With their backs against the wall, the Cleveland Cavaliers extended the 2016 NBA Finals to a Game 7 that can erase all of the playoffs' shortcomings.
In a postseason full of lopsided victories, the championship series has oddly consisted exclusively of them. Although the Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors have each accumulated 610 points throughout the series, every game has ended in a double-digit margin.
While the series has lacked in fourth-quarter suspense, Sunday's winner-take-all showdown is stockpiled with drama.
A team that lost a record-low nine games during the regular season could fall short of repeating by dropping its ninth postseason defeat. The three people on the planet who are still not convinced of LeBron James' awesomeness must forever bite their tongues if he delivers another superhuman effort.
The first Finals Game 7 in four years will hopefully reverse the series' double-digit trend and produce an instant classic to end a stellar rematch. Let's break down the schedule and top storylines before predicting the new NBA champion.
NBA Finals: Game 7
When: Sunday, June 19, at 8 p.m. ET
Where: Oracle Arena; Oakland, California
What Happened to Harrison Barnes?
Remember when rumors of Harrison Barnes potentially netting a max contract surfaced? You should, because it was last week, when Sporting News' Sean Deveney reported his appeal as a Plan B for teams who lose the Kevin Durant sweepstakes:
Several teams with significant cap space this summer—the Celtics, Lakers, Suns, Mavericks among them—have the intention of pursuing Barnes, especially as a fallback option for Durant. Barnes is expected to receive an offer of at least $20 million per year or perhaps as much as a max offer starting at about $23 million.
About that. The 24-year-old small forward is suddenly incapable of making a jump shot, going a combined 2-of-22 over the last two games. On Thursday night, he missed all eight shot attempts—including five open threes—to go scoreless. Warriors head coach Steve Kerr eventually benched him, and Leandro Barbosa posted 14 points in 19 minutes.
After going 10-of-19 from downtown during the Western Conference Finals, Barnes has made 7-of-25 deep attempts against the Cavs, who are increasingly daring him to toss up bricks. As Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver pointed out, both teams have seen this before:
Following last year's scoreless dud, he bounced back for a series-high 14 points in a 21-point Game 4 triumph. If Barnes can't again recover and make open shots Sunday, Kerr will have no choice but to sit him.
Is Cleveland Better Without Kevin Love?
It seemed unfair to ask this question after the Cavaliers scored a series-high 120 points without him to take Game 3, yet Kevin Love is now averaging 8.4 points per game in the Finals—and his team again excelled without him Thursday.
Once he picked up his second foul 90 seconds into Game 6, Cleveland outscored Golden State by 18 points to end a dominant first quarter. Love quickly received his third and final foul early in the second quarter on a questionable call.
Despite escaping foul trouble in the second half, he finished with 12 minutes on the court. Bleacher Report's Michael Pina noted his disappearance late in the contest:
Will he reappear Sunday, or will Cavs head coach Tyronn Lue give his minutes to Richard Jefferson? According to NBA.com, Cleveland's starting lineup with Jefferson swapped in for Love has accrued a plus-35.2 net rating. With Love playing over the veteran small forward, the rating dips to plus-4.4:
|Lineup||MIN||OFF RTG||DEF RTG||NET RTG|
|Kyrie Irving, J.R. Smith, LeBron James, Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson||68||104.3||99.8||4.4|
|Kyrie Irving, J.R. Smith, Richard Jefferson, LeBron James, Tristan Thompson||58||128.2||93.0||35.2|
This doesn't make Jefferson a better basketball player than Love, but the Warriors are an ill-suited matchup for a defensively challenged big man who is lacking the skills to succeed without the ball. When James and Kyrie Irving are hot, Cleveland can afford to roll with Jefferson's superior defense.
Even if Lue starts Love, he'll cough up some playing time to Jefferson before determining who stays on the court down the stretch.
Which Stars Cement Legacy?
The Warriors bench—particularly Shaun Livingston—led Golden State to a Game 1 victory, but nobody expected the role players to predominantly determine the outcome of the series.
In Golden State's Game 2 victory, Klay Thompson tallied 37 points. Stephen Curry scored 38 to take Game 4. One more outburst away from retaining the NBA title, the Warriors succumbed to James' greatness.
James has scored 41 points in each of the last two games, and that somehow understates his impact. The four-time MVP won't play as well in Space Jam 2 as he did Thursday night, when he also recorded 11 assists, eight rebounds, three blocks and four steals. Every time the Warriors chipped into the lead, James silenced them.
Even though Cleveland never trailed, he played a game-high 43 minutes and didn't sit in the second half until the Cavs had built a 21-point lead with two minutes remaining. Per ESPN.com's J.A. Adande, neither James nor Lue harbored any thoughts of resting for the final showdown.
"With our season on the line, at the end of the third quarter, he said, 'I'm not coming out,'" Lue said. "I didn't have any intention of taking him out anyway. I don't care what y'all say."
James isn't doing it all by his lonesome: Irving has averaged 27.3 points per game during the Finals with a 47.3 field-goal percentage and more assists (4.3) than Curry (4.0). The 24-year-old point guard can earn an express ticket to stardom with a strong Game 7.
An NBA Finals Game 7 can make a superstar's legacy. Not that James needs a boost, but engineering a comeback over the best regular-season team in NBA history would create a new career highlight for the all-time legend.
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Full disclosure: This is coming from someone who thought the Warriors would win in five or six games. It seems shortsighted to change course now and pick them to lose Game 7 at home.
Then again, Andrew Bogut (knee) is hurt, Barnes can't buy a bucket and Andre Iguodala looked limited in Game 6 with back discomfort. With James and Irving both shining, the Warriors need a shooting barrage from the Splash Brothers. That's not too much to ask for.
Golden State hasn't lost three straight games all year, and it proved its resilience during a Western Conference Finals comeback over the Oklahoma City Thunder. Although the road was bumpier than anticipated, the Warriors will overcome James to become back-to-back champions.
Prediction: Warriors win, 105-102.
All betting information courtesy of Odds Shark.