CLEVELAND — The Golden State Warriors have challenged LeBron James in every possible way. They have thrown waves of defenders at him, called him a crybaby and made fun of him on social media. During one memorable exchange, Draymond Green even took a swipe at his groin.
Through all the noise and extracurriculars of the N.B.A. finals, a series that has played out with the elegance of a mudslide, James has remained the steadfast captain at the wheel of the Cleveland Cavaliers, guiding his team away from elimination — twice now — and filling this championship-starved city with hope.
On Thursday night, James guided the Cavaliers to a 115-101 victory over the Warriors at Quicken Loans Arena to even the series at three games apiece.
Game 7 is scheduled for Sunday night at Oracle Arena, where the league will crown a champion, if only because the series will have run out of games and exhausted its supply of drama.
“I’ll take it,” James said. “Two of the greatest words in the world, and that’s Game 7.”
redit: Tony Dejak/Associated Press)(Photo c
James, appearing in his sixth straight finals and his seventh over all, has made these games count. He collected 41 points, 11 assists and 8 rebounds. Kyrie Irving added 23 points, and Tristan Thompson had 15 points and 16 rebounds. The Cavaliers ran out to a 22-point lead in the first quarter and then stifled every rally that the Warriors mustered.
At the end of the third quarter, James approached his coach, Tyronn Lue, and said, “I’m not coming out.”
Said Lue: “I didn’t have any intention of taking him out anyway. I don’t care what y’all say. We’re going to ride him.”
If the Cavaliers win it all, they will become the first N.B.A. team to have claimed the championship after trailing in the finals by three games to one.
Before fouling out — and earning a technical foul for good measure — Stephen Curry scored 30 points for the Warriors, and Klay Thompson finished with 25. But their teammates struggled. Harrison Barnes missed all eight of his field-goal attempts. Green returned from a one-game suspension to finish with 8 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists.
When the Warriors threatened in the second half, trimming Cleveland’s lead to 7, James made every critical play. Putbacks. Jumpers. Layups. During one sublime stretch that bridged the third and fourth quarters, he scored 18 straight points for his team. He even blocked a layup by Curry, punctuating the play with some unkind words.
“Special,” Irving said of his teammate. “Very special.”
The Warriors, meanwhile, appear to be coming apart in their quest for back-to-back titles. After all the 3-pointers and record-setting totals, including 73 regular-season wins, they are grasping for solutions and losing their cool.
With 4 minutes 22 seconds left, Curry was called for his sixth foul because of what appeared to be phantom contact against James. Curry reacted by swinging his arms in disgust, throwing his mouthguard and screaming at an official. The crowd delighted in his slow, impassioned walk to the locker room.
“I thought it was kind of hilarious the way the last two fouls and me blowing up kind of unfolded,” Curry said.
Warriors Coach Steve Kerr was sharply critical of the officials — Jason Phillips in particular — after the game. With league-imposed fines sure to be coming, Kerr should have brought his checkbook to his news conference.
“He gets six fouls called on him, and three of them were absolutely ridiculous,” Kerr said. “He steals the ball from Kyrie clean at one point. LeBron flops on the last one. Jason Phillips falls for that, a flop. As the M.V.P. of the league, we’re talking about these touch fouls in the N.B.A. finals.”
The Cavaliers have now avoided elimination twice. On Monday night, James and Irving combined for 82 points as the Cavaliers capitalized on Green’s suspension for collecting too many flagrant fouls in the postseason. Green returned for Game 6, vowing to be a better teammate, smarter and more productive.
From the moment Green stepped on the court, though, the crowd expressed its disapproval, booing him when he was introduced, when he touched the ball and when he breathed.
Kerr had no choice but to go small without starting center Andrew Bogut, who was lost for the series when he sustained a knee injury in Game 5. As a result, Kerr moved Green to center and started Andre Iguodala at power forward. Kerr was hoping his team could compensate for Bogut’s absence, but the Cavaliers exploited mismatches from the opening minute. Green picked up his first foul 50 seconds into the first quarter when he reached at James in transition.
The Warriors missed their first seven shots, and the Cavaliers kept applying pressure. James backed his way inside for a bucket. Irving drained a 3-pointer. Curry picked up his second foul, lobbying the officials as he meandered to the bench.
The first quarter was an all-consuming nightmare for the Warriors. They trailed, 31-11, after shooting 5 of 22 from the field. The Cavaliers outrebounded them by 16-7.
The Warriors surged behind Curry in the second quarter. After he sank a 3-pointer, Green followed with a layup in transition to trim Cleveland’s lead to 8.
But problems kept emerging for Golden State. Iguodala, one of James’s main defenders, came up limping but stayed in the game. Curry was whistled for his third foul. And James kept coming, prodding the Cavaliers to a 59-43 lead at halftime. The Warriors shot 29.5 percent from the field in the first half. They could not recover.
“It’s either win the whole thing or bust for us,” Klay Thompson said. “I mean, it’s no fun getting second place.”
The series has felt endless at times, extended by lengthy breaks (usually two days) between games. As a result, the Warriors have had to wait for their opportunities to close this thing out, and have failed both times. Kerr said his message to his team before the game was simple. “No heroics necessary,” he said. “Just be rock solid.”
The Cavaliers had other plans, and so did their crowd, which exploded when James corralled a lob from J.R. Smith in the second half and then slammed the ball in one fluid motion.
“I’ll sleep very well tonight,” James said.
One more win from an improbable title, Cleveland believes.