Ethan J. Skolnick

More than you’d think is at stake in Sunday’s NBA Finals Game 7

So much is on the line for Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry, right, and Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James in Game 7 of the NBA Finals on Sunday night.
So much is on the line for Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry, right, and Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James in Game 7 of the NBA Finals on Sunday night. AP

There is a presidential candidate in this political cycle who likes to say he has “the best words,” but those in the sports arena know a couple that could trump any that a politician could say.

Think of how many times you’ve heard this from Heat coach Erik Spoelstra:

“The two best words in team sports: Game Seven.”

You might think of a few, because Spoelstra has said it repeatedly, whether in June 2013 prior to the NBA Finals series finale against the Spurs, or this April before the first-round decider against Charlotte, or this May ahead of the second-round disaster against Toronto.

And someone else just said it too, someone who tends to talk like his former coach at times.

“Two of the best words ever,” Cavaliers forward LeBron James said before winning Game 6 and taking this NBA Finals against Golden State to the limit. “Game 7.”

That Game 7 is Sunday in Oakland at 8 p.m. EDT, the 19th time in league history that the NBA Finals has gone the distance and the fourth time this millennium — and the first ever in which the teams had scored the same number of points through six games. And, if the Cavaliers win, they would be the first team in NBA Finals history — and just the 11th in history — to rally from a 3-1 deficit to win the series.

But history isn’t all that’s at stake.

Nor are the participants the only ones with anything to gain or lose, though they have plenty.

Let’s run it down, as the Cavaliers and Warriors get ready to run at each other one last time this season.

What’s on the line for everyone involved, and even some watching?

▪ LeBron James: Best-player-in-the-world coronation. Again. Unequivocally. If he closes this out with another masterpiece — following back-to-back 41-point performances — any argument is not merely over, but it also would feel forced and foolish in retrospect, similar to times that Karl Malone and even Clyde Drexler were cast as rivals to Michael Jordan. What were we thinking to anoint anyone else?

▪ Stephen Curry: Validation for his sacred status. It’s one thing to shatter three-point records, put on the best pregame show since Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were bombing baseballs in batting practice and capture back-to-back MVP Awards. It’s another to star on this stage. He hasn’t, at least not consistently to his standard. But if he can turn the trauma of Game 6 — in which he showed frustration not befitting the league’s smiling face — into a terrific, terrorizing Game 7, he could go back into the bubble for a bit.

▪ Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes, Kevin Love: Insulation from infamy. This series is probably over if Green could have kept his hands and feet to himself throughout the playoffs, without accumulating the flagrant points that forced him out of Game 5. Then he looked disconnected in Game 6. Barnes has missed 20 of his 22 shots over the past two games, not only wrecking the Warriors’ offense but also damaging his shot at a free agent payday. And Love? Well, all that’s been clear in this series is that the Cavaliers look better without him, whether he’s out with a concussion or with foul trouble. All three players have one last chance to change a label (whether it’s “stupid” or “shaken” or “soft”) that won’t be easily lost.

▪ Analytic-ians: The new-age basketball punditry has staked much of its calculator credibility in these Warriors, based on the idea that “three is better than two.” And although the Cavaliers also shoot well from behind the arc, they’re more traditional at their core, with two dynamic one-on-one players. If the Cavaliers complete the comeback, many old-schoolers — who have felt their way of basketball life threatened by Golden State — will thank James in particular for Making the NBA Great Again.

▪ Pat Riley: Yeah, him. And other executives in the Eastern Conference such as Boston’s Danny Ainge, who wanted to recruit Kevin Durant this summer. The Thunder nearly beat the Warriors in the Western Conference finals before squandering a 3-1 lead. Now, if the Cavaliers do it, how can anyone convince Durant that the path to the Finals is clearer in the East, on James’ side? And also, how does Riley sell that Miami has a magic championship touch if James wins a title for another city?

▪ #TeamPetty: That’s the Twitter hashtag for the Heat fans who have invested their hearts, souls and scowls in this series, those who want James’ only championship memories to be the memories they share, those who are justifiably worried that the national media will diminish what happened here in comparison with what James has done in Cleveland.

For them, these two words — Game 7 — were best avoided.