Being up 3-2 in the NBA Finals is a precarious position to be in. Teams up 3-2 may be 35-8 all-time in Finals series, but two of those defeats have occurred in the last six seasons, and the team with their backs against the wall forces a Game 7 43 percent of the time.
The scary part for these Golden State Warriors? Both teams that completely squandered the lead recently were experienced, veteran groups. The 2010 Boston Celtics still had most of their 2008 championship team intact, and they had beaten the Los Angeles Lakers in that Finals, so winning one of two games in L.A. was very realistic. The 2013 San Antonio Spurs roster had 11 championship rings between themselves thanks to their big three (and Matt Bonner), so there was reason for confidence heading into Game 6.
If those teams could lose in devastating fashion, the Warriors, who came in with no Finals experience on their roster, have to be on their guard more than ever tonight.
FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings rate Golden State as one of the greatest teams in the history of basketball, but the depleted Cavs have managed to stay in this series and put themselves in a position to force a Game 7 if they can win tonight at Quicken Loans Arena.
The longer Stephen Curry and co. let LeBron James hang around, the more dangerous the chances of letting it all slip away become. They would certainly be favored in a Game 7 at home in Oracle Arena, but they cannot afford to let it get to that point. Game 6 is closeout time.
Curry’s numbers in closeout games on the road are fantastic, with averages of 28.4 points, eight assists and five rebounds a game. The Warriors went 2-3 in those games, with both wins coming in this postseason and Curry missing a significant part of the Houston Game 4 loss due to the nasty fall he had in the second quarter of that game.
On the other hand, LeBron James’s numbers when facing elimination are mindblowing, with averages of 31.9 points, 10.1 rebounds and 6.4 assists. His teams are 7-7 in those games, 6-2 at home. When your backs are against the wall, you want the King on your side.
“I feel confident because I’m the best player in the world,” James said after Game 5, as if we needed any confirmation after his third 40-point game and second triple double of these Finals. Like he said, “it’s simple.”
Ray Allen’s shot did save Miami’s season in 2013, but he didn’t bail LeBron out, as some of the detractors are quick to say; James had a triple double in that game, with 32 points, 11 assists and 10 boards, and a 37-point, 12-rebound game in Game 7 was the capper to a tremendous comeback.
When elimination is on the line, the best player in the world is, well, the best player in the world.
What does Golden State have to do to combat the extraordinary game we all expect from James? In addition to the obviously crucial performances out of Curry and Splash Brother Klay Thompson (who is going to need to score more than the 12 points he scored in Game 5), Andre Iguodala must continue his increased production since being called back into starter duty due to Steve Kerr’s small-ball lineup. Iggy has gone from veteran role player back to the borderline star he was in Philadelphia in the past three games, averaging 17 points a game in that span. He could’ve had a second straight 20-point game in Game 5 if he made some more of his free throws; he went 2-for-11 from the line, the only blemish on another otherwise super night.
Draymond Green, who I singled out as the team’s x-factor, must stay out of foul trouble. He has committed four or five fouls in each game in this series, and if he fouls out this team loses that edge as well as all that production. With 17 points and seven rebounds in Game 4 and 16 points and nine boards in Game 5, Green is one of the most valuable pieces to this championship puzzle. His head must be in the game when posed with an opportunity to take a foolish foul.
Finally, Andrew Bogut and David Lee must be ready. Bogut didn’t play at all on Sunday night, but don’t expect that to continue on Tuesday night. The small-ball lineup has been successful thus far, but Steve Kerr going consecutive games without calling Bogut’s number for at least a stretch doesn’t seem likely and hasn’t happened once this year when he was healthy. Lee has had to sacrifice more than anyone on the team this season, but his performances in Games 3 and 4 showed he’s still got what it takes to contribute.
The Warriors are in a good spot, but they should be feeling the pressure to finish this off on Tuesday night and avoid a seventh game for all the marbles. After all, LeBron still has plenty of buckets in him.