The Golden State Warriors never ran from history. Fewer than two weeks into the season, when the defending champions were 5-0, some players were already talking about 73 wins. Those too queasy to think that far into the future reveled in the pursuit of a record-breaking 16-0 start.
The chatter got so loud that coach Steve Kerr, still rehabbing from two offseason back surgeries, visited the team in Los Angeles before its Nov. 19 game against the Clippers. The Warriors were 12-0 -- four games away from busting their first significant record -- but Kerr wanted his team to refocus. He told them to forget about the record -- that the Clippers wanted to make a statement, and the Warriors needed to remind L.A. of the Western Conference pecking order, team sources remember.
Golden State won that night, and as it rumbled to a 24-0 start, the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls' regular-season record became the unavoidable target. In a league that treats the regular season as a meaningless prelude, it was awesome to see a team seize upon a once-in-a-lifetime chance to become the greatest. The Warriors accepted the implied bargain of the hunt: History would consider their season a failure if they won 73 games and lost in the playoffs. They would judge themselves the same way.
For such a juggernaut, the Warriors fret with a strange mental vulnerability. It is part of their charm. The Memphis Grizzlies spooked them in last year's playoffs, and the Oklahoma City Thunder had them pump-faking ghosts in this season's Western Conference finals.
They tend to lose in blowouts, as they have three times to the Cleveland Cavaliers in these NBA Finals. Some within the team whisper that the ugly losses might stem from Stephen Curry's loose nature -- the joyful lefty behind-the-back flicks that sometimes go awry, and the calm belief that he can will them back from huge early deficits. The team was plainly overconfident after Game 2, and Golden State no-showed in Game 3, surrendering when the Cavaliers dared hit back. You cannot waste a game in the Finals, not even when you enter with a record number of wins -- not when LeBron James is chasing history as grand as yours.
Draymond Green balances Curry with a pulsating nastiness, but his inability to turn it off cost the Warriors at the worst time. Saying the retaliatory groin shot comes as part of the Green package lets him off easy. Even those who lather themselves in competitive fury can exercise basic human judgement; Green knew the time, score and flagrant foul count when he swung at James in the waning moments of Game 4, and the resulting suspension derailed what looked like a typical 4-1 series win.
If the Warriors lose Game 7 on Sunday in Oakland, Green and his teammates will have to absorb the very real possibility that his temper cost them a championship.
Green gave the Cavaliers a lifeline, and they have pulled up on it with both furious physicality and intelligence. The Warriors will probably enter next season as favorites, but the Thunder and Cavaliers have sketched out the blueprint to humanize them. Both teams vaporized the Curry-Green pick-and-roll by defending Green with wing players who could switch onto Curry: Thunder forward Kevin Durant in the conference finals and, starting in Game 3 of the Finals, James.
Curry and Green ran about 11.5 pick-and-rolls per game in the regular season, and the Warriors averaged 1.24 points per possession on those trips -- the highest such figure for any duo, per NBA tracking data. Green has set just 40 ball screens for Curry in this series, and the Warriors have rung a hideous .625 points per possession out of them. Those rumbling Green 4-on-3s that destroyed Cleveland a year ago are gone.
The gambit requires sliding at least one big man onto a Golden State wing player, and holy hell has Cavaliers big man Tristan Thompson been up to the task. He can help in the paint, scurry back out to Golden State swingmen Harrison Barnes and Andre Iguodala, keep his balance and hang with those guys on drives:
Barnes makes it easier passing up an open 3, and there is that Golden State vulnerability again: Barnes is lost, and the Warriors need him to snap back for Game 7. They cannot extend Leandro Barbosa or Brandon Rush, and their spacing gets cramped (by their standards) when Iguodala, Shaun Livingston and Green share the floor -- and especially when Iguodala and Livingston play with a true center.
Barnes is a favorite punching bag for Golden State fans preemptively angry about his contract, but his mix of size, shooting and strength makes him something of an oddball linchpin to the Death Lineup.
The Warriors drag Thompson into the Curry dance by having Barnes and Iguodala screen for Curry, but those guys don't present quite the same playmaking threat once Curry slips them the ball. When Curry has threaded passes to Iguodala, the Cavs have left the right shooters open around him. Watch J.R. Smith glue himself to Klay Thompson in the left corner, conceding a longer above-the-break 3-pointer to Barnes:
If Barnes -- or Green, or Livingston -- drains a couple early in Game 7, the whole feel of the series could flip again.
When Thompson has switched onto Curry, he has held his own. Curry can scoot by him, but with Green loitering around the rim instead of jaunting around with Curry up high, the Cavs can wall off Curry's path:
Still: Curry got his driving game going a bit before his tantrum in Game 6, and he may have to rev it up more often in Game 7 with Thompson pressing up on him.
Golden State has methods outside the Curry-Green pick-and-roll, of course. The Warriors will yank Kevin Love or Richard Jefferson into the play by having their guys screen for Curry. They can set two staggered screens for Curry or stick a screener on either side of him. They could let Curry attack Cavs point guard Kyrie Irving one-on-one.
They got some traction in Game 6 with "screen-the-screener" sets in which a third Warrior hammers Thompson in the paint just as his guy slides up to screen for Curry -- a mean-spirited wrinkle that can leave Thompson scrambling, momentum flailing in all the wrong directions:
In general, the more complicated the Warriors make things -- the more tricks they cycle through at top speed -- the better chance they have at engineering a breakdown somewhere. Their off-ball screening ballet befuddled the Cavaliers in the first two games, when blips of miscommunication had the Warriors feasting on backdoor layups. Golden State zipped to almost 28 shots per game at the rim in those two wins and hit 69 percent of them.
Since the Cavs found their bearings in Game 3, the Warriors have generated just 21 shots per game at the rim -- and finished only half, per NBA.com. It is not a coincidence that Cleveland's defense tightened as Love's minutes dwindled. (Irving has also been much better since Game 2). Things are just cleaner with Jefferson or Iman Shumpert in Love's place. The Cavs can switch without worrying about putting a plodder in a fatal mismatch, and when the Warriors streak in transition, the streamlined Cavs can just guard the closest Warrior.
Love showed a little juice in Game 6, but with the championship on the line, the Cavs should consider starting Jefferson in his place again.
Cleveland has methodically opened fissures in Golden State's defense, and Green didn't close them upon his return. The Cavaliers are the first team to attack Curry on almost every possession by having his man screen for James and Irving, and Curry has collapsed under duress. Those plays present Golden State with a choice: switch Curry into an ugly mismatch or send help from drooling shooters.
Smith and Shumpert have nailed dudes with solid picks, and James has been vicious zig-zagging Curry through the hide-and-seek of two, three, even four re-screens until Golden State cracks. James seems more comfortable now backing Curry down, and the Warriors may have to think about springing double-teams on James as he licks his chops.
The Warriors have to be a little bit better avoiding switches and working their help-and-recover magic as Curry navigates the forest of screens. That's easier said than done with James in peak genius mode, canning enough jumpers to keep the defense honest. If that continues, the Cavs will probably win.
When the Warriors hold their noses and play a true center, Cleveland immediately has that guy's man screen for James and Irving -- another way of foisting the same bad choice upon Golden State. Switch a behemoth onto James or Irving, and they're cooking. Revert back into "normal" pick-and-roll defense, and the Cavaliers are ready with slicing drive-and-kicks:
Thompson is hit-or-miss making that initial dribble-and-pass in space, and if the Warriors throw some helter-skelter traps at James and Irving around the 3-point arc in Game 7, he will have to execute a few more. Regardless, his wide, trucking (and borderline illegal) screens have taken their toll on Iguodala, who has run head-on into more and more of them every game. With his back ailing, one more bad bump could tilt Game 7.
The Cavaliers have generally played with more fury than Golden State since the start of Game 3. They've cut harder, screened with more oomph and outrun the Warriors in transition for easy buckets. The Cavs have almost doubled the Warriors in fast-break points, vindicating coach Tyronn Lue's strategy of pushing when the floor is scrambled.
Cleveland knows it can't run simple pick-and-rolls every time down; Golden State will eventually smother the predictable. The Cavs have sprinkled in sets that involve all five players in motion, gauntlets of off-ball screens and decoy action designed to distract defenders who might otherwise help at the rim:
If Plan A doesn't work, perhaps one of those off-ball screens will produce a switch the Cavs can exploit later. Lue's out-of-timeout sets have been heavy on this trickery. He and James have struck an artful balance between fast and slow, complex and simple, brutal and beautiful.
The math tilts back Golden State's way when it navigates the first 15 seconds of a possession without a hiccup and the Warriors coax the Cavs into some pick-and-rolls they can more easily switch. Cleveland's stars have also been guilty at times of leaning on hero ball without exploring better things, and if the Cavs do that too often, the Warriors will win Game 7.
If the Warriors can see it coming, they have sometimes pulled their centers off of Thompson even as Thompson scampers up to screen for someone -- an on-the-fly method of dragging Golden State's slowest big fellas out of the action:
That's a way of buying time; it produces a bad matchup someplace else, but only after the Cavs have burned some of the shot clock. A lot of Game 7 will come down to how often the Warriors survive those unswitchable Cleveland pick-and-rolls and force the Cavaliers into switchable versions as the shot clock dwindles.
A bit of every Game 7 comes down to will, grit, luck and which players quake in the moment. As the Cavaliers applied more targeted stress during the past three games, the Warriors made uncharacteristic defensive mistakes. They appeared out of sorts, and they will have to reorient themselves before their dream season slips away.
They ducked under screens against good shooters, expecting switches that never came, or simply spaced out and left them open:
They bit on pump fakes, lost players in transition, committed dumb reaching fouls and gambled on bad bets former Warriors Monta Ellis wouldn't even take. They need to lock back in, because the all-time superstar who left them in shambles two games in a row has done the same to a more experienced team on this Game 7 stage. James may not shoot 60 percent again, but he won't quake.
Win or lose, he is the MVP of these Finals. He has emphatically reasserted himself as the world's greatest all-around player -- an unprecedented combination of speed, strength and brains capable of dictating outcomes on both sides of the floor. He just completed the best back-to-back performance of his career.
James has a Cleveland franchise, his hometown team, one win away from a championship -- one win away from the greatest comeback in NBA Finals history, one win away from upending an opponent that hungers to be known as the greatest ever. Win one game, you win everything. The Cavaliers have never been this close. It is not hyperbole to suggest every step in James' basketball journey has led to this moment.
Win Sunday in Oakland, and the dumb, overheated debate about James' "legacy" disappears from the airwaves forever. There will be no more convenient cherry-picking of his few subpar Big Moment games, no more selective memory to buttress preconceived damnation, no more talk about his emotional fortitude from people who have never had a conversation with him.
Every NBA Finals carries legacy weight. Every Game 7 lingers somewhere in our memory forever. But this? This is enormous. This is a flashbulb game. This is as big as sports gets.