In the 2016 NBA Finals, LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers became the first team in NBA history to overcome a 3-1 Finals deficit, beating the 73-win Golden State Warriors to give the city of Cleveland its first major professional sports championship in 52 years.
To do so, the Cavs needed to win twice in Oakland, where the Warriors had lost only three times all season.
Matching 41-point games by Kyrie Irving and James kept Cleveland alive in Game 5. Following a Game 6 home win, the Cavs returned to the Bay for an epic Game 7 victory.
ESPN will re-air Games 5 and 7 of the 2016 Finals on Wednesday night, starting at 7 p.m. ET. In advance of those replayed broadcasts, we asked our writers to share their memories of the tense, unforgettable closing minutes of Game 7.
MORE: How to watch the 2016 Finals and more iconic NBA games
Ezeli’s last stand
Injured Warriors center Festus Ezeli entered the game for forward Harrison Barnes with the Cavaliers down 85-83 with 6:16 remaining, and the series shifted. Ezeli, who had come off the bench in the Warriors’ first 22 playoff games, started Game 7 in place of Andrew Bogut, who had suffered a season-ending left knee injury in Game 5.
Before Ezeli entered, the Warriors had the momentum at Oracle Arena with a 5-0 run courtesy of a 3-pointer by Stephen Curry and a layup by Klay Thompson. Draymond Green then extended Golden State’s lead with a putback of a missed Curry layup with 5:37 left.
But on the next possession, James forced the 6-foot-11 Ezeli to guard him one-on-one. James, who had not made a 3-pointer all night, faked a shot behind the line. A slow-moving Ezeli bit and fouled him with 5:24 remaining. With the clock stopped, James made all three free throws to trim the Cavaliers’ deficit to just 87-86 and turn the tide.
In a game the Warriors lost by four, Golden State was outscored by nine points in the 11 minutes Ezeli played. He finished scoreless with one rebound and has not played in an NBA game since. (Ezeli had left knee surgery in March 2017.)
— Marc J. Spears
LeBron’s clutch 3
For all of James’ gifts, long-range shooting has forever been where James’ otherworldly talent returns to earth.
In 2015-16, James drained fewer than 31% of his attempts from beyond the arc, but with the Cavaliers trailing the Warriors inside of five minutes, circumstance overrode probabilities. Just after drawing a 3-point foul on Ezeli, James again hunted the mismatch — drawing poor Ezeli off a pick-and-roll.
As he has done so often, James guided the action to his left hand, took three dribbles, wiggled a sidestep with his left leg, then launched a 3-pointer over Ezeli that vaulted the Cavaliers into the lead 89-87.
It’s easy to forget the inevitability that followed the Warriors during their historic season. Even when they trailed, there was a sense that the basketball gods would soon correct the ledger in their favor.
Until that shot.
It was the fateful stroke that defied history for Cleveland. It was the first time in a year when the inevitability of a second straight Warriors title truly came into question.
It was the moment when anyone with a pulse on the way strange events upend history in sports said, “This might happen.”
— Kevin Arnovitz
The thing to me about the block — or The Block, as Northeast Ohioans will always refer to it with reverence — is the sheer audacity of effort by James. The score was tied at 89 with less than two minutes left when Andre Iguodala turned an Irving carom into a chance to take off toward the basket.
Iguodala passed it ahead to Curry, Curry returned it to Iguodala. And with a full head of steam, it seemed inevitable that he’d either score over JR Smith — the Cavs’ only defender back in transition — or be fouled. Instead, James homed in on Iguodala and pinned the shot against the upper portion of the backboard for a chasedown block. His hand was 11 feet, 5 inches off the ground when he met the ball, according to John Brenkus of ESPN Sports Science.
It was a play that combined timing, extreme athleticism and the savviness to raise both hands to take away the reverse option for Iguodala. In the 45th minute of the 47 he would log in the final game of the season, James pulled off the block. It will surely be honored in bronze someday.
— Dave McMenamin
With 1:09 to play and the score still tied, the Cavs called timeout. As Ty Lue gathered with his staff, James tried to catch the head coach’s eye from his seat on the bench. As he did, James emphatically pointed to Irving. That’s where he wanted the shot to go.
James got the hell out of the way, inbounding the ball and running to a corner. Kevin Love and Richard Jefferson — inserted in place of center Tristan Thompson for just this purpose — spaced the floor. The Cavs ran a screen with Smith to switch the taller Klay Thompson off and force Curry onto Irving.
Irving then moved to his favorite spot, the right wing. This is where he made a subtle but important move: often when right-handed shooters go into step-back maneuvers, they cross over from left to right to get momentum. Irving did the opposite.
He was dribbling with his right hand, indicating he might drive and shield Curry with his left shoulder. Instead, Irving executed a quick sideways escape dribble and rose up into a step-back 3. Curry was caught for the briefest second on his heels — he’d loaded to go backward.
That few inches of airspace allowed Irving to get the shot off cleanly over Curry’s otherwise strong contest.
— Brian Windhorst
After Irving put the Cavs ahead by three with less than a minute to go, the Warriors got the exact matchup they wanted: Curry, the NBA’s unanimous MVP, against Love, one of Cleveland’s worst defenders. That Golden State secured that matchup at all was a nifty piece of work that required two screens. First, Iguodala, who was being guarded by Love, screened James, who was guarding Green, to force a switch. Then, Green screened Irving to get Love onto Curry.
In that moment, it felt fated that — like so many other times during that 73-win season — Curry and the Warriors would come back to win.
Only this time, they didn’t, in part because of the defensive possession of Love’s life.
Love forced Curry to give up the ball to Green, nearly turning it over, only to then get it back, fail to get by Love and hoist up an off-balance 3-pointer that still nearly went in.
It was that moment — when the Warriors got that matchup and that shot didn’t fall — when reality finally sunk in at Oracle Arena. This time, the Warriors would not be pulling off another great escape.
— Tim Bontemps
The near dunk
My most visceral memory of Game 7 of the 2016 Finals is James in pain on the ground in the closing seconds. After all those memorable plays, it was still a one-possession game when Irving set up James for an audacious dunk attempt with 10.6 seconds left and Green met him at the rim.
The contact sent James tumbling to the ground and he landed hard on his right wrist. From my vantage point on that end of the court, I immediately started thinking about what would happen if James were seriously injured.
Who might Steve Kerr select off the Cavaliers’ bench to shoot the free throws? Would Cleveland have to play a possible overtime without the MVP? Was James mortal?
Instead, James shook off the pain, and — after missing the first attempt — made the second to extend the Cavaliers’ lead to four points and seal the game.
— Kevin Pelton
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