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The last time the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors squared off, Kyrie Irving hit an unbelievable game-winning shot that stunned the Warriors’ faithful and sent Cavs supporters into hysterics.
The more things change, huh?
With Golden State shooting guard Klay Thompson draped absolutely all over him, the Cavs’ All-Star point guard hit a turnaround fadeaway 13-foot jumper with 3.4 seconds left to give Cleveland a 109-108 win over the Warriors in an instant classic that lived up to every ounce of the pregame hype that attended this meeting of the teams that have played for the past two NBA championships.
The Warriors had one last chance to answer, inbounding after a timeout with 3.4 ticks left. But Durant stumbled on the catch as he turned to dribble, and wound up heading to the deck and heaving a prayer toward the rim that went unanswered:
Despite what looked like a lot of contact, the referees judged that Cavs swingman Richard Jefferson didn’t give Durant enough help in losing his balance to demand a foul call, and the clock ran out on the Dubs, spoiling what had been a brilliant performance for KD in his first game against the Cavs since joining Golden State in the highest-profile move of this past offseason: a direct response by the Warriors to blowing a 3-1 lead to Cleveland in the 2016 NBA Finals.
After struggling mightily through the first three quarters, missing 11 of his 16 shots, Irving caught fire in the deciding stanza. He scored 14 of his 25 points in the fourth, including six in the final 2:18, and added 10 assists, seven steals and six rebounds. The combination of Irving’s shotmaking, dialed-up defensive activity that led to six Golden State turnovers (and 10 Cleveland points) in the fourth quarter alone, and some ill-timed offensive stagnation by the Warriors, the Cavs erased a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit to vanquish the visitors and improve to 23-6 on the season.
This was an absolute thriller, a contest played with pitched emotion, frenetic movements and elite execution from the opening tip. Draymond Green’s return to Cleveland was met with as warm a welcome as you’d expect, and the Warriors’ fiery emotional centerpiece struggled early, quickly picking up a couple of fouls and a technical that limited his minutes and mitigated his effectiveness in the first half. Stephen Curry’s Christmas Day struggles continued, as he missed four of his first five shots, thanks in part to the attentive defense of DeAndre Liggins. But Durant joined the rivalry with relish, scoring 12 points in the first quarter and 17 before halftime.
Kevin Love continued his strong offensive work early in games for the Cavs, scoring 14 in the first half. LeBron James cranked up the aggression from the opening seconds, posting a double-double while playing nearly 21 of the game’s first 24 minutes.
This game was freaking intense, man:
With Cleveland struggling to knock down shots and Durant and Thompson (13 first-half points on 5-for-9 shooting) carrying the offensive load, the Warriors build an 11-point lead with 4:15 remaining in the second quarter, and looked to be in position to blow the game open. The Cavs came storming back, though, riding Love, persistent attacking of the offensive glass and defensive intensity to rip off a 12-1 run in just over three minutes, knotting the game at 50 on a LeBron layup with 1:09 remaining in the half.
The Warriors bounced back with a KD three, and had a chance to build their lead before quarter’s end … but, y’know, LeBron:
… so the two teams headed into the locker room separated by only three points, at 55-52.
James came out of halftime on fire, confidently asserting himself from long distance to splash four 3-pointers in a 16-point frame. His teammates, however, continued to struggle with their shots, combining to go 3 for 12 from the field in the third. Meanwhile, Durant and Thompson stayed hot, scoring 20 points on 11 shots, and Green began to make his presence felt as a finisher (six points on two shots and a pair of free throws, capped by a thunderous throwdown) and playmaker (three assists leading to seven points) to help Golden State extends its lead to 87-80 entering the fourth.
After James played the full third quarter, Cavs coach Tyronn Lue tried to buy his star some rest at the start of the fourth. The Warriors quickly took advantage, as Golden State’s standard fourth-quarter-opening lineup — Durant and Thompson alongside veterans David West, Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston — started the quarter on a 7-0 run that gave the Warriors their largest lead of the game at 94-80.
The Cavs battled back, though, cutting the deficit to eight by the time James returned with 7:33 remaining and getting within three at the six-minute mark, thanks in large part to Irving finally finding his shooting rhythm and scoring touch. Richard Jefferson, all 36 years of him, played a major role in sparking the Cavs down the stretch, too, cocking the hammer for throwback dunks on both Durant:
… and Thompson:
… to energize the Cavs and send a shockwave through the Q.
The atmosphere reached a new level when Irving slithered through the paint for a driving layup to knot the game at 103 with 2:18 left. It got positively Finals-y when Irving hit a cutting James for a very, very loud dunk on damn near the entire Bay Area to give Cleveland its first lead since the score was 10-8:
And yet, the Warriors wouldn’t fold. After James missed the free throw following his dunk, Golden State quickly pushed the ball to attack an unsettled Cleveland defense, resulting in an open dunk for Green that tied the game at 105. Thompson stayed with Irving on every move of his next drive, blocking his shot to kickstart a Warriors push that would end with a Curry three — just his second of the game — to put Golden State up by three with 1:14 to go.
From there, though, Irving took over. With both teams scrambling for a loose ball, Irving stole the ball from Iguodala before racing for a layup that cut the deficit to one. And then, after the Cavs did a brilliant job switching off-ball screens to stifle the ensuing Warriors possession and force a shot-clock violation with 13.5 seconds remaining, Kyrie seized the moment, putting an exclamation point on one of the finest games of the NBA season.
Durant finished with a game-high 36 points on 11-for-23 shooting, 15 rebounds, three assists, one block and a steal in 38 minutes of work. Thompson added 24 (9 for 16 from the field, 5 for 11 from 3) for the Warriors, who saw their seven-game winning streak snapped as they fell to 27-5 on the season.
Curry seemed ill at ease, uncomfortable and out of sorts all game long, finishing with just 15 points on 4-for-11 shooting, three rebounds, three assists and three steals in yet another quiet performance against James, who went toe-to-toe with Durant (31 points, 13 rebounds, four assists, two steals, one block) to keep Cleveland close enough for a bit of Kyrie magic to push the Cavs over the finish line.
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