CLEVELAND — Never mind their many NBA records and individual achievements. The Warriors knew this repeat thing wouldn’t be easy. Something that significant in professional sports seldom is, history says.
After they took a 3-1 stranglehold on the NBA Finals, though, the Warriors and a lot of experts didn’t expect it to be quite this difficult.
The Dubs saw their dream season come down to a best of 48 minutes at Quicken Loans Arena on Thursday night, 115-101, as a confident and energized Cleveland Cavaliers team beat them for the second consecutive time and third in four games.
Game 7 will be played at Oracle Arena on Sunday, where the Warriors have lost only four times this season. No team has rebounded from a 3-1 deficit in NBA Finals history.
“We get one game at home to win the NBA championship,” coach Steve Kerr said. “I’ll take it every time.”
Maybe so, but Kerr and his players have a lot to figure out and only two days to do it.
As if a possessed LeBron James and his supporting cast don’t pose enough of a challenge, the Warriors also have to check their own emotions. After they fell behind early, they repeatedly bickered with officials, who included Scott Foster, their longtime nemesis.
Worse yet, the chief offender wasn’t the emotional Draymond Green but Stephen Curry, normally the calmest influence on the team.
After Curry fouled out with four minutes left in the fourth quarter, he barked at referee Jason Phillips before he left the court. Then he blindly threw his mouthpiece into the crowd and was ejected. It struck a fan, to whom he later apologized.
“It was obviously frustrating fouling out in the fourth quarter of a clinching game and not being out there with my teammates,” Curry said. “So it got the best of me, but I’ll be all right for next game.”
“He had every right to be upset,” equally frustrated coach Steve Kerr said. “He’s the MVP of the league. He gets six fouls called on him, three of them were absolutely ridiculous. …
“Yeah, I’m happy he threw his mouthpiece. He should be upset.”
Not only did James score 41 points in the second consecutive game, but he seemed to get deeper into Curry’s head in the process. After the rejection of a Curry shot in the fourth quarter, James got in his ear.
“Nothing,” Curry said about the message.
As the 31-year-old James is well aware, this may be his final chance to bring the Lawrence O’Brien Trophy to his hometown. As the obvious favorite to capture postseason MVP honors, he has played like it. He connected on 16 of 27 field goal tries, dished out 11 assists and had four steals.
“I’ll take it,” James told reporters of the opportunity at hand. “It don’t matter to me. Like I told you guys the other day, it’s two of the great words in the world and that’s ‘Game 7,’ so I’ll play it anywhere.”
Once again, the Warriors lacked support for Curry and backcourt partner Klay Thompson, who have had an uneven series themselves.
After a slow start, Curry scored 30 points — half in the second period — while Thompson finished with 25 more. In the first half, Thompson shot 3 of 12 in the field.
No other starter placed in double figures. On the heels of a one-game suspension, Green managed only eight points and 10 rebounds. Harrison Barnes bricked all eight of his shots. Only Leandro Barbosa (14 points) made a mark off the bench.
If Thompson and Curry are the Splash Brothers, then Irving and James are the Tornado Twins.
Irving continues to be the key figure in the series. On the heels of a 41-point masterpiece, the point guard set the tone with 20 of his 23 points in the first half.
Yet Irving and James aren’t the only concerns. Once again, there also was no answer for center Tristan Thompson, who was Godzilla close to the basket. He finished with 15 and 16 rebounds.
The problem is even more acute without Andrew Bogut (strained knee), who has played his final game of the season. The Warriors were outrebounded by a 45-35 margin.
On the rare occasion when the Warriors lag on offense, they almost always can hang their hat on defense. But especially early in the game, the Cavaliers were able to get open looks with crisp ball movement. In the first half, they shot 56 percent in the field.
Cleveland also scored a number of easy points on backdoor cuts and fast breaks. On one play, Thompson inexplicably beat Festus Ezeli down the court for a dunk.
To compound matters, Andre Iguodala was limited because of back spasms.
Asked whether the 73 victories in the regular season would be a waste without another championship, Thompson responded, “100 percent. Its either win the whole thing or bust.”