CLEVELAND — The Cavaliers’ perfect postseason home record and, almost certainly, their championship hopes were lost over a six-minute span of the fourth quarter, a drip-drip-drip of missed shots and empty possessions that allowed the Warriors, deeper and fresher, to gradually pull free.
The stretch run of Golden State’s 108–97 road victory on Friday saw heated conversations and a below-the-belt blow, but there was no single grand moment of collapse or triumph. Instead, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, playing every second of the second half, desperately took turns trying to buy a bucket, to no avail, as Cleveland’s lead turned into a deficit that grew and grew as the clock ticked and ticked.
In hindsight, Cleveland’s late-game struggles mimicked Oklahoma City’s in Game 6 of the West finals to the point of eeriness.
Both times, the Warriors dug out of fourth-quarter holes, on the road, by stopping superstar scorers in their tracks. Against the Thunder, the Warriors closed on a 19–5 push in the final five minutes, holding Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to a combined 0-of-4 shooting and six turnovers. Against the Cavaliers, the Warriors ran off a 12–1 run over a 6:37 stretch midway through the fourth, holding James and Irving to a combined 0-of-8 and a turnover.
Both times, the Warriors’ own offense kept churning thanks to a record-setting shooting night from the perimeter. In Oklahoma City, Klay Thompson hit a postseason record 11 three-pointers. In Cleveland, the Warriors set a Finals record by making 17 three-pointers, with Stephen Curry nailing seven on his way to a game-high 38 points.
James, meanwhile, finished with 25 points, 13 rebounds, nine assists and plenty of grudges in defeat. With his shot at evening this series slipping away, he exchanged words with Curry over a disputed call and took issue with Draymond Green for a low blow and a profanity.
“As a competitor, I love going against Draymond, and I’m all about going out there and leaving it out on the floor,” James said. “But when it gets a little bit more than what it should be, that’s what caused me to have words with him. … Some of the words that came out of his mouth were a little bit overboard.”
Pushed to the brink of his fifth Finals loss in seven tries, James scolded himself for his “careless” turnovers. He and Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue also bemoaned the fact that he had just four free-throw attempts, the fourth time in four Finals games he’s had five or fewer.
“He never gets calls,” Lue said, risking a fine from the league office. “He’s one of the guys that attacks the paint every single play. And he doesn’t get a fair whistle all the time because of his strength and because of his power and guys bounce off of him. But those are still fouls and we weren’t able to get them. But we’ve got to play through officiating.”
“I’m getting hit,” James added, “but the refs are not seeing it that way.”
James’s visible frustration, on the court late and then on the podium, traced back to those six minutes where he simply couldn’t find an answer. Andre Iguodala’s quick hands foiled a sure two along the baseline. Fatigue coaxed him into settling for multiple jumpers that missed badly. Green swatted a runner near the rim after James couldn’t maneuver into position to draw a foul or get enough lift to mount a forceful finish. Shaun Livingston stripped him and Green recovered the ball on another drive to nowhere.
Photos of every 3–1 playoff comeback in NBA history
NBA Playoff 3-1 Comebacks
2016 NBA Finals — Cleveland Cavaliers over Golden State Warriors
It may have been the 11th 3-1 series comeback in NBA playoff history, but the Cavaliers became the first team to rally from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals after beating the defending champion Golden State Warriors 93-89. Playing his sixth straight finals, LeBron James almost single-handedly carried the Cleveland back into this series and finished with 27 points, 11 assists and 11 rebounds as the Cavs gave their city its first major sports winner since the Browns won the NFL title in 1964. He also had three blocked shots, including a key one of Andre Iguodala on a fast break in the final minutes.
2016 Western Conference Finals — Golden State Warriors over Oklahoma City Thunder
The Golden State Warriors, fresh off their record 73-win season, rallied to topple Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder in a 96–88 Game 7 classic. Led by their backcourt duo Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, the Warriors can win their third-ever NBA title.
2015 Western Conference Semifinals — Houston Rockets over Los Angeles Clippers
Houston overcame a 19-point third-quarter deficit in Game 6, and James Harden scored 31 points in the Rockets' 113-100 Game 7 victory over the Clippers, sending them to the conference finals for the first time since 1997.
2006 Western Conference Quarterfinals — Phoenix Suns over Los Angeles Lakers
The Suns went from the brink to a blowout, from the edge of elimination to one of the most impressive turnarounds in NBA playoff history. Leandro Barbosa led the way in Game 7, scoring 26 points on 10-of-12 shooting in a 121-90 laugher.
2003 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals — Detroit Pistons over Orlando Magic
Tayshaun Prince — a seldom-used rookie who average just 10 minutes during the regular season and sat out 40 games — made Tracy McGrady's life difficult through most of the series. Prince had a career-high 20 points while harassing McGrady defensively as Detroit defeated Orlando decisively in Game 7, 108-93.
1997 Eastern Conference Semifinals — Miami Heat over New York Knicks
Miami won Game 5 96–81, which was highlighted by a brawl that started when P.J. Brown objected to Charlie Ward's attempt to gain position for a rebound. During the brawl, Patrick Ewing, Allan Houston, Larry Johnson and John Starks left the bench; the league punished them for this by handing out 1-game suspensions spread out over the series' final 2 games. Shorthanded by the suspensions, the Knicks lost Games 6 and 7, 95–90 and 101–90 respectively.
1995 Western Conference Semifinals — Houston Rockets over Phoenix Suns
Mario Elie nailed a go-ahead three-pointer from the corner with 7.1 seconds left, known as the "Kiss of Death," as the Rockets won Game 7 115-114 at Phoenix, en route to claiming a second straight NBA title.
1981 Eastern Conference Finals — Boston Celtics over Philadelphia 76ers
A tight series between two 62-win teams fittingly went down to the wire. Larry Bird hit a go-ahead bank shot in the final minute as the Celtics rallied from a six-point deficit in the final 4:30 to beat Philadelphia 91-90 in Game 7.
1979 Eastern Conference Finals — Washington Bullets over San Antonio Spurs
Elvin Hayes averaged 25 points in Games 5-7, and the Spurs suffered a devastating 107-105 loss to the Bullets in the final game of the series. San Antonio was called for seven fouls in the final 3:39 and Washington went on a 10-2 run in the final two minutes.
1970 Western Division Finals — Los Angeles Lakers over Phoenix Suns
The Lakers rallied to win the final three games by double digits on the backs of Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain.
1968 Eastern Division Finals — Boston Celtics over Philadelphia 76ers
"Mr. Clutch" Sam Jones led the Celtics with 22 points in Game 7 as Boston became the first team in NBA history to comeback from a 3-1 series deficit, defeating the defending champion 76ers.
As with Durant and Westbrook, James and particularly Irving found themselves reverting to bad habits with the game on the line. For James, the biggest issue was settling. He was just 1-of-5 on threes and 2-of-8 outside the basket area on a night he finished 11-of-21 from the field. His unreliable jumper had been an issue all season, and it abandoned him at the worst possible moment.
For Irving, ball-stopping was the problem, again. The All-Star point guard finished with a team-high 34 points, but struggled badly during Cleveland’s six minutes of doom, missing three wild layups and forcing a three-pointer after pounding and pounding outside the arc.
“Our offense did stall a little bit in the fourth quarter,” James admitted. “We played a little bit too much random, trying to dribble drive, get guys looks, and then we started settling a little bit for the three-point shot when we kind of got down. … We had our chances.”
Chances are hard to come by against these Warriors, who dusted off the seldom-used James Michael McAdoo and received quality contributions from Anderson Varejao. Of course Kerr could magically summon meaningful contributions from McAdoo, who logged all of 19 minutes in the playoffs entering Monday, and Varejao, a midseason arrival from—where else?—Cleveland.
These rotation developments practically qualified as taunts to a top-heavy Cavaliers team that needed 46 minutes from James and 43 from Irving and J.R. Smith, even with Kevin Love back after missing Game 3 with a concussion. While James and Irving proudly dismissed questions about the role of fatigue in the loss, the Cavaliers struggled to claim defensive rebounds and race out to shooters down the stretch.
“I went with my best players in the fourth quarter, down 2–1, and it didn’t work,” Lue said.
There’s no disputing that the Cavaliers, who entered Game 4 with a spotless 8–0 postseason record at Quicken Loans Arena, squandered an excellent chance on Friday. This was their shot. Momentum had been theirs after Game 3, for a flicker, and a tied series would have placed enormous pressure on Curry and Thompson to regain control.
Now, the Cavaliers will need to become the first team to dig out of a 3–1 deficit in the Finals (32 have tried and failed before them) if they want to claim the first title in franchise history. They will also need to win twice at Oracle, where the Warriors are 50–3 this season, with only one loss in the playoffs. Cleveland, of course, just lost Games 1 and 2 in Oakland by a combined 48 points.
“If you don’t think we can win, don’t get on the plane,” Lue said, with admirable optimism, knowing that “daunting” doesn’t even begin to cover this task.
Golden State is one win away from repeating as champions, one win away from validating its 73-win season, and one win away from sending James and Irving to another off-season of “How do they get over the hump?” questions.
Should the Warriors close this out at Oracle on Monday, Cleveland’s stars will look back on the fourth quarter of Game 4 as the one that got away, just as Oklahoma City’s duo is surely still ruing its Game 6 collapse. Should the Warriors close this out, James and Irving, like Durant and Westbrook before them, will be left shaking their heads, pondering the heavy-legged misses and the grinding isolations, and wondering how it is that their dreams were dashed so abruptly.