The Golden State Warriors winning a second consecutive NBA championship appeared to be a foregone conclusion a week ago, with two-time reigning MVP Stephen Curry and Co. holding a commanding 3-1 lead against the Cleveland Cavaliers and the best-of-seven series shifting to Oakland for Game 5.
It was at that point that the defending champions’ date with destiny was rudely interrupted by Cavs stars LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, who shot the lights out in leading Cleveland to decisive victories in Games 5 and 6, forcing Sunday night’s winner-take-all Game 7 at Oracle Arena.
While James and Irving have been fantastic – scoring 82 and 64 points each over the past two games – they haven’t been solely responsible for Cleveland rolling over the Warriors like a locomotive and seizing the upper hand.
Missing-in-acton Warriors forward Harrison Barnes has helped greatly.
Curry and fellow Splash Brother Klay Thompson have been sloppy with the ball and have become mere mortals shooting it. All-Star Draymond Green was suspended for Game 5, the same game in which big man Andrew Bogut was lost for the series to a knee injury.
Warriors fans also point to an unending series of “interesting” foul calls and non-calls as a contributing factor to their team suddenly being in danger of becoming the first NBA team to blow a 3-1 Finals lead.
But the one player most likely to be the fall guy for the Warriors is the ice-cold Barnes, whose Finals Houdini act couldn’t come at a worse time for him or his team.
Barnes’ rejected the Warriors’ four-year, $64 million extension offer in late October and stands to be a free agent at season’s end.
Given his 2-for-22 performance and five points combined in Games 5 and 6, flustered fans won’t be sorry to see him go and teams might think twice before opening the vault.
The affable Barnes, whose defense has been as lacking as his offense, has taken a beating on social media but enters the game with his confidence intact.
“The shots aren’t going in; that’s the fact of it,” Barnes told The (San Jose) Mercury News. “But I’m going to keep shooting with confidence, get some shots up in between games and see what happens in Game 7.”
Warriors coach Steve Kerr says he’s sticking with Barnes in Game 7 and is counting on him to snap out of his funk.
“He’s had two tough games in a row,” Kerr told The Mercury News. “But this is the NBA playoffs. This is what happens. It happens. It happened to me several times in the playoffs when I was playing. You have a couple of bad games, you think too much. You’re struggling. The focus is brighter. The lights are brighter during the playoffs, so everybody notices. The regular season, you have a couple of bad games and nobody notices.
“But I’m really confident in Harrison. He’s going to start Sunday and he’s still one of our key guys. I’m very confident that he’ll come out and play well.”
With Curry and Thompson being manhandled any time the ball is within 10 feet of them, opportunities have been and will be there for Barnes to contribute offensively, often with little interference. The former first-round draft pick is saying all the right things, he just needs to start doing some of them, too.
Barnes has had his moments in this series, and not all of them have been of the bad variety.
He went for 18 points, including four three-pointers, and eight rebounds in Game 3. He followed with a 14-point, eight-rebound effort in Game 4. In those two games, he shot a combined 12 of 22 from the field and made 6 of 10 three-point attempts.
If that Barnes can show up Sunday night, the Warriors’ chances of derailing the Cavs will be greatly enhanced, and a few more zeroes might appear on his next contract.
If not, he’ll have a dubious place in Warriors history and wear their epic collapse like nobody else.
Compiled by Stu Rosenberg