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Paul Flannery | June 19, 2016

Sunday Shootaround: The Game 7 stakes couldn't be higher for LeBron or the Warriors

48 minutes to settle everything

OAKLAND -- The remarkable thing about this unremarkable series of games is that the Cavaliers and Warriors have drawn dead even in both victories and on the scoreboard. Three wins apiece and 610 points a side have brought us here through six uneven contests where the final outcome has rarely been in doubt and each team’s performance has fluctuated wildly from game to game and moment to moment.

Nothing makes sense and yet, almost three weeks after we began, everything has become crystallized with one game left to decide it all. The stakes could not possibly be bigger and the lines could not be clearer.

On the one side lies validation for the Warriors’ historic season and the continuation of a burgeoning dynasty. Win tonight in Oracle and everything that’s taken place during the past week becomes mere prelude in their larger tale of dominance. Lose and they go down in infamy as the only team to ever blow a 3-1 series lead in the Finals and on their home court, no less. There is no middle ground left for the Warriors.

"It’s either win the whole thing or bust for us," Klay Thompson said. "I mean, it’s no fun getting second place. So it would be a great season, but at the same time to us, the players, we’re so competitive, we’d feel like we failed."

On the other sits LeBron James, the undisputed greatest player of his generation, who is on the cusp of doing what’s never been done and in the process delivering a championship to his title-starved home region. If he and the Cavs falter, it will be just one more gutpunch added to the litany of Cleveland sports frustrations and one more resounding L on his Finals resume.

LeBron is the reason we are still here, but nothing matters for him in the court of public opinion beyond the bottom line. That’s his burden and his alone. Not even Steph Curry, the reigning two-time MVP, lives with that kind of all-encompassing pressure and scrutiny.

"I can’t think of too many players who have put that type of pressure on themselves and then have delivered more times than not," Richard Jefferson said. "And he embraces it. It just shouldn’t go unnoticed. It should be something that’s recognized by the fans. He’s doing this for his teammates. He’s doing it for everyone, and that’s a pressure that I know I couldn’t personally handle. I have a tremendous amount of respect for him taking that on."

Hyperbole and Game 7s go hand in hand, but when you mix all of these elements into the cauldron of competition we are left with the combustible elements that bubbled over and exploded all over everyone in Game 6. From Curry’s flying mouthpiece to Steve Kerr putting the officials on blast, the normally unflappable Warriors lost their minds while LeBron cooly commanded the stage.

What a juxtaposition this has been. For the better part of two years, the Warriors have run roughshod over everyone -- James included -- laying waste to the rest of the league. Now here comes LeBron and the Cavs -- Team Drama, themselves -- who have turned the tables. How did we get here? It was just a week ago when the Warriors had this all but wrapped up, coming home with a 3-1 series lead and a chance to clinch their second straight title in front of their home crowd. And then, well ... and then things started happening.

At some point in the last year and a half, the Warriors became less of a basketball team than a vessel for whatever idea or agenda someone wanted to push. Every single thing that came up during the season, whether it was style of play, the meaningless of positions or the importance (or not) of the regular season had to be viewed through their prism.

To their supporters, the Warriors have been a triumphant mix of stylish aesthetics and analytic reasoning. Their games were sheer exhilaration to behold and their decision-making was fascinating. You could enjoy them viscerally or study their methods objectively and be satisfied with either pursuit. At their best, they are a crazy fun team that shattered every preconceived notion of what we thought was possible on a basketball court. Leads didn’t matter. Range was of no consequence. If you could dream it, the Warriors could do it.

To their detractors, they were blamed for the predominance of the 3-pointer as a tactical weapon and the cause of some horrible disease inflicted upon the nation’s youth who just want to be like Steph. (Practicing jumpers! The horror!) If you hated the influence of analytics you could blame them for that too, even though there were other more obvious targets to direct your ire. Players of generations past didn’t understand them. Older fans holding tight to their memories and current ones of vanquished foes raced to discredit them.

To be sure the Warriors invited some of this upon themselves. Joe Lacob’s "light years ahead" comment was presumptive. His team was put together with great skill and care, but like everyone else there’s a strong current of luck that runs through his franchise. The players are confident to the extreme, which can be either refreshing or annoying depending on the final score and your allegiances. At the end of the day, schadenfreude comes for all of us, especially in the world of pro sports.

It came hard for Draymond Green in Game 5, who was forced to watch from across the street in a baseball stadium. The heart and soul of the Warriors, Green’s living on the edge sensibilities sent him careening over the abyss. It wasn’t the latest nut tap that got him, it was the accumulation of all of his other antics -- body-slamming Michael Beasley at the end of a first round game, kicking Steven Adams in the groin and too many flailing limbs to count.

The Warriors were pissed that it came to this, believing that the Cavs politicked a little too hard to get Green suspended. The last week has been filled with social media outbursts and podium trash talk, but no matter. They couldn’t get it done in Oracle without their howling savant of a forward and so they had to gather themselves and fly back across the country to try to claim their title once again in their opponents’ arena.

"I have strong belief that if I play Game 5, we win," Green said before Game 6. "But I didn't because I put myself in a situation where I wasn't able to play."

The Cavs had other ideas. In the aftermath of the Green suspension, the Cavs have been quietly confident. They believe, not without justification, that this very scenario is their destiny and that it has to be this way.

While the Warriors steamed, the Cavs have been largely silent, a stance summed up by James’ declaration that he would take the high road after being informed of Thompson’s off-day comments that he had his feelings hurt. There is so much happening between the lines that it would take a team of sociologists working round the clock to suss it all out.

The Warriors are the usurpers to King James’ throne, the golden boys who took the league by storm and bypassed the traditional steps to the crown. To some, they are a little too perfect, a little too precious and preening. Until this point they have presented an unsolvable riddle that no one has been able to crack, but over the last two games James has dented their aura of inevitability and made them look all too human.

LeBron was dominant in Game 5 and masterful in Game 6. At one point he had a hand in 35 of the Cavs’ 36 points. This was James at his most resourceful, both more physically dominant and mentally sharper than everyone else on the court.

"With our season on the line, at the end of the third quarter he said, ‘I’m not coming out.’" Cavs coach Ty Lue said. "I didn’t have any intention on taking him out anyway. I don't care what y’all say. We’re going to ride him."

All around him, the Cavs have finally figured it out. From Kyrie Irving’s uncanny shotmaking to Tristan Thompson’s relentless rebounding, they have finally played like a team that is capable of supporting LeBron’s brilliance and Lue has pushed all the right buttons. It all comes back to LeBron in one way or another and through him, all things are possible.

"Special, very special," Irving said. "You try not to sit back and watch because you're trying to make sure that you create space for him and able to give him outlets when he needs it. But I mean, when a guy's got it going like that, I mean, it's just unbelievable to be a part of."

LeBron’s forceful rejection of a Curry layup late in Game 6 said everything that needed to be said, but James had a few extra words to add to the conversation in case anyone missed it. In so many words, he was telling Curry and everyone else that the league still belongs to him. James refused to be drawn into that conversation publically, but it’s there and it’s at the heart of everything that this series stands for in a larger context.

And so we are here, with one game left in the season to decide it all. As James put it, "It’s two of the greatest words in the world, and that’s ‘Game 7.’"

The ListConsumable NBA thoughts

Game 7s are about the stars and so we expect Steph Curry, LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Draymond Green to produce. But the spotlight shines harshly on everyone and here are five players who will be under the microscope.

Kevin Love: The Finals have been an unmitigated disaster for Love, who had been having a strong playoff run. When Richard Jefferson started in his place in Game 3 it unlocked a workable defensive counter to Golden State’s 1-4 pick-and-roll game and changed the series. Picking up two quick fouls in Game 6 was one of the best things to happen to the Cavs and Ty Lue would be completely justified in starting Jefferson in Game 7. And yet, there’s still a good player in there somewhere. It may take a change of scenery to bring that version of Kevin Love back, but he can atone for a lot of sins with a solid performance on Sunday.

Harrison Barnes: Uh dude, this is no way to go into free agency. After a reasonably solid four games, Barnes has crumpled before our eyes missing wide open shots and overthinking his way through wayward drives and blown assignments. Role players get exposed when the stars don’t perform, but Barnes has validated every single concern about his game, especially in Game 5 when he was more Jeff Green than Draymond. Barnes doesn’t have to do much, just hit a couple of open shots and play solid defense. That’s not too much to ask, right?

Tristan Thompson: His relentless rebounding and defensive activity have been a major problem for the Warriors throughout the series, forcing them to play true bigs who haven’t been able to match Thompson’s energy and athleticism. Thompson is something of a bellwether in this series. The Cavs are +30 per 100 possessions in their three wins with Thompson on the court and -22 in their losses. If Thompson is allowed to run wild and control the boards, it will be a long night for Golden State.

Andre Iguodala: In yet another side-effect of Green’s suspension, Iguodala’s back tightened up early in Game 6 and he often looked frail and hunched over. The Cavs have smartly found ways to get James into the flow, running their offense through him in favorable spots and countering Golden State’s defense. Iguodala represents the first and most important part of that strategy and if he’s physically compromised, the Warriors are in trouble. Many of us thought Iggy was the MVP through the first four games. Now, he’s just hoping to be up to the task.

Leandro Barbosa: If there’s a wild card among the deep rotation players it’s the Brazilian Blur, who has been shooting the lights out in limited action. Barbosa has been a per-minute monster and he damn near brought the Warriors back in Game 6 before LeBron took over down the stretch. Kerr trusts his bench implicitly, but it will be interesting to see how deep his rotations go and how much a role Barbosa will have in Game 7.

ICYMIor In Case You Missed It

Say WhatRamblings of NBA players, coaches and GMs

"The way I view it is me not being out there on the floor to battle with my guys is being a bad teammate. I take pride in being a good teammate. Whether it's pride, however you want to label it, whatever that is, has to go behind being a good teammate. That can never jump in front of that. Like I said, I put myself in a position to where I couldn't be out there, and the way I view it, it's awful. Terrible teammate." -- Draymond Green.

Reaction: Say what you want about Draymond, and a lot of people have had their say, but he was a standup guy who took the blame and answered every question. He still screwed up big time though and he’s got a lot to make up for in Game 7.

"I think every other day is ideal for players. You get a day off and then these guys are incredible athletes. 48 hours between games is kind of what they're used to during the regular season, and it just seems like this is taking forever." -- Steve Kerr.

Reaction: Agree with Kerr on this, the Finals have taken forever now that they’ve baked in extra days between travel. Seriously, they take longer than the Olympics. The extra days might also have something to do with the disjointed nature of this series.

"Well, it benefits not only the players but also you guys as well, being able to get an extra day and prepare from coast to coast. When I was in Miami we went to a couple places -- when I was in Miami, everywhere we went was far, and the last two years from us going Cleveland to Golden State, the one day in between was taxing on all of us. Not just the guys on the court, but you guys as well. So it benefits all of us as a league." -- LeBron James.

Reaction: And here’s the counter. So let’s offer a solution: Go back to 2-3-2, which was immensely easier on everyone.

"I need to play my best game of the year if not my career because of what the stakes are. So that doesn't mean scoring 50 points, though. That means controlling the tempo of the game." -- Steph Curry.

Reaction: Curry’s been caught in a maelstrom the last few days, the kind that constantly swirls around LeBron 24/7. Injured or not, Curry has to be great in Game 7. The Cavs have been relentless in attacking him, but this is his moment as much as it is LeBron’s.

"Both teams are going to try to impose their will. We've got two really good teams. It comes down to one last game, which is what you all would like. It's good for the game, I guess." -- Andre Iguodala.

Reaction: I’ve grown to appreciate Iguodala’s low-key responses during this series. His anti-take takes offer a dose of perspective, I guess.

Vine Of The Weekfurther explanation unnecessary

That’s two years of LeBron James angst coming down on the two-time MVP.

Designer: Josh Laincz | Producer: Tom Ziller | Editor: Tom Ziller

About the Author

After covering everything from 8-man football in Idaho to city politics in Boston, Paul came to SB Nation in 2013 to write about the NBA. He developed the Sunday Shootaround column and profiled players such as Damian Lillard, Draymond Green, and Isaiah Thomas. When not in arenas, he can usually be found running somewhere.

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