These were the teams, this was the finale, and there was no other place to be except, perhaps, Cleveland.
The NBA’s golden child – the other one, the older one – moved back home and won his city an NBA championship. This time, on a steamy, sweaty, emotion-soaked Sunday night in the Bay Area, LeBron James walked out with the trophy. The Akron, Ohio, native used every inch of his 6-foot-8 frame, every ounce of his 250 pounds, every tidbit of his brilliance to deny the Golden State Warriors a second consecutive title.
It was a stunner, and it was historic. It took three straight wins, two victories in hostile Oracle Arena, a poor fourth quarter Sunday night by two-time MVP Steph Curry, and a strong closing performance by James and point guard Kyrie Irving.
And so the Cavs are the champs. Repeat after me. The Cavs are the champs. For the first time since the NFL Browns in 1964, a major sports champion resides in Cleveland. Repeat after me. Cleveland.
When did we know for sure? That it was possible, perhaps inevitable? Was it the late three or putback by Irving? The stepback dagger by James? The free throw by James after he shook off his ailing right wrist? Or was it his full-court sprint and spectacular block denying Andre Iguodala the tying basket with just under two minutes remaining?
“He’s such a force, so powerful,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after his club’s excruciating 93-89 loss. “He brought a force to the last three minutes, and he’s one of the great players of all time. They were better than us this series.”
Entering the game, the Cavs held the momentum, but the history book favored the Warriors. Home teams were 15-3 in seventh games of the NBA Finals; no team had overcome a 1-3 championship series deficit and prevailed; Kerr’s squad had yet to lose more than two consecutive games; and there was no ignoring those four digits – 1964 – that for decades have haunted Cleveland’s hardcore sports fans.
If the Warriors don’t win a title a year ago without Curry, the Cavs aren’t riding in a parade Wednesday unless LeBron shocks the world – and the Miami Heat –and returns to the franchise that drafted him No. 1 in 2003. He absorbed plenty of hits, both when he abandoned Cleveland for Miami and later when he bolted the Heat and went back home, to function under enormous pressure, his repeated shrugs notwithstanding.
“Not many people have said, ‘Everyone get on my back: city, state, team, organization,’ ” said Cavs reserve Richard Jefferson. “ ‘Get on my back, and I’m going to lead you.’ He’s doing this for everyone. That’s a pressure I know I personally couldn’t handle.”
None of this is easy, not for LeBron, and not for the dazed, limping Warriors. Andrew Bogut was hobbled before he injured his knee. Curry missed practices or parts of these playoffs with a sprained left knee and a swollen right elbow, pointedly withdrawing from the Olympics weeks ago. Kerr will spend his offseason consulting specialists and tending to the mysterious migraines he continues to suffer. Draymond Green says he will be forever tormented by his suspension and Game 5 absence.
But this night was about the Cavs, about how the Cavs took the title, dominated the closing minutes. Very little of this game was pretty, and that includes airballs, unforced turnovers, silly fouls, blown calls, kicked balls, an inordinate number of missed open looks by Curry and Klay Thompson, and one horribly ill-timed behind-the-back pass by the two-time MVP.
Afterward, there were tears, but no excuses. This was a whipping. The Warriors’ historic 73-win regular season ends with a thud, a legitimate sense of finality. Three straight wins in these Finals leaves little room for doubt. Nor was there any questioning which player was the series MVP.
“I came back for a reason,” a composed, reflective James said later, long after he exalted and shed his tears, held his trophy, posed for the championship photos. “I came back to bring a championship to our city. I knew what I was capable of. I knew I had the right ingredients to help this franchise get to a place we’ve never been. That’s what it was all about. It’s not even relief. It’s exciting. To continue to build up our city, be an inspiration to our city, it means everything.”
Cleveland, Ohio. Home of the NBA champions. How different does that sound?
Ailene Voisin: 916-321-1208, firstname.lastname@example.org, @ailene_voisin