Before last night’s Game 6, a player hadn’t been ejected from an NBA Finals game in 20 years. The last was Sonics enforcer Frank Brickowski, tossed from Games 1 and 3 in 1996, victim of master instigator Dennis Rodman. Last night it was mild-mannered MVP Stephen Curry, who scored 30 points but picked up a sixth foul and hurled his mouthpiece in disgust—hitting a courtside fan—in the waning minutes. He was escorted to the locker room, accompanied by chants of “hey, hey, goodbye.” How did we get here?
First, LeBron James killed the Death Lineup. The Warriors needed to come out strong in the first quarter to take the home crowd out of the game, and Steve Kerr started the Warriors’s lethal lineup of Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, and Harrison Barnes. They didn’t score until the 6:54 mark. With under a minute to go the Warriors trailed 31-9, in danger of posting their first single-digit quarter of the year. An Andre Iguodala jumper prevented that, but they’d still dug themselves a 20-point hole they were never able to climb out of. “Once again, they won the game in the first quarter,” Thompson said afterwards.
Maybe this was Curry's heel turn. LeBron James dismantled the Warriors, along with Curry’s aura of cool invincibility.
But this was less about what the Warriors didn’t do and more about what James did do. He created his own death lineup once Kevin Love was sidelined with foul trouble, finding teammates with surgical passes, hitting open jumpers, and exploiting seams in the Warriors defense to drive to the basket. Following J.R. Smith’s, um, exuberant game-opening 30-footer, the Cavaliers offense was the precision machine, their defense was the suffocating swarm. They beat the Warriors by becoming them. It was the Cavaliers who gained confidence by the moment, knowing that if they got open, James would find them, and if they didn’t, he would do it himself.
As the Cavaliers’ confidence grew, Curry’s appeared to falter. He committed silly touch fouls—limiting him to just six minutes in the first quarter. He hit some of his signature deep quick-release threes, but more often sprawled to the floor after misses, looking for calls that rarely came. He even missed a free throw, shooting 8-of-9 from the line on a night that his team shot a not-so-nice 69 percent from the stripe.
James? All he did was dominate. He scored or assisted on 27 straight points into the fourth quarter, until wholesale substitutions ended his run. He even helped Smith redeem himself, throwing down a massive two-handed dunk as the trailer on a no-look Smith oop.
Curry’s and James’ paths crossed in the fourth quarter, the Warriors trailing by 13 with four and a half minutes remaining. Curry found himself with the ball underneath the basket, James on his back. He faked a shot with his right, coming back quickly with his left. James read it the whole way, swatting the shot into the baseline seats and wryly saying something out of the side of his mouth to the visibly frustrated Curry. Ten seconds of game clock later, sixth foul, mouthpiece thrown, ejection. Ballgame.
Curry’s arrogance has been the NBA’s worst-kept secret for over a year now, forgiven because of his success and his baby-faced innocence. He celebrates shots while they’re still in the air—both his and his teammates'—acts up on the bench, gets on officials. If LeBron did some of the things Curry did, we’d never hear the end of it. Yet Curry has gotten away with it again and again and again.
It ended last night, perhaps for good. Maybe this was Curry's heel turn. LeBron James dismantled the Warriors, along with Curry’s aura of cool invincibility. It wasn’t quite painting “TOUCHABLE” on an elevator wall in blood, but it was close. James posted back-to-back 40-point NBA Finals games for the first time since Shaq, put up only the second 40-point, 10-assist finals game in 40 years (the first to do so was also LeBron James), and led the Cavaliers to a Game 7 after trailing 3-1. James has broken many things in his career—records, hearts, the Internet. He’s one game away from breaking Curry and the Warriors, too.