Amick: LeBron James is demoralizing Steph Curry these NBA Finals
SA TODAY Sports’ Sam Amick breaks down LeBron James’ dominant Game 6 performance that brought Cleveland down from a 3-1 deficit to force Game 7.
CLEVELAND — First things first, Stephen Curry will play in Game 7 of the NBA Finals on Sunday night at Oracle Arena.
While it’s perfectly reasonable for those legions of title-starved Cleveland Cavaliers fans to wish for him to be suspended after firing a mouth guard fastball late Thursday night in the Golden State Warriors’ 115-101 loss in Game 6, league officials wasted no time afterward educating the masses on past precedent that is expected to keep the back-to-back MVP on the floor.
A hefty fine is coming, with Curry able to play in the biggest game of his life because his oral accessory hit a fan as opposed to an official (which typically results in a one-game suspension).
So with that said, let the unwinding of this fantastic finish to the season begin.
How perfectly poetic that Curry, the newly-crowned king of the NBA who spent the past eight months changing the game and making history, finds himself on the ropes against Cleveland’s prodigal-son-turned-savior who has been known as King James for, oh, 14 years now? Amid all the fun and frivolity on the floor afterward, where the locals who have to hear about their city’s 52-year title drought were so relieved that the Warriors didn’t celebrate a championship on their home floor for the second straight year, a man commented that Mark Twain couldn’t have written this any better himself.
The truth, however, is that James is authoring a basketball tale that just might go down as the best of all time.
Not only is he turning in the kinds of virtuoso performances that are adding to his Hall of Fame resume’, but he’s demoralizing a fellow great and his all-time team along the way. Curry and the Warriors are shook.
You could see it in the mouth guard moment, when Curry reached in on James for a steal and cracked in a way we’ve never seen. The first ejection of his career, with Curry screaming at official Jason Phillips before getting the heave-ho with 4:22 left and the Cavs up 99-87, was like kerosene for the Cavs’ fire. And just 10 seconds earlier, after a James jumper had led to back-to-back alley-oops between him and Tristan Thompson, there was James doing all he could to crawl inside Curry’s cranium.
His blocked Curry layup had a schoolyard bully feel to it, James chasing the back-to-back MVP down the left side of the lane and swatting his shot into the stands. The mean mug. The trash talk. The bobbing of the head, with James’ forehead dripping with the sweat of superiority.
You could see it in that second-half stretch where he scored or assisted on 27 consecutive points, a feat so unreal that it had his co-star, Kyrie Irving, shaking his head in astonishment on the press conference podium. The Warriors, whose defense was supposed to be dominant again with Draymond Green’s return from his Game 5 suspension and whose super sixth man, Andre Iguodala, played through back spasms that will likely plague him on Sunday, were helpless to stop him.
Just days before, this 31-year-old with so many miles logged had many wondering if he still had it in him to deliver an epic Finals outing, and here he had done it twice in a row.
Game 5: 41 points, 16 rebounds, seven assists, three steals, three blocks, two turnovers.
Game 6: 41 point, 11 assists, eight rebounds, four steals, three blocks, one turnover.
Curry, whose stat line these last two games belies the truth about his underwhelming impact, simply can’t keep up.
“He’s had two great games to keep his team alive,” said Curry, who had 30 points, one assist, two rebounds and four turnovers before getting bounced. “You know, that’s what he’s supposed to do. I’m out there trying to do the same for my team. We don’t go one-on-one at each other a lot, but it’s a pretty competitive feeling out there with the situation of playing in The Finals and playing for something special.
“So at the end of the day, seven games to figure out who is going to be holding that trophy on Sunday, you’ve got to love that kind of environment and that battle. So haven’t enjoyed it much the last two games, but there are 48 minutes left.”
Yet beyond all the history that’s on the Warriors’ side, from the 15-3 record for home teams in a Finals Game 7 to the fact that no one has ever given up a 3-1 lead in the Finals, it was Curry’s composure afterward that made you wonder if his Warriors might be all right.
“We know what kind of team we are, what we’re capable of, what we’ve accomplished so far, and how together we are,” Curry said. “We haven’t splintered at all. I think we’re more mentally tough than letting two games not go our way kind of put any doubt in our heads.
“So like Coach (Steve Kerr) said, if you started the season in October and said you’d be at home Game 7 with a chance to win the NBA Finals, you’ve got to love that kind of opportunity, regardless of how it happened.”
Gallery: Best of the NBA Finals
Harrison Barnes is ruining the Warriors’ best lineup
Harrison Barnes must have heard the same speech that the rest of the Warriors did during halftime of Game 6. Reeling from the Cavaliers’ first half blitz, Golden State trailed by 16 points, but the Warriors knew better than anyone they’re always a couple open shots away from getting back into a game.
The third quarter started. Andre Iguodala, doubled rolling to the rim, swung a pass to a wide-open Barnes on the left side. It was the open shot they needed, but the ball clanged off the iron, long and right. Klay Thompson, pressured on the very next possession, swung the ball around the line to Barnes again in the corner. The shot was off again, catching rim and caroming away.
Those shots were Barnes’ seventh and eighth on Thursday, and the final two he took. All eight shots missed, and Barnes finished the game with 16 minutes played and zero points.
The consecutive possessions sums up his playoffs better than anyone. Welcome to Harrison Barnes’ nightmare.
Nobody expected an even poorer performance from Barnes in Game 6 after his lackluster Game 5. On Monday, Barnes had played 38 minutes and scored only five points on 2-of-14 shooting. But three days later, he was worse in every area.
Barnes is averaging nine points on 39 percent shooting from the field and 33 percent shooting behind the line this postseason, all significant drop-offs from the regular season. His percentage on catch-and-shoot jumpers — shots taken within two seconds without a dribble, per the NBA’s SportsVU data — has deteriorated from 40 percent in the regular season to 29 percent in the playoffs.
Although Barnes hasn’t been any worse in the Finals than he’s been the rest of the playoffs, the Cavaliers have all but stopped guarding him. Tristan Thompson opened Game 6 liberally sagging off Barnes to defend the paint every time the Warriors drove the lane. It’s a trick straight out of Golden State’s playbook, but it’s usually reserved for non-shooters like Tony Allen. Instead, Barnes is getting the humiliating treatment and can’t make the Cavaliers pay.
This is frightening for the Warriors. With Andrew Bogut missing the rest of the playoffs, Steve Kerr went straight to the Death Lineup on Thursday, placing Andre Iguodala in the starting five. The reason those five play so well offensively is because they all dribble and shoot, which either leaves the paint or perimeter open. More importantly, it often forces teams to play without a traditional center.
However, Barnes’ struggles allow the Cavaliers to keep Tristan Thompson on the floor and have him still cover the paint like he’s used to doing. Given that, it’s no surprise that the Death Lineup was outscored by 18 points in 11 minutes of play on Thursday, notching just nine points.
Barnes’ struggles are frustrating because there’s no discernable reason for them. None of the four teams Golden State faced attempted to make life difficult for Harrison Barnes, of course, not with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson and Draymond Green staring them in the face. You could say Barnes is overwhelmed by the pressure of the playoffs, but his stats dipped only slightly during last year’s championship run.
The one added pressure Barnes faces is free agency. Barnes is a restricted free agent this summer, and before these playoffs, most people expected him to get maximum contract offers. Even with his postseason debacle, that may still happen — the rising salary cap means there’s almost too much money for teams to spend during the summer. Although the Warriors can match any offer he receives, there’s a major question as to why they would make Barnes the highest paid player on the team when he’s often not even in the closing five.
Barnes must know what these playoffs and the Finals are about for him: a chance to prove that he’s actually good and vindicate the max contracts that teams are considering throwing his way come July. But that didn’t happen, not at all.
The exact reasons for Barnes’ struggles, and what it means for his future in the league, can be figured out at a later point. Right now, the Warriors have a Game 7 to worry about. Andrew Bogut is out, Andre Iguodala is hobbled and Stephen Curry has only truly looked like himself for a handful of games all postseason. If they can’t rely on the transcendence of the Death Lineup, either? That’s how Golden State can become the first team to ever lose the Finals up 3-1.
Because there’s one game left, though, that also means all is not lost this postseason for Barnes, even as bad as he’s been. If nothing else, the law of averages would indicate that Barnes’ 2-of-22 shooting over the past two games can’t continue to hold like it has. Barnes isn’t this bad, no matter what anyone thinks of him. You can argue whether he deserves the max ad infinitum, but Barnes’ track record as a solid wing player who hits open jumpers and makes some plays off the dribble is much longer than his struggles in the playoffs this year.
One game. That’s all the Warriors need, and it’s all they’re asking of Barnes. Throughout these playoffs, Golden State has run plays early on for Barnes, hoping to give him the confidence early they need from him late. There’s a good chance Steve Kerr tries that again on Sunday.