The Golden State Warriors were in total command after winning Game 4 of the NBA Finals and taking a 3-1 series lead.
And then it all fell apart.
Their Game 4 was overshadowed by a scuffle between LeBron James and Draymond Green in the fourth quarter, in which James walked over Green after knocking him down. Green swung up at James, making contact near his groin before the two went face to face and exchanged words.
The NBA reviewed the play after the game and deemed it a flagrant one foul on Green. It was Green’s fourth flagrant foul of the postseason, resulting in an automatic suspension for Game 5.
A golden opportunity for the Warriors to wrap up the championship at home with a full roster suddenly became dimmer. Without Green, the Warriors would be lacking their most versatile defender and an important playmaker in their high-octane offence.
Facing elimination, the Cavs answered the call behind two historic performances from James and Kyrie Irving. The Warriors, dearly missing Green, instead breathed life into a team that looked dead 48 hours before.
In the lead-up to Game 6 in Cleveland, Green returned to the team and told reporters a frank message.
“I have a strong belief that if I play in Game 5, we win,” Green said. “But I didn’t because I put myself in a situation where I wasn’t able to play.”
It’s been discussed at length whether Green’s shot at James was deserving of a suspension, but the larger point is that Green fell for James’ bait. Green knew his flagrant foul count, and he had been warned by the NBA to keep it clean after he escaped suspension for kicking Thunder center Steven Adams in the groin. Green admitted that he put himself in a bad situation situation by involving the NBA when he should have controlled himself. Green is not wrong to suggest that if he played Game 5, the Warriors could be current back-to-back champions at this moment.
Instead, the Warriors’ task of closing out the Cavs grew harder as they went back to Cleveland in Game 6. Much like in Game 3, the Cavs stormed out of the gate, effectively ending the game when it started. The Warriors clawed their way back to make it competitive, but each time they did, an increasingly confident LeBron held them off. The Finals are now tied 3-3, going back to Oakland for a decisive Game 7, and the two teams appear to be trending in different directions.
On one end there’s James and the Cavs, who have their swagger back. There’s LeBron James swatting Curry’s layup attempt into the stands and talking trash after. There’s Tyronn Lue laughing at Curry after he got ejected for throwing his mouthguard into the stands when he fouled out.
On the other, the Warriors look lost. Curry has posted gaudy, but hollow stats. His deep threes and drives to the rim aren’t igniting the Warriors as they did through 82 games this season. Klay Thompson has strung together scoring explosions, but they haven’t been enough to propel the Warriors. Green was quiet in his Game 6 return, and Harrison Barnes and Shaun Livingston, role players who proved so crucial in Games 1 and 2, are nowhere to be found.
This was the Warriors worst nightmare, and it’s come to fruition. The sports world often likes to evoke the cliche of not playing with your food. Failing to put away a series at the first opportunity comes with many repercussions. Curry and Thompson continue to log more miles on their tired legs. Andrew Bogut is out for the series after injuring his knee in Game 5. Andre Iguodala hurt his back in Game 6, limiting his effectiveness as the Warriors’ “LeBron stopper”. Each game brings with it an unknown risk, and the Warriors have invited that risk by not putting away the Cavs when they had their best shot.
Golden State is as resilient a team as the NBA has seen. This postseason, they have twice survived injuries to Stephen Curry. They were on the brink of elimination against a dominant Thunder team before rattling off three straight wins to advance to the Finals. Even in Games 4 and 5 of the Finals, they were within striking distance of the Cavs late in the game before Cleveland used big runs to put them away. There are certainly reasons for the Warriors to be optimistic, not the least of which is playing Game 7 on their home court. Additionally, they haven’t lost three straight games since Steve Kerr was hired in 2014.
But there’s no doubting the Cavs’ confidence. They have twice staved off elimination behind Herculean play from James and his supporting cast. James and the Cavs have woken up, and a potential dynasty could rest on the outcome of Green’s fateful reaction to LeBron James stepping over him.
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