OAKLAND — The Golden State Warriors were the subject of another historic first on Sunday night: losing an NBA Finals after leading the series 3-1.
In a season of shattered records, the Dubs lost three consecutive games for the first time under head coach Steve Kerr due to a stretch of transcendent play from LeBron James and Kyrie Irving of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
In what will be remembered as one of the best Game 7s in the history of sports, Irving hit a monumental 3-point shot with 53 seconds remaining after the score had stagnated at 89-89 for just less than four minutes.
The Cavs went on to win 93-89, bringing their first major sports championship to the city of Cleveland since 1964. Meanwhile, the Warriors join the 2007 New England Patriots, 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings and 2001 Seattle Mariners as a winningest regular season team that also failed to win the championship.
“We’ve had so many moments of joy together, and it was like, ‘Wow, we’re actually having a moment of sorrow as a team,’” Kerr said after the game. “It’s a great reminder that, first of all, it’s not easy to win a championship. But, as I said, it’s life. Things happen. You move on.”
Things happen: Like James and Irving combining for 53 points. Like James registering a triple-double by grabbing 11 boards and throwing 11 assists. Like James erasing three otherwise automatic buckets, including an Andre Iguodala layup during Golden State’s late scoring drought that proved fatal.
The Warriors successfully reignited casual basketball fans’ passion in the regular season by playing the game with maximum ball movement and team involvement. But in Game 7, it wasn’t enough to stop the isolation attack of the Cavs: James and Irving averaged 66.3 points on 59.3 possessions in the last three games of the Finals. About a third of those possessions were in isolation sets, according to Synergy Sports Tech.
What that means in layman terms: Outstanding performances from two players undid a team structure that appeared to weaken as Curry struggled to get space when big men were switched onto him in pick-and-roll situations. Despite his lackluster performance (6-for-19 shooting, four turnovers), Curry refused to blame a litany of injuries that — at least — hobbled him throughout most of the postseason.
“It will haunt me for a while because it means a lot to me to try to lead my team and do what I need to do on the court and big stages,” he said. “Done it before. Didn’t do it tonight.”
Draymond Green played incredibly — scoring 32 points on 15 shots, and barely missing a triple-double of his own with 15 rebounds and nine assists.
Many will blame Green for his Game 5 suspension being a turning point of the series, including Green himself. Before he was banned by the NBA, the Warriors were ahead 3-1 and earned a dominant win on the road. But after he was ruled out, James took over and eventually walked off the floor at Oracle Arena holding the Larry O’Brien trophy under one arm with the Bill Russell Finals MVP statuette under the other.
“You think about: What if? What if I would have done this? What if I would have done that? All that stuff replays in your head,” Green said. “But you’ve got to give them a lot of credit. They were down 3-1. They continued to battle, and they never quit. Their leaders led. LeBron put the team on his back, Kyrie put the team on his back, and everybody followed suit.”
James cements his legacy as a top-five player in league history at the expense of the perfect conclusion to the Warriors’ perfect story. A shame for the fans throughout the Bay Area, but a moment for elation some 2,400 miles away.
“For us to be able to end this, end this drought, our fans deserve it,” said James, a native of Akron, Ohio. “They deserve it.”