CLEVELAND — LeBron James stared coach Tyronn Lue in the eyes before the start of the fourth quarter of Game 6 on Thursday and delivered the winning plan for the Cleveland Cavaliers to push the NBA season to a winner-take-all finale.
In short, James was the plan.
“With our season on the line at the end of the third quarter, he said ‘I’m not coming out,'” Lue said after the Cavaliers forced Game 7 with the Golden State Warriors by virtue of a 115-101 victory at Quicken Loans Arena. “I wasn’t going to take him out. Down the stretch we decided to put the ball in LeBron’s hands and let him create.
“One more game.”
Cleveland led wire to wire and by as much as 22 in the first half, but James had to drag the Cavaliers across the line in the fourth quarter.
“We put ourselves in position to be in Game 7,” James said. “Two of the greatest words in the world: Game 7. I’ll play it anywhere.”
James had 41 points for the second consecutive game and the Cavaliers emphatically denied Steph Curry and the Warriors a chance to repeat as NBA champions.
The Cavaliers forced the winner-take all Game 7 on Sunday at Oracle Arena after trailing the best-of-seven series 3-1, dealing the Warriors their first back-to-back losses this season.
“It’s going to be the hardest thing we’ve ever done in our lives,” said Cavs point guard Kyrie Irving said of the specter of winning it all on the Warriors’ home floor.
James also had 11 assists, eight rebounds, four steals, three blocks and one turnover before leaving to a thunderous ovation with 2:19 left and Game 6 on ice. He also had 41 points in Game 5.
“We know we cannot turn the ball over against this team,” James said.
Curry scored 30 but was escorted to the locker room with 4:22 remaining and the Cavaliers leading 99-77. After being called for his sixth foul going for a steal against James in the backcourt, Curry violently whipped his mouthpiece and punched at the air in protest, all in close proximity to James.
Curry said it was all borne of frustration in a game the Warriors might have lost in the first quarter, when they trailed 31-9.
“It got the best of me,” he said. “The playoffs hasn’t been easy, hasn’t been a breeze. The work we’ve put in, the opportunity we’ve given ourselves … we’ve got to be excited. But we’ve got to figure it out so that we can take advantage of our homecourt.”
Warriors head coach Steve Kerr was less diplomatic.
“He’s the MVP of the league, he gets six fouls called on him, three of them were absolutely ridiculous,” Kerr said in a series of fine-worthy comments postgame. “He steals the ball from Kyrie clean at one point. LeBron flops on the last one. (Referee) Jason Phillips falls for that, for a flop. As the MVP of the league, we’re talking about these touch fouls in the NBA Finals.”
Irving had 23 points and Tristan Thompson scored 15 points with 16 rebounds. Lue said Irving “tweaked” his foot but should be fine.
James was clutch in the biggest moments, scoring or assisting on 27 consecutive points during a critical stretch with the Cavaliers looking otherwise stagnant.
“He’s playing great,” Curry said. “He’s played well. There’s no two ways around it. Tip your hat to him. Come out Sunday with an aggression, hopefully clog some driving lanes early and not let him get a rhythm. … We can do it. We’ve shown we can do it.”
But when the game got tight, James scored 18 consecutive Cavaliers’ points spanning parts of two quarters and kept the Warriors at arm’s length. He had 17 points in the fourth.
Up 13 in the fourth, James swatted away Curry’s lefty layup try with 4:32 to play in the game and barked a few choice words for exclamation on the statement game from Cleveland.
“He made great defensive plays, however he wants to celebrate and take in that moment, it is what it is,” Curry said.
The Cavaliers are the first team since 1966 and third in league history to force a seventh game after trailing 3-1.
The Warriors were the best of all time in the regular season with 73 wins but now are one loss away from erasing most of the meaning in that single-season record.
“It’s win the whole thing or bust for us. It would be a great season but the players would feel like we failed,” Klay Thompson said of Game 7.
Thompson was 0 for 7 from 3-point range in the first half but finished with 25 points.
For the third game in a row, the Cavaliers were the enforcers, setting the physical tempo and playing at a breakneck pace even Golden State couldn’t match. The Cavaliers have won three out of four after losing seven consecutive games against the Warriors.
“I’ve never been ejected before, it was a weird feeling,” Curry said of walking to his locker with the game still going. “I thought it was kind of hilarious the way the last two fouls and me blowing up kind of unfolded, some of the things that we said out there. It’s a long walk. I immediately kind of started thinking about Game 7. The opportunity, we’ve got one game to win it all and have to take advantage of it.”
The Warriors played Game 5 without All-Star Draymond Green and lost Andre Iguodala to a back injury in the third quarter. Kerr said Iguodala’s back “tightened up” but should be ready after two days off. Harrison Barnes has missed 20 of his last 22 shot attempts. With many things trending against the Warriors, Kerr chalked it up the brighter lights of the playoffs and envisions a rally with one game for the Dave O’Brien Trophy.
“If you start out every season and you say we get one game at home to win the NBA championship, I’ll take it every time,” Kerr said. “I think we’ll be fine. We’re in a spot 29 other teams would love to be in.
“We’ll rally the troops. We’ll get everybody ready for Game 7.”