Shortly after Steph Curry left the floor, grinning in embarrassment over getting ejected, LeBron James shot a pair of free throws to deafening “MVP!” chants. He is not, of course, the MVP of this 2016 season, but make no mistake: He is very much still the best player in the NBA, and after a glorious, violent destruction of the Warriors—41 points, eight rebounds, 11 assists, four steals, three blocks, one turnover!—he has the Cavaliers on the brink of their first title in franchise history.
The Cavaliers began Game 6 with the same energy with which they began Game 3. It took Golden State over five minutes to score their first basket, and Cleveland would have held them to single digits on the quarter if not for a late jumper. The Warriors were out there overdribbling, losing track of their marks on simple screens, and looking utterly bereft of the swagger that carried them to 73 wins and a 3-1 Finals lead. Golden State’s dominant 2-0 series lead feels like it took place in a different season, and although they mounted a succession of doomed comebacks, it felt like they were only ever engaged for disconnected fragments of the game.
Cleveland, on the other hand, was balls-to-the-wall for the duration. I mean, look at the disrespect LeBron has for Steph here on this block. He’s like an older brother going out of his way to make to embarrass his younger brother in front of the whole family. Steph’s pump-fake looks unbelievably futile next to LeBron.
LeBron has now put together a pair of back-to-back 41-point games, and tonight’s was somehow more dominant than his more statistically-impressive Game 5 masterpiece. The Warriors have been positioned by analysts and writers as the team of the future, the expression of a hypermodern vision of passing-centric, spread-out basketball that, by its very construction, allows them to transcend whatever it was that came before. However, LeBron James’ dominance tonight was a timely reminder that, goddamnit, basketball is still a physical game. The Warriors are hardly the weak system-gamers that coverage of them can lead one to believe, but they are no match for the athletic excellence of LeBron James, and that’s why he’s been able to drag his team to Game 7. Just look at how easily he chased down Draymond Green and swatted a layup away:
LeBron, of course, isn’t only a physical marvel. He’s the smartest player in the game, and he was as effective pulling the strings of the Cavs offense as he was knocking the stuffing out of anyone he came into contact with in the lane:
That said, look how goddamn hard he slams the basketball:
The Warriors looked assured of a second championship when they won Games 1 and 2 by roughly one million points. They looked likely winners when they took a 3-1 lead, which no team has ever recovered from. They still haven’t lost three in a row in the two years that Steve Kerr has been at the helm. They shoot better at home, and they hardly ever lose, and no matter what anyone says, they’ll have Steph Curry for Game 7. (Yes, his already infamous mouthguard toss is the sort of thing that’s been punished with a suspension before, but you’d have to be crazy to think the NBA will hold him out of a Game 7.)
Still, the Warriors are without their starting center and could be without their bench ace for Game 7, they haven’t had to handle any team as good as these Cavaliers yet, and they’re hobbled. Game 7 is going to be incredible. Either the Warriors’ 73-win season will be validated by their eventual championship, or they will be always be viewed as frauds who couldn’t win when it mattered most. On the other side, either LeBron James is a historic Finals loser or he delivers Cleveland their first title and becomes the man who took down the greatest team ever. Only one set of possibilities can be true, and in 48 more minutes of basketball, someone will have won this incredibly strange, unpredictable Finals.