For a moment last night, as it became apparent that the Cleveland Cavaliers were going to steal Game 5 of the NBA Finals on Golden State’s home floor, I thought of the 2004 American League Championship Series. I do this sometimes, particularly when the city of Cleveland is involved. I imagine, after all, that when Cleveland wins a championship – and it will happen someday, if only by sheer cosmic chance, though probably not to the Browns – it will occur in Homeric fashion, the way the Red Sox rebounded from a 3-0 deficit to vanquish the New York Yankees and obliterate 86 years of overtly literary Brahmin self-loathing over the course of a few days.
Is that what we might be potentially witnessing over the course of the coming week? I sort of doubt it, but you never know. The Cavs won that game Monday night for a variety of reasons, the primary one being that Draymond Green was commiserating with Marshawn Lynch in a luxury box while consuming mediocre ballpark food and equally mediocre American League baseball. But the Cavs also won that game because LeBron James was locked in, which no doubt helped Kyrie Irving to lock in, as well. And if LeBron stays locked in for Game 6 – if he hits those outside shots that, combined with his ability to burrow his way to the rim, make him virtually unguardable even amid the soft downswing of his zenith as a superstar – and if Irving hits the “tough floaters” and “turnarounds” that, as the Warriors Klay Thompson admitted Monday night were virtually unguardable (“It happens,” Thompson shrugged), then there is reason to believe that the Warriors can export this series back to Oakland for a Game 7.
And then: Who knows?
Now, it should be acknowledged that Green’s absence and the performance of both Irving and James were not mutually exclusive happenings. The Warriors, normally one of the most intimidating defensive teams in the league, looked pallid on the defensive end Monday night, especially after Andrew Bogut departed with a knee injury. For a half, they managed to mask that weakness by relying particularly on the shooting brilliance of Thompson, who was hitting everything; but as soon as Cleveland began bodying up both Thompson and Stephen Curry on the perimeter and they both began missing shots, that soft spot was exposed.
In moments like those, when the offense begins to slow, the Warriors rely on their defense to spark them, and that wasn’t there on Monday night. It could easily be argued that Green is their most valuable player as much as Curry is, for that very reason. There was no one patrolling the paint the way the overzealous Green does; there was no one to guard the rim the way the sneaky Bogut does. The paint was wide open, an open gate, and Irving and James were more able to create those shots. That doesn’t happen in Game 6 with Green back on the floor, but it’s possible – likely, even– that Green could have one of those wildly eager kind of performances he had against Oklahoma City in the Western Conference Finals, where he tries too hard and does too little.
Maybe this is an overreaction to one subpar game by the Warriors, and one outstanding performance by the Cavaliers’ two best players. But it’s a reminder of what’s at stake here: For the Warriors, to drop this series after rallying against the Thunder the way they did would be a disappointment of franchise-rattling proportions. It would essentially obliterate all the momentum they have, both nationally and locally; it would reinforce the annoying and inaccurate idea that this team is somehow “soft” and flukish, winner of a single championship, buoyed on its own hype.
And for Cleveland? A rebound from a 3-1 deficit would reverse the narrative of the entire city. It would negate all those years of Red Right 88 and Drives and Fumbles; it would patch over Jordan’s shot over Craig Ehlo and the end of that 1997 World Series. I lived in northeast Ohio for five years, and I live in San Francisco now, and I can say with near-certainty that the Bay Area itself would change very little if the Warriors somehow choke away this title. But if Cleveland were to steal it? The whole region would view itself differently.
It’s still a long shot, I know. But that’s what they said in 2004. Every so often, it happens, and there’s nothing you can do but embrace the karma.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb