CLEVELAND – It wasn’t yet the history the Cleveland Cavaliers hope to accomplish, but it was sure something.
They defeated the Golden State Warriors, 115-101, on Thursday and became only the third team to force a Game 7 after trailing in the NBA Finals, 3-1.
LeBron James kept contributing almost every way possible _ 41 points for the second consecutive game, 11 assists and eight rebounds _ while Kyrie Irving proved again to be more than just a sidekick.
No team has ever come back from a 3-1 deficit to win the Finals. Game 7 is Sunday at Golden State.
“It’s going to be the hardest thing we’ve ever done in our lives, but we’re ready for it,” Irving said in an interview shown on the scoreboard to overjoyed fans at Quicken Loans Arena.
It got so wild that NBA most valuable player Stephen Curry was ejected for the first time ever.
He picked up his sixth foul and would have been done for the night anyway, but he threw his mouth guard in disgust and it hit a fan in the front row. His too-late apology came after he received two technical fouls. A fine from the NBA is almost certain to follow.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr probably will be lighter financially too after criticizing referees and saying he “was happy” Curry reacted that way.
“He gets six fouls called on him, three of them were absolutely ridiculous,” Kerr said. “He steals the ball from Kyrie clean at one point. LeBron flops on the last one, (referee) Jason Phillips falls for that, for a flop. As the MVP of the league, we’re talking about these touch fouls in the NBA Finals.”
Said Curry: “I’ve thrown my mouthpiece before. I usually aim at the scorer’s table. I was off aim. ... It was obviously frustrating fouling out.”
The only other teams to force Game 7 after such a Finals deficit were the Lakers against Boston in 1966 and New York against Rochester in 1951.
James’ thunderous fastbreak dunk after a no-look feed from J.R. Smith served as a telling image of the game.
Right behind it would be James swatting Curry’s layup attempt in the final minutes. James then turned, looked at Curry, and used words that weren’t overly friendly.
Not since the Lakers’ Shaquille O’Neal in 2000 had a player scored 40-plus points in consecutive Finals games.
“At the end of the day, this is going to be it for all of us,” James said of Game 7. “We won’t rush it. I’ll sleep very well (Thursday). I’ll sleep well the following night, watch some movies and be ready.”
A quick series seemed inevitable when Golden State won the first two games by a combined 48 points. Since then, Irving has scored 30, 34, 41 and then 23 points Thursday.
Irving and James had help from center Tristan Thompson _ 15 points and 16 rebounds _ as the Warriors played without injured center Andrew Bogut.
Golden State won the championship a year ago Thursday at Cleveland in six games. There would not be a repeat of that.
“Yeah, when they had a chance to celebrate in our locker room ... that left a bitter taste in our mouth,” Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said ahead of time.
It looked dour from the start for the Warriors. At one point, they made only four of 21 shots while James himself was four for five. Cleveland led after one quarter, 31-11, and moved within a victory of its first NBA championship.
Warriors reserve Andre Iguodala appeared to suffer a leg injury and went to the locker room for part of the third quarter.
Draymond Green had eight points after a one-game suspension for accruing too many flagrant fouls. Curry had 30 points while battling foul trouble.
Without Bogut, the Warriors’ tallest starter was 6-foot-8 Harrison Barnes who, by the way, missed all eight of his shots.
Kerr was optimistic beforehand, laying out what he hoped would happen.
“No heroics necessary. Just be rock solid,” he said.
The only heroics came from the Cavaliers, the rock-solid ones.
There will be a Game 7.