Golden State Warriors still on pace for greatest-ever NBA season
Cavs looking to bring first pro championship to Cleveland in 52 years
LeBron James searching for third ring in seven tries
Stephen Curry looking for repeat MVP, title seasons
Editor’s Note: For updates, stories, video and features about the NBA playoffs, go to cnn.com/nba
After nearly eight exhausting months and 1,315 games, the NBA season reaches its climax Sunday with what is sure to be a nail-biting final 48 minutes.
The stakes for each team – the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers – couldn’t be higher.
A Golden State win would cement their season as mathematically the best ever, and place the Warriors among the all-time greatest NBA dynasties; a Cleveland victory would deliver the city’s first championship of any kind in 52 years.
But Game 7 of this telenovela-like finals will also have a major impact how history views the two current undisputed faces of the NBA, LeBron James and Stephen Curry, whose vaunted legacies are on the line.
What a win or loss means for LeBron:
LeBron James has achieved four league MVP awards and two championships, but clinching his third title on the road while enduring a mid-season coaching upheaval would slay all the doubters. And unlike his two wins as part of the “Big Three” (James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh) with the Miami Heat, there is no question as to who is in charge this time.
Leading the first-ever finals comeback from a three games to one hole also removes criticism that James has the ability to shrink on big occasions, an accusation once made by none other than Cavs owner Dan Gilbert.
(As part of the emotional wreckage of James “taking his talents to South Beach,” Gilbert said an unusually timid James “quit” on the Cavs in a 2010 playoff series against Boston and his play “was unlike anything in the history of sports for a superstar.”)
Instead, a win would magnify James’ consecutive 41-point efforts in this series, not to mention his astonishing 18 consecutive points when Game 6 was still on the line (he also scored or assisted on 35 of 36 points in the same stretch).
Winning an NBA finals game 7 on the road has only been achieved three times in the past, and not since 1978.
A third ring would also put James on par with Larry Bird, the inventor of the so-called point-forward position that James relishes, within the hierarchy of modern-era superstars.
It also keeps him on steady pace to catch Shaquille O’Neal with four titles, Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan with five, and perhaps even Michael Jordan with 6.
Not to mention, LeBron would never have to buy a drink in Ohio again, as a victorious return of the prodigal son would permanently bury whatever bitterness remains of “The Decision” to go to Miami.
A loss, however, drops James to two wins and five defeats in the finals, and it will be impossible not to wonder if his 13-year career is shaping up to be an underachievement (after all, this is not an uncommon conception of O’Neal, even though he won four titles).
James will be 32 in December. Since the NBA expanded to 23 teams in 1980, only Michael Jordan, who was 35 when he won his sixth title, and 38-year-old Tim Duncan, more of a role player on the 2014 Spurs, were winning titles at an older age.
To compare, Kobe Bryant was 31 when he won his last championship, Larry Bird was 29 and Magic Johnson was just 28 (although his career was cut short due to contracting HIV).
What a win or loss means for Curry:
If the Warriors, who came into the series as favorites, do manage to clinch Sunday’s series-decider, Curry will go down as the ringleader of one of the two greatest teams of the modern era, with only Michael Jordan’s 1996 Bulls on that level.
A repeat title for back-to back-league MVP Stephen Curry would also mark an achievement reached only by Bill Russell, Jordan and (guess who?) James.
Even though his career is only half over, a second championship would likely earn Curry the title of best little man to ever play in the modern era – although, at 6-foot 3-inches, it’s debatable as to whether he’s considered a true “little man” – moving ahead of Isiah Thomas, who won two NBA Championships and one finals MVP, but no league MVP awards.
Curry has already broken nearly all the shooting records, including, on Thursday, the number of three-pointers in an NBA Finals with 28, so his status as the greatest shooter of the modern era is solidified.
But the title of “Greatest Clutch Shooter” could be in the cards with a stellar Game 7 – although he’s been played to a stalemate by opposing point guard Kyrie Irving thus far.
Curry, whose finals scoring is down significantly from the regular season (23.5 points per game vs. 30.1 points), and who risked ejection on Thursday after throwing his mouthpiece into the crowd in frustration, must keep his cool if he’s to solidify his legacy as a winner.
A loss, however, will be followed by a giant emotional letdown for the Warriors after such a grueling season, especially after coming back from a 3-1 hole in the Conference Finals themselves.
Surviving the Western Conference is not easy – just ask Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook who have been to the finals just once – and it will remain to be seen whether Golden State would be able to bounce back with the same vigor as the previous two campaigns.
A Game 7 loss would leave Curry and the Warriors as one-time champions, until proven otherwise – a huge disappointment after their record-breaking 73 wins.
Curry, who missed playoff games with knee and ankle problems, will have both his durability and leadership questioned. At 28, however, he has a little more time on his side than James.
Whatever happens on Sunday, one thing is certain: It’s going to be a history-making night.
- For updates, stories, video and features about the NBA playoffs go to cnn.com/nba