OAKLAND – Game 7 of the NBA Finals was a masterpiece, basketball as art, the Warriors and Cavaliers relentlessly throwing thunderbolts of heat and muscle and skill at each other until one of them no longer could.
It was, in the 48th and final minute, the Warriors who fell, toppled by too much LeBron James and more than enough Kyrie Irving.
There will be no back-to-back championship, no victory parade in Oakland, no sizing of rings or any of the other spoils that come with being champion.
Just a 93-89 defeat surely to linger throughout summer, weeks if not months away from even the slightest dissipation.
“It sucks,” Draymond Green said after a conclusion that disappointed the breathless sellout crowd at Oracle Arena.
“It’s not a good feeling,” Stephen Curry said after losing Games 5 and 7 at home.
“We’re all very competitive and this is gut-wrenching,” Klay Thompson said. “We all feel sick.”
That’s the anguish that comes with coming so close yet forever being too far away, from losing the final three games of the final playoff series – including two of them at home, where they had been so close to invincible. That’s the gloom that follows a historically great regular season that ends so sharply it cuts to the core and makes all the previous glory, no matter how magnificent, suddenly seem so utterly insignificant.
The Warriors gave themselves a chance in Game 7 by shooting splendidly from 3-point distance – 45.2 percent through three quarters. Green was superb, with 32 points, 15 rebounds, nine assists and two steals.
But Green was lonely in his pursuit. Curry missed 13 of his 19 shots, Thompson 11 of his 17 and Harrison Barnes seven of his 10. And the centers were, well, as much the root of defeat as any place else one would care to look.
Festus Ezeli, Anderson Varejao and Marreese Speights combined for 0-for-7 shooting, five rebounds (four by Speights) and two blocks (both by Speights).
Indeed, if there is anything for coach Steve Kerr to second-guess, it would be the usage of his big men not named Green. Ezeli and Varejao played a combined 19 minutes and, together, posted a minus-18.
“I thought Anderson came in and gave us some really good minutes,” Kerr said. “I thought Festus started the game out well. He didn’t get his shot to go, but he was active. He was athletic. I thought they both helped us.”
Kerr evidently was looking for contributions other than winning plays. Ezeli, who started in place of the injured Andrew Bogut, and Varejao failed to make a true impact on either end.
And yet the Warriors hung around and so did the Cavs. That’s what made this night so gripping. There were 20 lead changes and 11 ties. The Cavs owned the inside, with Warriors lacking rim protection. The Warriors commanded the outside, with the Cavs unable to keep pace – until 3-pointers abandoned them in the fourth quarter.
That’s when fatigue and the Cleveland defense collaborated to hold the defending champs to 1-of-10 shooting from deep, 26.3 percent overall and nothing whatsoever over the final 4:39.
“Everybody was just sad, just down,” Kerr said. “We were right there. Two cracks at it at home, where we had lost three games, I think, all year going into Game 5.
“So we had our chances and our guys know that, and they’re really bummed out.”
It was, in those final minutes, as if the Warriors collapsed not only beneath Cleveland’s withering assault but also under the sheer tonnage of their 24-0 start to the season, the 73-9 record that is tops in league history, the epic seven-game Western Conference Finals victory over a powerful Oklahoma City team, lastly, this entire entire 106-game excursion of a season.
“We’ve had so many moments of joy together,” Kerr said. “And it was like, wow, we’re actually having a moment of sorrow as a team.
“It’s a great reminder that, first of all, it’s not easy to win a championship. But it’s life. Things happen. You move on.”
There is no moving on when the legs are this heavy, when the mind and body are equally exhausted, when the champagne is flowing in the visitor’s locker room – the place where a season’s worth of vanquished opponents have gone to weep.
Not on this night. This night was for the weeping of the Warriors. There’s no knowing how long this will hurt, though some will ache as long as they live. There is, for now, just the unwelcome truth that the team that always found a way to rise could not once more.