OAKLAND, Calif. -- They had played 335 minutes of basketball, six full games and 47 minutes deep into Game 7 of the NBA Finals on Sunday night. The score was tied -- on the floor at the center of the mayhem at Oracle Arena, and in this series for the ages.
It couldn't have been closer.
The two best basketball teams left standing on the planet, and nobody had scored for more than four minutes. Nobody. In the crucible of Game 7, Kyrie Irving finally shook free of Stephen Curry and ended the drought with a 3-pointer.
It was the opening that LeBron James needed, the sliver of separation that cleared the runway for him to finally chase down what had seemed rightfully his from the day the Cleveland Cavaliers drafted him in 2003.
And from the day he returned to Cleveland 11 years later, after a four-year absence, with a promise of a relationship renewed -- and a drought ended.
"I'm coming home," James said Sunday night, after delivering Cleveland's first championship in 52 years with a 93-89 victory over the Golden State Warriors. "I'm coming home with what I said I was going to do."
He delivered -- his third championship, third Finals MVP and an emphatic end to a championship drought that began before many Cleveland sports fans were born.
"Once we get to a Game 7," James said, "I'll take my chances versus anybody, versus any team. You give me one game, you give me 48 minutes, I'll take my chances."
It wasn't just any team that James and the Cavs had to beat -- just the winningest team in NBA history, the 73-win Warriors -- and they had to do it against unprecedented odds. No team had ever come back from a 3-1 deficit in the Finals -- 0-32 -- until Sunday night.
As the last of those 48 minutes wound down, as the very last of those chances were still there for James to take, perhaps the biggest swing of historic fates in Finals history was still hanging in the balance.
Would a dynasty be born, or would an all-time great be vindicated?
"I came back for a reason," said James, who had his second triple-double of the series with 27 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists to cap the most dominant statistical performance in Finals history. "I came back to bring a championship to our city."
Remember when James and the Cavs were down 3-1, and the drumbeat was beginning once again? James was on the verge of his fourth Finals defeat in six years, and was hearing all about his 2-4 record when facing Finals elimination.
And don't think he didn't hear it. He did.
Now? He's 5-4 when facing Finals elimination, and 2-0 in Game 7s in the Finals. In those nine elimination games, he's averaged 31.8 points, 10.6 rebounds and 8.2 assists.
He fell one basket short -- one basket -- of averaging 30 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists in the Finals for the second straight year. The only human to ever produce those numbers in the Finals even once? LeBron James.
"I watched Beethoven out there tonight," Irving said. "LeBron James composing the game."
His 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 2.6 steals and 2.3 blocks in this series are unprecedented in Finals history. And lo and behold, he has three championships by the age of 31 -- the age after which Michael Jordan won three more.
Think about that.
"Throughout my 13-year career," James said, "I've done nothing but be true to the game. I've given everything I've got to the game, put my heart, my blood, sweat and tears into the game, and people still want to doubt what I'm capable of doing."
The doubters, no doubt, were still lying in wait as the clock on the scoreboard high above the floor at Oracle ticked inside 60 seconds. It was 89-89.
It had been 89-89 for what seemed like an eternity.
Irving had the ball on the wing against Curry and started darting this way and that. He deftly crossed the two-time MVP and stepped back for a 3-point attempt, putting it in with 53 seconds left to give the Cavs a 92-89 lead.
"I'm just hoping it goes in," said Irving, who had 26 points on 10-for-23 shooting. "... I was just thinking, 'The next team that scores has a great chance at winning the championship, and I hope we can be the team that's on that end.'"
In the huddle before the possession, coach Tyronn Lue had said simply this: "One score, one stop."
The sequence that led up to that point was riveting, and so unlike just about every stretch of this incredible series that had preceded it. Between Klay Thompson's driving layup with 4:39 left and Irving's 3-pointer, the ball did not go into either basket. Not once.
Andre Iguodala blocked a driving layup attempt from James. Draymond Green -- brilliant with 32 points and 6-for-8 shooting from 3-point range -- missed a 3-point attempt and helplessly watched as it bounced out of bounds.
Irving missed a tough layup attempt, resulting in a runout for the Warriors -- with James knifing through the paint to swat Iguodala's attempt off the glass. Still 89-89, with 1:50 left.
James missed a jump hook in the lane, and Curry went searching for a dagger at the other end -- like so many daggers he'd hit during his unanimous MVP season, though not here, when it mattered. His 3-point attempt didn't even hit rim. Still 89-89, with 30 seconds left.
Finally, Irving's 3-pointer over Curry, and a 3-point lead for the Cavs with 53 seconds left.
"I don't know how close I was to him," Curry said. "... It was not a good feeling turning around and seeing it go in."
Another miss from Curry set up another Cavs possession -- and a rushed shot from Irving, who got the offensive rebound. James wound up with the ball, and it was as though his whole journey -- from Akron to Cleveland, from Cleveland to Miami and back again -- was unfolding before him as he ruthlessly attacked the rim.
Trying to dunk the ball with a brand of fury only he can unleash. Trying to end Cleveland's championship drought, once and for all.
Green blocked the shot at the rim, and James landed hard on his right arm -- writhing and screaming in pain.
It was worth it. He hit one of two free throws with 10.6 seconds left, and Cleveland was two more 3-point misses from the mighty Warriors away from a celebration that was a half a century in the making.
There would be no Drive, no Fumble, no blown save from Jose Mesa. Just a man and his mission.
"When I came back," James said, "I knew I had the right ingredients, the right blueprint."
He left the interview room, unlit cigar in hand and the net from one of the baskets draped around his neck. LeBron James, a man in full.
A man who got what he came for.