This is the biggest game in sports right now, the Cavaliers against the Warriors, Lebron and Kyrie and Kevin Love against Steph and Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, Mr. Congeniality. They played all the way until the last seconds of Game 7 last June and will only play once more this season between now and when they meet again in the next NBA Finals, unless an injury stops that from happening, or an Act of Congress. On Sunday afternoon in Cleveland, they played what felt like Game 8 of the last Finals, and this time it was Kyrie Irving doing exactly what he did to the Warriors in Game 7, and making the shot that beat them, this time by a point.
There has always been this boneheaded notion that somehow LeBron can't be the most complete player of all time, which he is, because somebody like Kyrie can make these shots, as if they're the only ones that matter in games like the ones we watched on Christmas; as if the kind of dunk that LeBron threw down not long before Kyrie's shot against Thompson on Sunday was some sort of sidebar. If you still think that, you're missing a great movie.
In addition to everything else, LeBron James is the best teammate in the game, and so on the Cavs' last possession, LeBron did what we all did and watched Kyrie Irving -- who had just chased down a play to make a steal the way LeBron chased down Andre Iguodala and produced the most famous and rousing block in the history of the Finals in Game 7 -- bring the ball up and then end up on the right side against Thompson.
"Just trying to get to my spot," Irving would say on television in the first moments after the game, talking about what a good defender Thompson is and how he knew had to "fade away." Which he did, like he was willing to fall all the way back to home plate at Progressive Field next door, if that's what he needed to go do create enough space between him and Thompson.
Somehow he made the shot. Not as big as the one in Game 7 that won the title for the Cavaliers. Not as deep. But when he went into the air, it looked as if it were more likely that Thompson would block the shot than Irving would get it to the rim. Shot went down. Caught some rim going through the net. But went down. And Cleveland, which had come all the way back from 14 down in the second half, was up a point.
"Everybody wants a game on Christmas," Irving would say.
But there was still enough time for the Warriors -- 3.4 seconds left. All day long, all the way until the end, the Warriors had managed to keep the lead. It was three or four or five or eight. The Cavs would make a move on them, and somehow the Warriors would stay away, like a smart fighter.
Once, you knew the last shot would go to Stephen Curry or Thompson. But now Kevin Durant is on the team, and he'd had a big game in his first game as a Warrior against the LeBrons. Curry had just made a huge three, but there had also been this dumpster fire of a possession, and the Warriors had thrown the ball too late to Thompson in the left corner, and he couldn't beat the shot clock with a 3-pointer he actually made.
Durant or Steph now, or the other Splash Brother, Thompson?
The ball went to Durant on the left side, guarded by old Richard Jefferson, who had made a dunk down the stretch you didn't think he could make anymore. It was a bad place for Durant to get the ball, running away from the baseline on the left sideline, Jefferson running with him. It looked as if Jefferson stepped on Durant's foot, or the side of his foot, just enough, and then Durant was stumbling, like a guy falling down a hill, and you knew it was over. All he could do before he hit the ground was fling the ball at the basket.
"One stop," Kyrie Irving had said.
The Cavs got the stop in Game 8, the same as they did in Game 7. Kyrie made a shot again. He ended up with 25 points on a day when he only went 11-for-27 from the field. He also had 10 assists. LeBron had 31 points to go with 13 rebounds. Durant scored 36 for the Warriors on the day when he joined this rivalry, Klay Thompson had 24. Only Curry wasn't up to the occasion, with just 15 points, and big, long stretches of the game when he seemed to disappear.
Cavs 109, Warriors 108. One more game between now and the Finals. There are older rivalries than this in pro sports, and you know them all. You saw the majesty of Ohio State and Michigan in college football a month ago. But this is the best one right now. This is the best game. Of course a lot can happen between now and June, and the third act of the amazing basketball drama they have produced in the last two NBA Finals. You saw what LeBron did in 2015 when it was him against the world, after Kyrie and Kevin Love got hurt. You saw what happened the last time, when the Warriors, who had won their 73 games during the regular season, were up three games to one.
Only plenty happened after that. Draymond Green got suspended for a game when the Warriors had a chance to make it two titles in a row at home. The league had told him to wise up and he didn't and he will wonder for the rest of his career what might have happened if he had played that night. He didn't. And then came Game 7. Then came LeBron's block and Kyrie's shot and Cleveland was a champion again in pro sports for the first time in 52 years.
They met up again on Christmas Day, before the regular season was halfway finished, and they produced a game like this. It was one of those days. They were only playing for the championship of each other. If the two teams do meet up again in June, they will do something that even Larry Bird and Magic Johnson never did: play three NBA Finals in a row against each other.
Other rivalries, all over sports, all of them something to see at their best. Other big games. Just not like this one, not right now. Not Cavs vs. Warriors. Everybody wants a game on Christmas, Kyrie said. They gave us one. Last present of the day.