CLEVELAND — From the edge of elimination to the brink of history.
LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers have pushed the NBA Finals to their limit. Game 7 is necessary.
James scored 41 points, delivering another magnificent performance with the season on the line, Kyrie Irving added 23 and the Cavs sent the finals packing for California by beating the rattled Golden State Warriors 115-101 on Thursday night to even this unpredictable series and force a decisive finale.
Cleveland saved its season for the second time in four days and will head back to Oakland’s Oracle Arena for Sunday’s climactic game with a chance to become the first team to overcome a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals, and more importantly, give this title-starved city its first major sports championship since Dec. 27, 1964.
“I want to win for sure,” said James, who added 11 assists, eight rebounds and again outplayed MVP Stephen Curry. “But I want to give everything I’ve got and we’ll see what happens. We forced a Game 7. It’s going to be a fun one.”
The Warriors never imagined being in this spot. The defending champions, who powered their way to a record 73 wins in the regular season, won the first two games by 48 combined points. But Curry and Co. have lost their touch, their poise and are in danger of seeing their historic season — and a second title — vanish.
Curry was ejected with 4:22 left after he was called for his sixth personal foul, cursed several times at an official and fired his mouthpiece into the front row, striking a fan. Curry finished with 30 points, Klay Thompson had 25 and Draymond Green, back from a one-game suspension, had 10 rebounds.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr felt the officiating was biased against Curry.
“He gets six fouls called on him, three of them were absolutely ridiculous,” Kerr said. “As the MVP of the league, we’re talking about these touch fouls in the NBA Finals. I’m happy he threw his mouthpiece.”
Curry walked off the floor smiling before making the long walk to the locker room.
“I had some stuff I wanted to get off my chest tonight,” Curry said. “It was just frustration and I thought it was kind of hilarious how the last two fouls kind of unfolded.”
On Wednesday, James called Game 7, “the two best words ever.”
He’ll live them once more, thanks to a spell-binding effort — the two-time champion had a hand in 27 consecutive points and 35 of 36 during a stretch in the second half — and put away the Warriors after they trimmed a 24-point deficit to seven in the final period. James scored 14 in the fourth before checking out to a thunderous ovation in the final minutes as Cleveland fans chanted, “Cavs in 7!” and “See you Sunday!”
“It’s LeBron being LeBron,” Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said. “He’s one of the greatest of all-time. Our back was against the wall and he took it upon himself, him and Kyrie, they put us on their backs. They’ve got us to where we wanted to be — and that’s Game 7.”
In typical Cleveland fashion, there were some heart palpitations in the fourth. The Cavs were up 70-46 in the third, and when J.R. Smith blindly dropped a lob pass to a trailing James for a dunk, Quicken Loans shook with noise and thousands of fans packing a plaza outside the building began thinking about where they might spend Father’s Day.
The Warriors, though, weren’t done. On the same floor where they won their title exactly one year ago, Thompson made a pair of 3-pointers as Golden State, playing without injured center Andrew Bogut, used a 25-10 run to pull within 80-71 entering the final 12 minutes.
But James, as he did while winning two titles in Miami, made sure those belonged to him and extended Cleveland’s dream season.
For the Warriors, a golden year is suddenly stained.
“It hasn’t gone our way the last two,” Curry said. “But I like our chances in Game 7.”