OAKLAND, Calif. – These are the moments that create legends. Inside the final minute of Game 7 of the NBA Finals on Sunday night, the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers were tied, having played one of the great games in the history of the league on the grandest of stages.
And with one flick of his wrist, Kyrie Irving not only launched himself into the annals of history, but he smashed a 52-year curse along with it.
Irving’s three-pointer with 53 seconds left lifted the Cavaliers to a 93-89 victory in front of a stunned sellout crowd inside Oracle Arena, ending the city of Cleveland’s 52-year championship drought and making the Cavaliers the first team to ever recover from a three games to one deficit in NBA Finals history.
“History was made tonight,” Irving said. “This was one for the books. Literally one for the books.”
After Stephen Curry had missed a pull-up three-pointer with 1:13 remaining, Irving found himself isolated on the right side of the court as the shot clock wound down. Irving, the definition of a tough-shot maker, rose up and drained the shot – giving Cleveland the lead for good.
Curry – who wound up going 6 for 19, including 4 for 14 from three-point range, for 17 points – then came down and missed another shot with 30.7 seconds to go, sending the ball back to Irving, who finished with 26 points, and the Cavaliers. And after Irving drove to the rim and had his initial shot blocked by Andre Iguodala, he found a cutting LeBron James coming down the lane.
James was fouled hard by Draymond Green, landing hard on his right arm and – at least at first – appearing to be too injured to continue. But he eventually got up and, after missing the first free throw, drained the second to complete a triple-double of 27 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists while playing 46 minutes 49 seconds en route to winning his third championship and third Finals MVP Award.
It was the final act James needed to complete the promise he brought to the city when, after being born 40 miles south in Akron, Ohio, he was drafted first overall by the Cavaliers 13 years ago.
Curry tossed up one final three-pointer as the clock ran down, one that bounced harmlessly away, and as time expired the Cavaliers sprinted onto the court and surrounded James, who appeared to collapse under the weight of the moment, and the release of a lifetime’s worth of emotions.
“I’m home,” James said. “This is what I came back for.”
The sense of history was palpable inside the arena Sunday night, with the stakes impossibly high for both teams. For Golden State, it was one more chance to finish off what would be the greatest season in NBA history, capping a record-setting 73-win regular season with a second straight championship. For Cleveland, it was a chance to end a half-century’s worth of heartbreak and for James to deliver what would be the signature moment of his spectacular career.
And, for the first time in a series that’s seen everything else, the Warriors and Cavaliers proceeded to play a tight, compelling game more than worthy of such an occasion. Emphatic blocks, ridiculous drives, three-point bombs, 20 lead changes and 11 ties – this one offered anything and everything a basketball fan could hope to see in a Game 7 with the championship on the line.
This series was irrevocably altered when Green was suspended for Game 5 after accumulating too many flagrant foul points – giving Cleveland the opening it needed, when trailing three games to one, to make this a series again. So it was fitting Green was the player who kept Golden State in the game throughout the first half of Game 7.
Known for his all-around ability at both ends of the floor, it was Green’s three-point shooting – normally the specialty of teammates Curry and Klay Thompson – that stood out. Green had 22 of his 32 points in the first half, including going 5 for 5 from three-point range before halftime, to make up for Curry and Thompson going a combined 5 for 17 from the floor for 14 points and send the Warriors into the locker room with a 49-42 halftime lead.
But the Cavaliers turned things up a notch in the third quarter, opening the second half with a 26-12 run – including 12 points by Irving – to take its biggest lead of the game at 68-61 on an Irving three-pointer with four minutes to go in the third.
All that meant, however, was that it was Golden State’s turn to make a run, and that’s exactly what happened, as the Warriors closed the quarter with a 15-7 run – including an Iguodala layup in the waning seconds to send Golden State into the fourth quarter with a 76-75 lead.
After the Warriors set an NBA record with 73 regular season wins, the expectation was the past two months would be little more than a coronation, with Golden State almost certain to finish off the greatest season of all-time with a second straight championship.
Reality, though, turned out to be far different. Knee and ankle injuries for Curry derailed his playoffs, and he never consistently recovered the form he showed during his unanimous MVP season.
Then Green, who had a spectacular performance with 30 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists, was suspended, completely changing the course of these NBA Finals and giving Cleveland new life after it had appeared the Cavaliers were headed home for the summer after losing Game 4 at home.
Cleveland took advantage of it, and, with one flick of Kyrie Irving’s wrist, erased a half-century’s worth of pain and frustration along with it.