perhaps the single richest NBA game in the last three decades. Before you dismiss that notion as hyperbolic, realize that Finals Game 7s are both rare and in their own class thanks to the “For all the marbles” stakes.
Of course, legendary performances can happen in any game—Michael Jordan delivered a laundry list of memorable moments without needing to play a Game 7 during his six title runs—but there’s something extra special about a superstar being forced to deliver with his season on the line. Here, two superstars – James and Curry—find themselves in that exact predicament.
During the three-point era, there have only been six Finals Game 7s, and this year’s Game 7 stacks up very well to all of them from an intrigue standpoint. Quickly…
James’s Heat beat the Spurs in Game 7, a contest that was doomed to live in the shadow of Game 6 thanks to Ray Allen’s heroics. Although 2013 pitted two legends against each other (James versus Tim Duncan) and featured plenty of additional Hall of Fame talent, there wasn’t a preexisting rivalry between the two franchises, Duncan was a few years past his prime, and the Spurs maintained a buttoned-up approach throughout the series rather than fostering any major resentment. Both teams enjoyed strong regular seasons, especially the 66-win Heat, but neither was comparable to the Warriors’ 73 wins.
The most recent iteration of the storied Lakers/Celtics rivalry had loads of stars and a particularly juicy revenge and historical angles: Kobe Bryant was able to make up for a loss to the 2008 Celtics while also claiming his fifth and final title, tying him with Magic Johnson on the all-time rings scoreboard. Kendrick Perkins’ absence due to injury, Bryant’s poor shooting performance and the low-scoring nature of Game 7 detracted a bit from the general enjoyment factor. Boston also won just 50 games that season.
Duncan’s Spurs ground out an 81-74 victory over the “starless” Pistons. While both teams boasted cores that had previously won titles, these squads didn’t have any particular rivalry and this series lacked the magnetic superstar factor. This was a matchup that appealed more to defensive-minded high school coaches rather than the general public.
Hakeem Olajuwon’s Rockets triumphed over Patrick Ewing’s Knicks in a battle of premier centers. Alas, this series struggled to compete with O.J. Simpson’s Bronco chase, and it’s destined to be remembered as, “The year Mike was playing baseball.” Although Olajuwon would repeat the following year, Ewing never got his championship, thereby undercutting the historical heft of the headlining matchup.
Magic Johnson’s Lakers defeated Isiah Thomas’s Pistons in game between two teams (“Showtime” and “Bad Boys”) that have stood the test of time. It’s worth noting that some of the glitter from this matchup is retroactive: The Pistons would win championships in 1989 and 1990, but in this series they were making their first Finals appearance and seeking their first title.
This is easily the best “three-point era” Game 7 comparison for what we are about to see on Sunday. In 1984, Larry Bird’s Celtics defeated Johnson’s Lakers in seven games in a high-scoring game that was overflowing with big names (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Byron Scott, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson, Kevin McHale, etc.). The 1984 Finals marked the first time that Johnson and Bird had squared off for an NBA title, but the two superstars had a rivalry that dated back to their college days and they had already combined to win three titles and make four Finals appearances before the series began.
While James/Curry isn’t quite Magic/Bird, the 2016 headliners have combined to win four of the last five MVP awards and three of the last four titles. Both are clearly in their prime years – athletically and from a popularity standpoint. What’s more, they’re engaged in a rematch from last season and they’ve had moments of animosity in this series, including James blocking Curry twice (once in live action and once in a dead ball).
But Game 7 will go much deeper than just the matchup between the two superstars. There’s something here for everyone…
Golden State’s 73-win season would be validated by a championship. A Game 7 win would place the Warriors into the “Greatest Team of All-Time” conversation, while a loss would drop them into the “Greatest Team That Couldn’t Get It Done” discard pile.
Golden State would wear two layers of shame with a loss. In addition to blowing its record-setting 73 win season, the Warriors would become the first team ever to blow a 3-1 series lead in the Finals. The “Greatest Regular Season Ever” would conclude with the “Greatest Collapse Ever.”
The Cavaliers are hoping to snap a 52-year long championship drought for the city of Cleveland. Although James did his best to avoid all “Curse” questions on Saturday, the Ohio native would be vaulted to a new level of hero worship if he snapped the curse and deliver the Cavaliers’ first title in franchise history. A loss would be an all-time heartbreaker, even by Cleveland’s standards, given how much James has raised collective hopes over the past week.
In addition to snapping the curse, the Cavaliers are hoping to settle the score after losing the 2015 Finals to the Warriors.
On the flip side, a second straight championship for Curry and the Warriors would quell any remaining talk that they had only won through “luck” and injuries to opponents last year. It would also extend the Warriors’ sense of invincibility, given that they already pulled off a Game 6 against the Thunder, and it would help solidify Curry as the so-called face of the NBA. Remarkably a win for Golden State would give Curry two titles in two tries compared to James’s two titles in seven tries.
For those, like Ayesha Curry, who occasionally like to entertain the notion that the NBA is “rigged,” a Cavaliers win would set up the 2016 Finals as one of the most controversial in recent memory thanks to Kiki VanDeWeghe’s decision to suspend Draymond Green for his Game 4 low blow on James. If Cleveland finishes this off by winning three straight, there’s no question that decision will be viewed as the turning point of the series. The NBA’s decision to intervene how and when it did will be remembered for decades to come.
Along those same lines, Green will emerge as one of the biggest scapegoats in NBA history should the Warriors fall in seven. His absence in Game 5 will be viewed as the moment James began to fully get comfortable in this series and the moment that Golden State’s rhythmic offense fell apart. Those who love the “Blame Game” will have a field day with the outspoken and polarizing Green.
On the other hand, a Cleveland loss would surely lead to intense scrutiny of Kevin Love, who has struggled to make an impact on this series. Trade rumors would surely follow in short order. “Kevin's name will be in the record books forever if we go out and take care of business [Sunday],” James said, by way of defending his teammate. However, he didn’t mention what might happen if the Cavaliers don’t take care of business.
James enters Game 7 as the leading candidate to win Finals MVP whether the Cavaliers win or lose. If Cleveland wins, he will claim his third Finals MVP and the most memorable of his career. If Cleveland loses, he can become the first player since Jerry West in 1969 to win a Finals MVP while playing for the losing team. If Cleveland loses and James gets passed over for one of Golden State’s stars, his supporters will rightfully be able to claim that he was snubbed in both 2015 and 2016.
A Cleveland win would complete the circle for the 31-year-old James, who has been a celebrity for more than half of his life. Winning a championship in Cleveland would deliver on the hype that started building when he was a high school star in Akron and grew when he was the No. 1 pick in 2003, it would make up for “The Decision” to leave in 2010, and it would validate his unusually active approach in Cleveland’s decision-making. A title would move him to 3-4 in the Finals, it would eradicate the notion that he “needed to go to Miami to win,” and it would bump him up the list of the NBA’s all-time greats, potentially into the top five. This would be his crowning achievement, the type of victory that goes past stats and highlights to appeal to people’s emotions across the country in a way that the “Heatles” never quite did.
With a list of tasty subplots that long, there’s only one thing that can wrong: another blowout. Through six games, the average margin of victory in this series has been a whopping 19.7 points!
So, whether you’re rooting for James’s redemption or for Curry’s comeback, for Cleveland to snap its curse or for Golden State to extend its reign, root first for a Game 7 that goes down to the wire. An eye-catching, history-making, superstar-driven series like this deserves a classic, nail-biting finish.