CLEVELAND — Like the city itself, the arena here is drab and unremarkable, just another boxy hoops hall positioned by a steep, oddballish dropoff into an industrial riverbed. But come tonight, Quicken Loans Arena becomes a rowdy, raucous nightmare for the Warriors. In emitting almost three hours of bad gas Sunday night, they did more than give LeBron James a foolish second chance in the NBA Finals.
They yanked open a coffin with 51 years of demons waiting to crawl out, the sports version of "Night of the Living Dead" and Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video. Once Stephen Curry had shot his final wicked airball and committed his last inexplicable turnover in Game 2, a Midwestern city accustomed to decades of sporting heartbreak suddenly flipped its perpetual frown and rejoiced. Holy pierogi, the Clevelanders said, has LeBron come home to purge the curse in merely a year?
If the Warriors think Oracle Arena is a madhouse, wait until they absorb the din of Games 3 and 4. Draymond Green can summon a truckload of Beats headphones — excuse me, when did he become such a national star to deserve the most-circulated ad campaign of the Finals? — and it wouldn't be nearly enough to block out the gathering decibels. As the ultimate underdog town, Cleveland senses the impossible becoming possible: an opportunity to ride the prodigal son to the city's first major championship since 1964 despite the absence of two All-Star players, an unprecedented narrative in professional basketball. James made sure one milestone, the Cavaliers' first-ever victory in the Finals, was a rallying point afterward.
Then he turned into a civic cheerleader, a god speaking to his people and issuing a challenge. "It means everything to be able to be a part of history and to get this win for this franchise, for our city, for all the Cavs fans all over the world," he said. "And if I can leave my fans with something, these fans [in Oakland] are pretty loud, pretty good, really good. I'm looking forward to seeing our fans and I can't wait to see our fans. I've heard our fans pretty loud before: a couple instances my first postseason appearance was really loud, and me coming home against the Knicks at the start of the season was pretty good. But I know we can be much, much louder than any fan base in this league.
"I know they're getting ready, and I can't wait to see them."
This is the unpleasant experience that awaits the Warriors, a problem entirely of their own doing. They didn't speak to the media after arriving Monday afternoon, far too busy with adjustments and shooting drills (clank!) after James and the Cavs derailed the speed train by slowing the pace, bleeding the clock, choking the Warriors out of their comfort zone and letting James be the all-encompassing force. Steve Kerr, facing his biggest crisis in a rookie coaching season of precious few speed bumps, said he was forced to "light into" his team after the sickly loss, certainly the worst of Golden State's postseason. In the scolding-and-teaching process, he might want to drop a multisyllabic word in his players' ears.
That's how the Warriors will be remembered, unfair as it seems, if they lose the Finals to a team playing without Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. The Cavs' owner, Dan Gilbert, already has pointed that out, and, with subtler jabs, so has James. "We're undermanned. I mean, we're without two All-Stars," he said, "and I don't know any other team in this league that would be able to do that, to be without two All-Stars and compete the way we compete and be a force. The guys are taking that very personal."
The Warriors should be taking the situation even more personally. Beyond the would-be shame of losing the series to LeBron and his Lunchtime YMCA Pickup Club, imagine if they're the victims who let Cleveland off the hook of sports infamy. A traditional school of NBA thought says a contender must fail in a big moment or two before making the quantum leap to a championship. James' team in Miami had to lose before it won. Michael Jordan's Bulls had to lose to the Bad Boys Pistons before they won. Simple as the task should be against a ridiculously depleted team with names unfamiliar to even semi-knowledgable hoops fans not long ago — Timofey Mozgov? Matthew Dellavedova? Iman Shumpert? — the Warriors have made it difficult by not imposing their will and style amid all the enemy vulnerability.
Yes, it will be embarrassing if they lose this series because of tactical oversights and an over-reliance on jumpshooting. With Curry in an obvious slump dating back to the night he fell and slammed his head on the hardwood, it's time for Kerr and Alvin Gentry — whose mind must be in Ohio, even if his next job is in New Orleans — to re-create the ball movement, scoring balance, screens and open shots that have made the Warriors one of the most electric, explosive offenses the sport has seen. Just because Coach LeBron is dragging the pace, pounding the ball with his meathook-slab hands to the last nanosecond of the shot clock, doesn't mean the Warriors can't rediscover their fun, familiar way. Problem is, they'll have to find it in an Oracle-times-two atmosphere.
"I think they deserve a lot of credit for the way they played," Kerr said. "They got into the passing lanes. They took our rhythm away. We've got to do a better job of trying to create that pace and rhythm. We've got to put our guys in a better position to get good looks. You get open shots that aren't rhythm shots, so you're not flowing, you're not playing well, and you haven't created anything offensively. Then, all of a sudden, you do get an open look, but you're not in the flow, in the groove.
"It was a grind-out, kind of old-school game. That's the style that it's going to be when you get this deep in the playoffs. It's rarely a track meet."
We forget the Warriors were in a more threatening spot in the Western Conference semifinals, falling behind 2-1 to a Memphis team that played similar slogball. Kerr and his staff escaped that hole with a radical but wildly successful move: making big man Andrew Bogut responsible defensively for the poor-shooting Tony Allen, which strengthened the defense for other matchups and led to three straight victories. But then, the Grizzlies didn't have a variable named LeBron.
"Geez, you'd be hard pressed to find a guy anywhere, anytime — I can think of a name or two, but that's the whole history of basketball — that can give you the kind of all-around performance and all-around leadership that LeBron does for his group," said David Blatt, one of James' assistant coaches. "He really willed his guys to win [Game 2]. That's what a champion does, and obviously he's a champion."
Curry, who is not yet a champion, will face the most imposing test of his career in the building known as "the Q." If he entered the Finals with hype momentum as the greatest shooter of all time — Steve Nash said it — he has made only 22 of 64 shots and just 7 of 32 beyond the three-point stripe in three games since crashing to the floor in Houston. The Most Valuable Player of the regular season wouldn't get a vote at this point for Finals MVP, with either Thompson worthier for his bailout shooting and Andre Iguodala worthier for his defensive muscle on James, including a karate chop to the arm that wasn't called. Beyond all their other issues with poor shooting, offensive constipation, turnovers and rebounding, the Warriors were lucky not to be called for several fouls on James. Green has been invisible at times in this series, bad timing for a player who wants a $75-million extension, and the concern is that beyond Iguodala, no Warrior is capable of handling LeBron.
When Irving fractured his kneecap in overtime of Game 1, we assumed The Limp would join The Drive, The Fumble, The Shot, The Move, The Decision, The Blown Save and The Manziel among dubious Cleveland sports moments. And maybe it still will. But what the Warriors have done is give Cleveland an element it usually lacks.
"Our guys love the fact that we've been counted out and come into the series being an underdog," James said. "People were pretty much saying after Kyrie got hurt that the series was over. I think our guys are using that as motivation. I use a little bit of it, but I have a lot of motivation already to just be a part of greatness and be a part of this and be a part of this atmosphere.
"My motivation is to make sure my guys are ready and prepared every night we step on the floor. And I have some other motivation that I won't talk about right now."
That would be winning the big one for his home region, saving northeast Ohio from itself. He doesn't have to talk about it. His people are smelling it, tasting it, feeling it.
Because the Warriors are feeding it.