Published June 17, 2016
CLEVELAND (AP) The level of tension is growing rapidly for the Golden State Warriors. Someone gets suspended, someone gets hurt, someone gets ejected, and lots of someones make no effort to hide their frustration. A comfortable two-game lead in the NBA Finals becomes a dicey one-game lead, then no lead at all.
The biggest moment awaits.
The biggest challenge does, too.
Shots aren't falling for the Warriors at the same rate they were in the regular season, stops aren't coming like they were a couple months ago either, the aches and pains are piling up and what looked like a sure-fire title not long ago is at best a shaky proposition now. Game 7 of the finals is on Sunday against the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Golden State is hoping being at home helps deliver a championship-saving elixir.
''Things haven't gone our way despite how the regular season went,'' Warriors guard Stephen Curry said. ''The playoffs haven't been easy. Hasn't been a breeze. Hasn't been anything perfect about it. So, yeah, it's frustrating, but the work we've put in and the opportunity we've given ourselves with a Game 7 to win the finals at home, you've got to be excited about that.''
The Warriors got questions for months - starting around December, believe it or not - about whether they were concerned that the strain of chasing Chicago's 72-win mark that stood as the NBA's gold standard for 20 years would leave them ailing or fatigued at playoff time.
Questions like those seem a bit more valid now.
To be clear, Andrew Bogut's left knee didn't become susceptible to season-ending bone bruises because of how difficult becoming the league's first 73-win regular-season team was; J.R. Smith crashing into him in Game 5 of this series took care of that. Curry's combination of fouling out, mouthpiece-throwing and getting ejected in Game 6 on Thursday night wasn't because the first 82 games left him tired and cranky. And the Warriors' inability to corral LeBron James in this series can be best explained by acknowledging again that when James is at his best he's the most unstoppable force in the game.
The grind of March and April has nothing to do with any of that.
But it can certainly be argued that even though the Warriors spent about half the season without head coach Steve Kerr while he recovered from back surgeries and got every opponent's best shot in every game - such is life for reigning champions - the playoffs have delivered more challenges in 20something games (including a 3-1 deficit in the Western Conference finals against Oklahoma City) than the first 82 offered combined.
''I think if you start out every season and you say `We get a Game 7, we get one game at home to win the NBA championship,' I'll take it every time,'' Kerr said. ''So I can't wait for Sunday. I think we'll be fine. Obviously Cleveland has played well the last two games, and we've got to play better. But I'm confident we will. We're in a spot that 29 other teams would love to be in.''
Kerr got fined $25,000 on Friday for being critical of referees after Golden State's loss in Game 6, and Curry got fined another $25,000 for throwing his mouthpiece into the stands after fouling out of that game.
If the Warriors - who are still steamed that Draymond Green was suspended for Game 5 because he accrued one too many flagrant fouls in this postseason - find calls more to their liking in Game 7, that'll be money extremely well spent.
''We're going to need some emotion and some grit and toughness,'' said Curry, who noted the Warriors are already 3-0 in elimination games this season.
Their problems go deeper than officiating issues, though. The Warriors don't have a single starter shooting 50 percent in this series, are clearly a different defensive team with Bogut sidelined, have 2015 Finals MVP Andre Iguodala playing with wince-inducing lower back soreness, have yielded two straight 41-point games to James and are in their first extended slide of the season - losing three times in a four-game span.
If shots fall at their usual clip on Sunday, the Warriors will probably win.
Otherwise, a team that looks like it's limping to the finish could see its reign end.
''We all realize if you told us at the beginning of the season it would be one game to win the championship in Oakland, we'll take that any day of the week,'' shooting guard Klay Thompson said. ''We've just got to come Sunday with the mindset of leave it all out there, every man on this team. No hero ball, just do it as a team like we've been doing it all year.''