The Cleveland Cavaliers staved off NBA Finals elimination and ended Golden State Warriors shot at an unprecedented perfect run through the playoffs with a gritty 137-116 win on Friday.
Kyrie Irving scored a game-high 40 points and LeBron James chipped in with 31 as the defending champions pulled to within 3-1 and forced the best-of-seven series back to Oakland.
“We finally settled in, man, it was about damn time, for all of us just to really see what playing well as a group looks like against a great team like the Warriors,” said Irving.
“We understand who they have on their team and what they’re about and how established they are, but I think that in those three losses we lost track of who we were at the time. We’re still a special team as well. We are here for a reason.”
The Cavaliers, who beat the Warriors in a decisive seventh game last year after trailing 3-1, are now trying to become the first NBA team to rally back from a 3-0 series deficit.
The feat has only been accomplished four times in the National Hockey League and once in Major League Baseball.
Kevin Durant led the way for the Warriors with 35 points.
The game was the most physical yet of the Finals and saw James and Durant come face-to-face at midcourt for a heated argument while a play was being reviewed.
Durant was upset after being accidentally slapped by Kevin Love on a block attempt and after a lengthy review Love was assessed a flagrant foul.
The top-seeded Warriors, who had won their first 15 games of the playoffs, will get another chance to close out the series in front of their own fans on Monday.
Cleveland, determined not to watch the Warriors celebrate a championship on their home court for the second time in three seasons, came out flying with a record 86 points in the first half to lead by 18.
Their first-half output beat the previous mark of 79 points set in 1985 by the Boston Celtics.
Golden State’s usually sharp-shooting offense never found its rhythm and the Cavaliers never took their collective foot off the pedal, leading by as many as 22 points late in the second quarter.
Whenever the Warriors looked like they might go on a run and start chipping away at the lead, the home side responded with a rim-rocking dunk from James, a three-pointer from Irving or some tenacious defense.
“Our defense was not sharp. They made tough shots, they got it rolling. I thought they played a tremendous game,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr.
“I think the biggest thing, though, was they brought a level of physicality that we did not match. We have to do a better job of that.”