The most absurd thing happened Thursday night in Cleveland: LeBron James broke the Golden State Warriors. Now, to be clear, I do not use the word “broke” in a grand sense, do not mean that he broke the Warriors’ will, broke their spirit or even broke their season. None of that is true. There is a Game 7 to be played Sunday in Oakland, and the smart money is still on the Warriors to finish the job and take home their second straight championship.
No, I simply mean that LeBron James broke the Warriors the way the protagonist finally breaks the enemy robot in the movies, you know, with sparks spitting and flickering and battery acid leaking out the side and a stream of unrelated words and stutters releasing in an ever slower rhythm.
What the heck happened? The delightful First Couple of Sports, Stephen and Ayesha Curry, both melted down, with Steph flinging his ubiquitous mouthpiece toward the crowd and Ayesha Twitter-burping something about the vast corruption of the NBA. Draymond Green nearly lost his mind again, even with another suspension dangerously lurking. Harrison Barnes simply seems to be malfunctioning — he can’t make a shot. Andre Iguodala’s back went out. Even Steve Kerr, the ultra-polished coach who always seems to know exactly what to say in every moment, rambled about the officiating, suggesting along the way that calling six fouls on Curry is simply no way to treat the league MVP.
This team-wide nervous breakdown was prompted by many different things, but it was CAUSED by LeBron Raymone James, the Chosen One, Bron-Bron, LBJ, the King. You would think after 13 seasons of surpassing greatness, there would be no place left for James to go, no heights left for him to scale. Who can forget that Game 6 in Boston in 2012 when, with his Miami Heat on the brink, he scored 45 and grabbed 15 boards and essentially beat the Celtics all by himself? Who can forget Game 7 of the 2013 NBA Finals against San Antonio, when he scored 37 and made the shots down the stretch to make sure that his Heat won the title? Go back some years and who can forget the way the young, still raw LeBron James carried and willed a ragtag group of Cleveland Cavaliers to the 2007 NBA Finals by basically doing everything?
And yet, Thursday was LeBron James’ crescendo. He came back to Cleveland a couple of years ago, came back to a city where his jersey had been burned in effigy, came back to an NBA owner who had ranted against him in a public letter, came back to a team that had been in absolute free fall since he left.
James came back, he explained, to do the thing so many people believed him destined to do: Lead Cleveland to a championship after a half-century drought. He knew it would not be easy but, I suspect, he did not realize just how hard it would be. That is to say he did not foresee the dawn of the Golden State Warriors, this wonderful and free-flowing team that buries opponents with a high-energy blur of 3-pointers and Rubik’s Cube switching defense.
That Warriors team wrecked his beat-up Cavaliers in Year 1 of The Return. And this year, well, it was a fait accompli that Golden State, winners of a record 73 regular-season games, would steamroll the Cavaliers in the Finals. Golden State beat Cleveland with ease during the season. The teams played the first four Finals games and Golden State won three of them by an average of 19 points.
Then, in Game 5, the Cavaliers caught a break; the Warriors’ versatile big man Draymond Green was suspended after one-too-many shots to an opponent’s groin. Golden State looked off-balance all game long, James and teammate Kyrie Irving were magnificent, and the series was extended. Game 6 on Thursday was back in Cleveland, where Cavaliers fans cheered and screamed at record decibels, at least in part to drown out the shrieks of the city’s sports heartbreak past.
And LeBron was transcendent. The numbers are the numbers — 41 points, 11 assists, eight rebounds, four steals, three blocks, just one turnover — and they do put a nice frame around this performance. But the numbers do not capture it nor explain it. Memory struggles to remember a time when one player so thoroughly controlled a team game.
The Cavaliers, riding the emotion of the crowd, jumped to a gigantic lead, 8-0 after a few moments, 31-11 after the first quarter. Everyone knew, though, that the Warriors would regain their balance and charge up the hill and make this a game. Everyone knew it.
And LeBron James, all by himself, held them off. In the third and fourth quarter, when his No. 2, Kyrie Irving, faltered, while the commercial star, Kevin Love, seemed lost in a fog, James wrote, directed, produced and starred. From the five-minute mark in the third quarter until there were three minutes left — 14 minutes of basketball — the Cavaliers scored 13 field goals. James either scored or assisted on every one of them. During one stretch, he scored 18 consecutive Cleveland points.
When the stretch began, Cleveland led by 15 over a desperate Warriors team throwing everything it had against the Cavaliers. When it ended, Cleveland led by 20, Steph Curry had been ejected, Draymond Green was being held back by his coach and the seemingly unbreakable Warriors were in pieces.
Yes, Warriors fans will make their points about the officiating being one-sided and to Cleveland’s liking, and there might be a point to that. Or not. Who really knows? NBA officiating, like modern art, means whatever you want it to mean. The larger point is that on one of the biggest nights in Cleveland sports history, LeBron James rose up and played such divine basketball that some Cavaliers fans were left weeping in sheer joy and awe.
Now it goes to Game 7 in Oakland, where the energy will be very different, where the storylines roar. Will Golden State cap off the greatest season in NBA history? Will LeBron James bring home a trophy to Cleveland? Will the Warriors, like the 16-0 Patriots, crash just before the finish line? Will Cleveland suffer yet another heartbreak to pile on top of the Drive and the Fumble and the Shot and the rest?
This series has given us absolutely no hint to the answers. The Cavaliers and Warriors have played six games, and on three of those nights Golden State was clearly the better team. On the other three, Cleveland was clearly the better team. There has not been a close game. There has not been one suspenseful finish. Six games, and not one game has had the starters for both teams on the floor at the finish. So who knows?
On the one hand, Golden State has been almost unbeatable in Oakland and after two dud performances, including the embarrassing breakdown in Game 6, you would expect the defending champions to come out and play with blinding excellence.
On the other hand, Golden State now understands just how high LeBron James can fly.