Not so long ago, the NBA Finals were all but over — the record-setting Golden State Warriors were up three games to one, preparing to romp past the Cleveland Cavaliers to earn back-to-back titles. But led by the superstar duo of LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, the Cavs have now won two in a row and have forced a Game 7, scheduled for Sunday night in Oakland, California.
It’s hard to overstate how well James has played to help his team claw its way back into the series. He’s scored 82 points in the past two games and, at one point in Game 6, netted 18 consecutive points for the Cavs. Throughout the NBA Finals he leads all players in, well, just about everything — points, rebounds, assists, steals.
James has led the pack, but in general the big players have contributed to this series in a big way — for the most part. Irving and James have carried a large part of the load for Cleveland (combining for 345 points), while NBA MVP Stephen Curry and Klay Thomson have done the same for Golden State (combining for 264 points). But it’s been a bit of a disappointment for the third member of each team’s so-called Big 3. Cleveland’s Kevin Love missed a game because of a concussion and has largely struggled to contribute, while Golden State’s Draymond Green was suspended for a game after picking up too many flagrant fouls.
The star power has made the series exciting, as have the contentious squabbles between the teams. But a seven-game series can also be a slog for the players. The Warriors had a far more taxing path to the Finals, battling back from a 3-1 deficit in the Western Conference finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder. As International Business Times has reported, Golden State covered about 67 more playoff miles on the court than the Cavaliers heading into the Finals. Cleveland was afforded extra days of rest and far less damage on tired bodies.
In the Finals, using data from the ever-handy NBA Player Tracker, the Warriors have covered about 0.9 mile more than the Cavs. But while Golden State may have — as a roster — run a negligible amount more than Cleveland this series, the Eastern Conference champ has leaned far more heavily on its stars. The Cavs trio of James, Irving and J.R. Smith have taken on much more recent wear and tear, leading the series in miles logged and minutes played by a comfortable margin.
And while Cleveland may have pulled off a major feat by coming back to even the series, history is not on its side. Ten teams in NBA history, including this year’s Warriors, have come back from 3-1 deficits, but none did so in the NBA Finals. The Cavs also have the added obstacle of playing on the road in Game 7. Of 18 Game 7s in NBA Finals history, just three road teams have won. And while Cleveland may have the fleeting benefit of “momentum” from winning two-straight games, the Game 6 winner has actually won Game 7 less than half the time (44 percent winning percentage).
Cleveland does, however, have James — and he’s proved time and again he’s up for a Game 7. In five career Game 7 appearances, he’s averaged about 34 points and nine rebounds per game.
Mike Miller, James’ former teammate, told ESPN he saw James in Game 6 and knew he’d do enough to get Cleveland a win. And he thinks it’ll be more of the same in the deciding matchup Sunday.
“He ain’t gonna lose Game 7, either,” Miller said.