CLEVELAND — They are always teetering here, between blind devotion and the fear that their unfailing passion might leave them wounded one more time.
Walking around Cleveland before Game 4, in a town where wearing some form of Cavaliers attire on game days is seemingly a by-law requirement, and the sentiment was the same, wavering between: “We got this one,” and “We gotta get this one.”
The beauty of Game 4 was they probably thought they had it or lost it more times than a late-night drunk trying to make his house key work. After three games that passed like so many pre-season “contests” the NBA Finals began in earnest Friday night and it was tense and taut and hard fought.
If it wasn’t great, it was at least compelling, with 18 lead changes and 14 ties. That it ended in a 108-97 win for the Warriors, allowing them to take a 3-1 lead in the series made it like watching a dream die on slow motion for a city that has seen it happen all too often.
In gauging what was at stake they were taking their cue from the Cavalier who looms above all, the local-kid-turned-billionaire-next-door LeBron James, who didn’t shy away from the significance of Game 4 to his larger mission of winning Cleveland its first championship of any kind since 1964.
James declared Game 4 do-or-die. By his harsh standard the Cavs died. They now have to go to Oakland for Game 5 on Monday, trying to figure out how to become just the fourth team to win at Oracle Arena this season.
“I think for me as the leader of this team, we’ve just got to get one,” said James. “Let’s get one. We’ve already got to take a flight home back anyways, so we might as well come home with a win and play on our home floor again. Being a confident bunch we feel like the chips have been stacked up against us all year anyway.”
For their part, the Warriors weren’t in a position to allow the series they seemed so firmly in control of just a few days ago to be turned into a best-of-three sprint.
The Warriors were rightly accused by their head coach Steve Kerr of playing “comfortable” and “soft” in losing Game 3 by 30.
He didn’t think that would be an issue in Game 4.
“I think what happened the other night, if that doesn’t get our team prepared to play,” said Kerr. “Then there are no words that I can use that will do the job.”
He was right. The Warriors will now spend the weekend trying to figure out how to handle an opportunity dripping with potential: a chance to earn their second-straight championship and put a cap on their historic 73-9 regular season by closing out the series in Game 5. It might be harder than it sounds.
“For whatever reason our team’s personality, and it’s been this way for two years, we can’t stand prosperity, you know?” said Kerr. “We start winning and then we let our guard down, and I thought we did that the other night, and Cleveland played a brilliant game, and tonight we were threatened and we responded well.
“I’ve already told our guys Game 5 will be the hardest game of the series. Every closeout game is difficult, but when you’re at home, for a strange reason it’s even more difficult. You’ve got, you know, everybody in your ear, you’ve got friends, you’ve got family who want to come to the game and want to discuss everything. We have to understand that this series is not over. We came in and did what we wanted to do getting the split, but Game 5 will be extremely difficult.”
If it’s as tight and hard-fought as Game 4, it will be can’t miss TV.
After a three-game feeling-out process the Cavs and Warriors played this one for keeps.
Things even showed signs of boiling over. Late in the fourth quarter James got tangled up with the Warriors’ professional pest Draymond Green and took what appeared to be shot to groin for his troubles. There were words exchanged. Green is one more flagrant foul away from being suspended, so it will be something to watch over the weekend.
James certainly wasn’t happy about it.
“You know, Draymond just said something that I don’t agree with. I’m all cool with the competition. I’m all fine with that, but some of the words that came out of his mouth were a little bit overboard,” said James. “And being a guy with pride, a guy with three kids and a family, things of that nature, some things just go overboard and that’s where he took it, and that was it.”
Should Green be suspended?
“It’s not my call. That’s the league office. They’ll take a look at it. We all saw it in the locker room.”
Does he think he will be?
“No,” James said.
Of course not. By this stage everyone in Cleveland believes that the fates are conspiring against them. Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue was tipping on the edge of a fine when he questioned how James could play 46 minutes of attacking basketball and take just four free throws.
For everyone without a rooting interest the ultimate takeaway from Game 4 was that for 43 minutes this was a tug-of-war where neither side was willing to let go of the rope, knowing that they risked falling into a deep, messy and perhaps inescapable pit if they did.
It made for good entertainment, as long as you’re not from Cleveland.
The Warriors led by one after the first quarter and the Cavs led by eight in the early moments of the second half. But then the Warriors’ all-star backcourt duo of Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry finally got on track — they combined for 21 points in the period — and helped guide the Warriors to a 79-77 lead after three quarters.
In the fourth the Warriors put distance on the Cavaliers with a series of paper cuts rather than the home run swings they’re known for: a Shaun Livingston jumper here, a Curry put back there. By the time Harrison Barnes knocked down his third three of the game the Warriors had put together a 12-1 run to take a 93-94 lead with 5:56 left to play.
“Don’t stop believing” came the cry from the PA announcer, a nod to the fragility of things here.
The end came slowly as the scoring dried up considerably down the stretch with the two sides dug in, diving, scrapping, playing for their playoff lives. But a Curry three with just over three minutes left gave the Warriors a 10-point lead. It was more than enough.
The Warriors had been waiting for a signature game from him. Now the Cavaliers have to worry if the genie can be put back in the bottle. Curry went off for 38 and Thompson 25 after the pair had been averaging 28 points combined through the first three games of the series, compared to the 52 they averaged in the regular season. The return of Splash helped the Warriors set an NBA Finals record with 17 threes. The Cavs have to be worried there is more where that came from. Their Warriors teammates scrambled for nine second-half offensive rebounds that helped tip the game.
“Obviously it’s a big game, and one we needed to bounce back individually as a team to figure out how to get a win on the road and put ourselves in pretty good position,” said Curry. “So, you know, we answered the bell, especially in the first quarter, controlling the pace of the game and not losing it like we did in Game 3. And for 48 minutes we executed a lot better, and I think we got back to enjoying the process and the challenge of winning playoff games, especially in the Finals.”
The Warriors have come to Cleveland and eaten their full meal, getting the split they needed and deep down the Cavaliers must know it. Even though they can keep talking bravely until they are eliminated, Game 4 was their best chance.
For the Cavaliers James didn’t score the way he can, but he did post 25 points, 13 rebounds and nine assists, although his seven turnovers didn’t help matters. Once again Kyrie Irving shone, with 34 points, while Tristan Thompson contributed 10 points and six offensive rebounds.
But it wasn’t enough and with the Cavaliers in a 3-1 hole heading west, it’s hard to imagine what it will take to win three straight over the Warriors, two of which would have to come on the road.
No one knows what is at stake for the Cavaliers better than Kerr. The Warriors head coach played more than three seasons for the Cavs in the early 1990s, leaving for the Chicago Bulls only to watch his teammate Michael Jordan break Cleveland’s heart time and time again.
“Sure, yeah, we knew about it,” he said prior to the game if he was attuned to Cleveland’s tortured sports history. “I remember when I was here the Browns lost in the AFC title game twice in a row, and the famous Earnest Byner game when it looked like they were going to win the game, and he fumbled on his way in. I was a Browns fan. I was a converted Browns fan just from being here for a couple of years. That’s how much excitement there was in the city for the Browns.
“So, yeah, I mean, if you’re a sports fan at all and you come to Cleveland, you’re made aware of that stuff right away.”
The way things are trending his Warriors will be writing another sad chapter in Cleveland’s sports history. Once the Cavaliers fell behind 2-0 in the series it seemed like they were faced with an impossible uphill climb.
Their rousing win in Game 3 gave all the people in all those Cavs jerseys wandering about on a warm summer night on the shores of Lake Erie some hope, some optimism and something to believe in.
Now they can only watch their team head off to California facing elimination in Game 5 on Monday night just hoping they can keep their season alive.
And no one knows better than Cleveland that hope can hurt. It can really, really hurt.