For nearly two full seasons, the Golden State Warriors have squirmed out of every hazard and wriggled away every time they looked trapped. They did it last playoffs in the NBA Finals down 2-1, they did it during this year's record-setting 73-win season and they've done it throughout the 2016 playoffs, even coming back from a 3-1 deficit to beat Oklahoma City last round. But in the wake of the Cleveland Cavaliers' Game 6 victory on Thursday, it feels like the Warriors might have used up every last lifeline they had, like the bumbling wins they stumble into off sheer talent might finally have been used up.
It feels like their reckoning might finally be here.
That's the reality the Warriors face, two more days before an actual reckoning arrives on Sunday in Game 7. This isn't where Golden State saw itself when it went up 3-1 with a win in Cleveland, pounding the Cavaliers on their home court to the dismay of those watching. It definitely felt like the Warriors missed an opportunity in Game 5 -- partly due to Draymond Green's absence, partly due to an astonishing 82 combined points from LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. But on Thursday, in Game 6, there was nothing missed. James just beat them straight up, scoring or assisting on 35 of the 36 points in crunch time, a fourth-quarter performance that will go down as maybe the greatest ever in a finals game.
The past two games must feel like a nightmare for the Warriors. They're in a daze, stumbling through these games looking nothing like the hegemon we watched romp through the league on its way to 73 wins. Stephen Curry doesn't look healthy even during his good games, which have been sparse. Curry still records tolerable numbers, but it's clear he lacks the small, extra burst that caused him to advance one more level and be named the first unanimous MVP in league history.
If it was just Curry, perhaps Golden State could survive. But Andre Igoudala is half of himself, struggling through Game 6 before leaving in the second half with a nagging back injury. Andrew Bogut, meanwhile, was ruled out for the season after an awful Game 5 knee injury. The Warriors have battled through injuries all season, pushing to 73 wins with liberal usage of their bench. But the NBA Finals against the James-led Cavaliers is different.
Acknowledging injuries doesn't excuse performance, of course, despite Twitter's common misunderstanding of that. Golden State has no room to complain after saying the same about Cleveland last year, missing Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.
Still, Golden State doesn't look right, and that's accounting for every player. You can use advanced stats to prove it -- the Warriors averaged nearly 320 passes per game, per SportsVU tracking stats, but only had 282 on Thursday -- or simple ones, like three losses in six games after not losing back-to-back matchups all season. The eye test works fine in this case, too, as a team that looked as dominant as any squad ever struggles to exert itself on the Cavaliers for even a quarter.
The Warriors have faced Games 7 before -- one last round, and one a couple seasons ago. There was no pressure when they played and lost Game 7 against the Clippers in 2014, before Golden State had taken that final step and before we realized they were emerging as the league's next budding dynasty. Then there was Game 7 in the 2016 Western Conference Finals against Oklahoma City, a close game that the Warriors ultimately pulled out with all the momentum behind their three consecutive wins.
This feels different. This must be what a reckoning feels like. The Warriors have no momentum and marginal health. They've made LeBron James angry, they've provoked him, and he has responded with back-to-back 41-point games. Common sense would say not to provoke the best player in the world, right? Golden State didn't get that memo.
Watch: The war of words before Game 5
All this has been said, and a 20-point Warriors win to take the title still doesn't seem all that unlikely. That's how much respect Golden State has garnered this season, even if this series has proven none of it. For two seasons, betting against the Warriors has been a consistently bad proposition. Assuming it will change in the last game of the year would be an assumption much too big.
But just like cats have nine lives, it feels like the Warriors have used every one of their get-out-of-jail-free cards. After 73 wins and three series triumphs, it's like Golden State removed that necklace in "Game of Thrones" that makes Melisandre look young. They're just a tired, haggard team, one who has tried every trick in the book and realized there's nothing left to show.
That's the way it looks. Now all that matters happens on Sunday, when an NBA champion will be crowned after Game 7, the first Game 7 since LeBron James won it all in 2013. There's good reason to believe he'll do it again ... and if for no other reason, no matter how bad the Warriors have looked, that's why Golden State still has a chance. They've escaped every other situation you land them.
What's just one more?
Play of the night
LeBron James: good at basketball.
5 fun things
[thinking face emoji] Ayesha Curry said the NBA's rigged?
A wonderful Sager and LeBron interview
The Warriors had a historically awful first quarter
On the other end of the court in the first quarter, LOOK AT LEBRON'S PASSING. This man is the greatest I've ever seen.
J.R. SMITH WATCH: Opened the finals with an airball, but then threw an illustrious no-look and-one to James. Also, Smith's daughter is proud of him. Awwwww.
Cavaliers 115, Warriors 101 (Fear the Sword recap | Golden State of Mind recap | SB Nation recap)