Exactly one year after the Golden State Warriors dispatched the Cleveland Cavaliers in a Game 6 at Quicken Loans Arena, the Eastern Conference champions flipped the script and kept their season alive Thursday.
Behind another masterful display from LeBron James, the Cavaliers fended off the Warriors, 115-101, to even the NBA Finals at 3-3 and force a Game 7 on Sunday night at Oracle Arena.
Playing the role of conductor, LeBron orchestrated Cleveland’s attack with unmatched brilliance. Over the course of 43 minutes, James—who already owned the NBA’s highest-ever scoring average in elimination games, per ESPN Stats & Info—finished with 41 points (16-of-27 shooting), 11 assists, eight rebounds, four steals and three blocks.
Aiding James in his conquest to force a Game 7 was Tristan Thompson, who came up with a hustle-laden gem. Matched up against a smaller, less imposing Warriors lineup, Thompson put in work to the tune of 15 points and 16 rebounds.
Kyrie Irving also came to play, notching 23 points on 7-of-18 shooting. Kevin Love, on the other hand, was limited again and scored only seven points, failing to reach double digits for the second straight game.
Despite Love’s inability to establish his presence on the low block, the Cavaliers still trounced the Warriors in paint points with a 42-30 advantage below the free-throw line.
But the Warriors’ woes didn’t stop there.
As a team, Golden State shot 15-of-39 from three-point range, and six of those makes came courtesy of Stephen Curry (30 points, one assist, four turnovers).
However, Curry was forced to make an early exit. After combating foul trouble throughout the contest, Curry picked up his sixth foul late in the fourth quarter and proceeded to let his frustration get the best of him. Not only did Curry direct some unpleasant words toward an official, but he was also tossed after he appeared to throw his mouthguard into the stands:
Klay Thompson added 25 points, and Leandro Barbosa scored 14 off the bench. But the Warriors’ other ancillary contributors were nowhere to be found.
Following a one-game suspension, Draymond Green mustered eight points, 10 rebounds and six assists, and he couldn’t contain James or mitigate Thompson’s impact around the rim.
Cleveland’s size advantage proved to be big, too, because the Warriors went with a quicker lineup in hopes of forcing the Cavs into an uncomfortable spot.
With Andrew Bogut out because of a left knee sprain, head coach Steve Kerr enlisted the help of a small-ball lineup that served as Golden State’s most potent all season. Instead of rolling out a conventional center in Bogut’s place, Kerr started Curry, Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala and Green to try to discombobulate the Cavaliers with their speed and ability to switch everything on defense.
The aggressive tactic figured to be worthwhile since that five-man unit had outscored Cleveland by 14.1 points per 100 possessions in 29 Finals minutes entering Game 6, per NBA.com’s stats database.
Except it quickly backfired.
Instead of playing the read-and-react style that defined their success all season long, the Warriors appeared stiff and often overpassed throughout the early going.
The opposite held true for the Cavaliers, who continued to ride Irving’s scoring prowess and James’ vision to a 20-point lead by the end of the first quarter, as The Vertical’s Chris Mannix observed.
By the time the first 12 minutes were over, the Warriors had scored just 11 points—their fewest in any quarter this season, according to the Bay Area News Group’s Diamond Leung.
The Warriors chipped away behind a flurry of Curry triples, and they cut Cleveland’s lead to as few as eight points midway through the second quarter. However, the Cavaliers responded at the perfect time.
In search of momentum entering halftime, Cleveland went on a 13-5 run over the final 3:53 of the second quarter to build a 16-point lead at the break.
And while Irving, James and Tristan Thompson did the heavy lifting, a surprising end-of-quarter contribution from career journeyman Dahntay Jones sparked the Eastern Conference champions in a major way. Over the course of his 4:37 stretch, Jones tallied five points, one block and one rebound, and he drew a foul on Green.
Sports Illustrated‘s Ben Golliver put the out-of-nowhere display into perspective:
The Bay Area News Group’s Carl Steward added that contributions from the Cavaliers’ unsung reserves were even more apparent when contrasted with Barnes’ inability to knock down open shots from the perimeter.
The Warriors sputtered for prolonged stretches in the third quarter, but the defending champions closed out the period on a 10-0 run—including eight straight from Klay Thompson—to enter the fourth quarter down by just nine points.
Golden State’s scoring spurt was particularly impressive because it came on the heels of some electric plays by James that could have squashed the Dubs’ confidence.
Midway through the third frame, the Cavs penned a piece of transition poetry when Smith took an outlet pass and hit James for an emphatic flush:
But when winning time rolled around, it was the Cavaliers who had more answers.
James was in MVP form, and a hobbled Iguodala—who appeared to be hampered by back pain all night—didn’t have a shot at contending.
Looking ahead to Game 7, the Warriors could be in a world of trouble. They were already without their best rim-protector in Bogut, and their primary LeBron stopper appeared to be physically limited throughout Game 6.
Combine those injuries with Cleveland’s growing confidence, and the Cavaliers have a shot at making history Sunday night.
No team has ever come back from a 3-1 deficit and won the NBA Finals, per Who Wins.com, but with James playing some of the best ball of his life and the Cavaliers following his seasoned lead, an upset of historic proportions could be in order.