CLEVELAND -- The Cavaliers came back to beat the Golden State Warriors 109-108 on Sunday in a thrilling evocation of the end of last postseason's NBA Finals. Despite Kevin Durant's considerable help, the Cavs bedeviled the Warriors, capitalizing on late mistakes. And again it was Kyrie Irving with crunch-time heroics, making a difficult shot, the game winner, in a furious, futile contest for the Warriors.
"It's embarrassing, honestly," Klay Thompson told ESPN.com after the game. "Up 14 in the fourth quarter and we just played not very intelligent at all. We've got to help out KD. We put too much on his shoulders."
Maybe Quicken Loans Arena isn't a house of horrors for Golden State, but it certainly has had its moments. Beyond the trials and tribulations of the 2015 Finals, it's the site where the Cavs forced a Finals Game 7 in 2016, as Stephen Curry was ejected to much jeering. It hasn't been quite the same for Steph since that point.
The jeering continued throughout an offseason replete with 3-1 memes aimed at mocking a cocky team's historic meltdown. Sunday afternoon took us to the place where fans most delight in the failings of the Warriors -- it just so happens that Golden State's pain coincides with Cleveland's greatest triumph. The opening JumboTron sequence on Sunday offered a reminder. Irving's Game 7 shot over Curry thrilled the crowd about as much as the closing sequence of LeBron James' famous block on Andre Iguodala.
So, it was a bit curious to see Curry start this one so passive, so removed. He was 1-of-5 with six points in the first half. Sure, the Cavs live to double-team Curry, but it's often an opportunity for Steph to drive at the help. That wasn't the case for much of a Sunday afternoon that saw Curry finish with 15 points on 11 attempts. "You got to do it a different way," Curry said of his performance. "I mean, obviously you can't have 11 shots. I've got to get more looks at the rim, and that's nobody's fault. It's just I got to figure out a way to be more aggressive in that respect and keep the defense honest and use all the talents we have on this team, including my scoring ability. So you can't do that."
What used to be Steph Curry vs. LeBron James, a David vs. Goliath tale, has morphed into something else. It's now something more like a souped-up 2012 Finals redux. It's James vs. Durant, a battle of prototypical wings. On Sunday each was amazing in his own right, in different ways. James was a force on the glass and at the rim. His four assists belied how often he made incisive passes after driving into the teeth of the defense. His four 3-pointers in the second half were essential to Cleveland climbing back in this game.
Durant opened ablaze but really helped Golden State gain ground at the start of the fourth quarter, when James customarily rests. The Warriors snagged a 14-point lead that Cleveland eroded with a charge helped by a couple of Irving 3-pointers.
"Too many untimely turnovers," David West assessed. "Just thought we were in a bit of retreat mode, particularly when they started making their run."
The Warriors went to their Super Death Lineup (Draymond Green, Durant, Iguodala, Klay Thompson, Curry) with 3:46 left in the game, but it did not deliver its customary jolt. Green had Iguodala for a potential lob but instead threw a bounce pass that was stolen by Irving. On the other end, Irving converted a layup to tie the game. Then Durant missed a quick shot over Richard Jefferson, leading to what might have been the afternoon's most memorable play if not for the game winner. Irving drove, then dumped it off to a charging LeBron, who retook the lead at the rim, with both fists.
Here, the Warriors managed a response with some prompt execution. They ran their favorite Cyclone play for an easy Green dunk. They buckled down on defense on the next possession, ended by Thompson swatting Irving. On the other end, a Curry 3-pointer in transition put Golden State up 3, with a little over a minute left, and on the verge of exorcism.
The defensive focus continued with Curry knocking the ball from Irving, then diving on the floor. LeBron pried the ball loose, and the frantic possession ended on a Jefferson miss. The ensuing scramble led to an opportunity for Iguodala to essentially end the game with a pass ahead for a Durant dunk. But there was no dunk, for Iguodala's pass was far off the mark, right back to Irving.
It led to yet another driving Irving layup. Next, the Warriors moved the ball around for a Thompson 3-pointer, negated by the shot clock.
Golden State was still up one with 13 seconds remaining, barely holding on. Irving pushed the Warriors over the edge with an isolation on Thompson and a pretty fadeaway for the lead. With 3.4 seconds left, the Warriors had one last play to make things right. Durant caught the ball near the baseline, received a bump from Jefferson, stumbled and fell. Game over.
Golden State can object to the no-call -- after the game Durant said, "I fell. And I didn't fall on my own." But it might as well have been a metaphor for recent adventures against the Cavs. The Warriors were blitzed and bullied, and they stumbled and ultimately fell. It's just one game, but a particularly painful one for a Golden State team eagerly looking to right the wrongs of last June.
Life does move on, though. There will be more chances at redemption, if only the Warriors can play smarter when it matters. "I wanted to beat them so badly, man," Thompson conceded, when asked if this was "just another game." "I want to beat them every time we play them. Obviously there's a history there. But we'll see them Jan. 16. So we're lucky."
This Christmas, the Warriors can feel snakebitten and fortunate all at once. They lost to the Cavs, again. They casually ceded hard-fought advantages, again. But there will be another "again," a couple weeks into 2017 and maybe later, in June. As used to be the motto in Cleveland, at least before last season's Finals, "There's always next year."