When LeBron James decided to return to Cleveland after four years in Miami, he wrote "what’s most important for me is bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio" in Sports Illustrated.
That's exactly what he did Sunday.
The Cleveland Cavaliers went on the road for Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals and beat the 73-win Golden State Warriors in a dramatic back-and-forth affair, 93-89. The win gave the city of Cleveland its first big league sports title since 1964 and ended a record-breaking year for the Warriors.
James fulfilled his famous promise in all-time-great fashion with a triple-double consisting of 27 points, 11 assists and 11 rebounds. Guard Kyrie Irving drilled the biggest shot of the game, a three-pointer in the final minute, to break an 89-89 tie. He finished with 26 critical points.
Irving hit the cold-blooded triple, but James joined historic company with his third ring, as ESPN Stats & Info pointed out:
He was also unanimously voted the NBA Finals MVP for his efforts:
ESPN Stats & Info made it clear there was no real debate about who should have been the Finals MVP:
As for the Warriors, Draymond Green was brilliant with 32 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists, but the Splash Brothers struggled to support his effort. Stephen Curry finished 6-of-19 from the field and 4-of-14 from three-point range on his way to 17 points, while Klay Thompson was 6-of-17 from the field and 2-of-10 from deep for 14 points.
Given the overwhelming stakes on the line, it was appropriate the teams traded blows in a tight first quarter. Cleveland built a 23-22 lead after the initial 12 minutes, and James again led the way with six points, five rebounds and three assists. The Cavaliers dominated the boards with a 16-8 rebounding advantage, seven of which came from Kevin Love.
The Warriors were within a point because of five made three-pointers, and Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post illustrated the different advantages for the two teams:
The three-pointers were one thing, but Golden State had trouble contending with James' athleticism:
The tight game continued early in the second, and Iman Shumpert converted a four-point play with 7:01 remaining until halftime to give Cleveland a 31-29 lead. It was the first made three-pointer for the Cavaliers in nine attempts, but they were still ahead on the road against the defending champions.
On the other end, Green was carrying the Warriors. CBS Sports reacted to his three that gave Golden State a 35-33 advantage:
From there, the Warriors controlled the remainder of the second quarter and took a 49-42 lead into the locker room. Given how tight the first quarter was, it seemed like a comfortable advantage for the home team.
Green proved to be the difference in the opening two quarters with 22 points, six rebounds and five assists. He spearheaded Golden State's 20-11 run to end the half (and made up for the 3-of-12 mark from downtown from the Splash Brothers), and HBO's Bill Simmons described the performance:
However, the Cavaliers came out hot in the third quarter. They responded with an 8-0 run to tie the game at 54-54, and J.R. Smith scored eight of Cleveland's first 10 points in the second half, six of which came on contested threes:
Both offenses stagnated in the middle of the third, but Irving's two free throws with 4:50 remaining gave the Cavaliers a 62-59 advantage.
"[Steve] Kerr is leaving so many points on the floor by not going Draymond at center with Love out there," Danny Leroux of RealGM observed.
Irving then converted an and-1 while falling out of bounds and gave the Cavaliers a 65-59 lead with 4:33 left in the quarter. Suddenly, the road team had all the momentum, and Jordan Brenner of ESPN The Magazine and Portland Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum responded to Irving's play:
Realizing the game was potentially hanging in the balance, Kerr went small, and his team responded.
A Shaun Livingston dunk tied the contest at 71-71, and an Andre Iguodala basket in the final seconds gave the Warriors a 76-75 lead entering the final 12 minutes of the NBA season. Tom Withers of the Associated Press noted the city of Cleveland was preparing for a long-awaited celebration:
The party seemed closer when Cleveland scored six of the first eight points in the fourth and jumped out to an 81-78 lead with Curry on the bench. Andy Bailey of Bleacher Report didn't agree with Golden State's strategy early in the quarter:
Curry returned and sparked a Warriors run. He drilled a deep step-back three to tie the game with 6:56 remaining, and Thompson connected on a long two to give the defending champions an 85-83 advantage.
"It'd be fitting if the Warriors won making contested threes" after they did exactly that most of the season, Eric Freeman of Yahoo Sports observed.
Just when it looked like the Warriors would create some separation, James drew a foul and hit three free throws, then made a three on the next possession to give the Cavaliers an 89-87 lead. Golden State tied it at 89, but the offenses slowed as the contest went into a timeout with less than three minutes left.
Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding praised Cleveland's defense against the usually hot-shooting Warriors:
The two defenses continued to play at a high level, and James swatted Iguodala on a play that highlighted his insane athleticism to keep it tied:
Irving broke the cold spell for both sides with his game-winning three with 53 seconds left, and Curry missed his attempt to answer on the ensuing possession. Cleveland had a chance to clinch the game, and James drew a foul on a dunk attempt. But the Cavaliers' leader collapsed in pain after the collision. He still hit one of two free throws to build a two-possession lead at 93-89 with 10 seconds left.
Cleveland's defense locked Golden State down one more time, and James and his teammates ended the city's championship drought against the best regular-season team in NBA history.
James was understandably emotional after bringing a title to Cleveland:
He and his teammates took the celebration to the locker room, as the Cavaliers shared:
The celebration was also already happening in Cleveland, via the Cavaliers:
Even President Barack Obama and all-time NBA great Kobe Bryant congratulated James and the rest of the champions:
David Blatt, who was fired by the Cavaliers midseason, also took the time to congratulate his former players in a text message to basketball reporter David Pick on Monday:
James discussed his mindset coming into Sunday’s decisive contest, per Dan Woike of the Orange County Register: “Once we get to a Game 7, I’ll take my chances against anybody, against any team.”
James also had a message for those who doubted him, per RealGM: “I put my blood, sweat and tears in the game. And people still want to doubt what I'm capable of doing.”
On the other side, Curry pointed to some of the problems that plagued his team in the end, per Kurt Helin of Pro Basketball Talk: “We settled too much (in the fourth). I settled too much...that's tough to swallow with the opportunity we had in front of us.”
Kerr also reflected on the loss, per Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated: “We're stunned. We thought we were going to win...This is why you can't mess around. ... Game 5 was the turning point of the series.”
Green was already looking ahead, per Marcus Thompson of the Bay Area News Group: “This won't be the last you hear from this team.”
James talked about the next step, per Sam Amico of Fox Sports Ohio: “Our fans gave us everything. We gave it back to them. ... I'm coming home with what I said I was gonna do.”
Next up is a party for a city that has been waiting so long to throw one.