The Cleveland Cavaliers’ Unlikely NBA Championship
A look at the historical, dramatic storyline behind one of the greatest NBA series in basketball history.
By Kevin Cordon, UC Irvine
Regardless of who won Game 7 Sunday night, we knew we would be witnessing history.
With a Cleveland win, we’d be seeing the first time a team has ever come back from a 3-1 deficit to win a Finals series, an undoubted future hall-of-famer coming through on his promise to win a trophy for his city and a story of sweet revenge.
With a Golden State win, we’d be able to wrap a bow on the most successful season in NBA history, accomplished by the best shooting team in history that couldn’t seem to stop breaking records this year.
Unfortunately for the Bay Area, there was no bow, just a myriad of crying Jordan memes and the heartbreaking image of Lebron James and Kyrie Irving clutching the Larry O’ Brien trophy at Oracle Arena.
The Cavs won what was possibly one of the weirdest, yet entertaining Finals series ever behind the supreme talents that are Kyrie Irving and Lebron James. Sure, Tristan Thompson, Kevin Love and the rest of the ragtag bunch played roles, but their defensive deficiencies were overshadowed by the offensive brilliance of Irving, and James’ relentless willpower to bring a championship back home to Ohio.
Two games into the Finals it was presumed to be all over, every sports show in the country talking about the Cavs’ insurmountable 2-0 deficit. They just didn’t have the talent to match up with the Warriors, defensively they were too vulnerable and the home court advantage was too large of a hill to climb.
They were blown out twice at Oracle to start the series, the Warriors were rolling, moving the ball well and proving that their mantra, “strength in numbers,” wasn’t just words on their fan’s shirts. Golden State won those games without MVP performances from Curry, who failed to score over 20 points in either, a travesty that Lebron James would never be able to live down in a Finals series. It was the bench and the Warriors’ brand of team basketball that blew the Cavs out and bailed out Steph Curry’s struggling offensive performances.
Then came Game 3, which has been an Achilles heel for the Warriors during this playoff run, and this Game 3 was by far the worst. Blown out by 30 and out-rebounded by 20, the Warriors were dominated by the Cavs in Cleveland, a loss that sounded a small alarm in the minds of Warriors’ players, alerting them that Kyrie Irving wouldn’t be watching from a hospital bed this time.
The team from Oakland was poor in Cleveland for Game 3, which turned out to be Harrison Barnes’ only good game this entire series. Curry was relatively silent, Klay Thompson was MIA and the rest of the team just couldn’t muster up the offensive push without them.
On the other side of the floor, Cleveland played like it was a Game 7, winning every loose ball and hunting Curry down wherever he tried to find space. The Cavs came alive, even without Kevin Love, who missed the game after Harrison Barnes’ elbow caught the back of his head in Game 2.
Another game, another blowout, this time thought it was only by 11 and it was the Warriors doing the winning. Game 4 was a nice time for the unanimous back-to-back MVP of the league to show up, scoring 38 points and silencing the slander he’d been receiving through the first three games.
Again, the Cleveland championship curse loomed and the doubters rose again, touting the statistic that no team had ever come back from a 3-1 deficit in an NBA Finals series. But what those people neglected to consider is that they were doubting Lebron James, one of the greatest basketball players of all time, who at times I doubt is even human.
In the final three games of the series Lebron James was phenomenal, precisely when Cleveland needed him to be.
Every weapon in his arsenal was on display. He used his human-bulldozer frame to manufacture space and shots for himself and his teammates. He took on the Warriors’ challenge and knocked down the midrange jump shots they dared him to take when cutting off his driving lanes. Most importantly, he made the plays that champions make: diving for loose balls, taking heavy contact when contesting shots at the rim and igniting a championship-thirsty team with chase-down blocks and poster-worthy dunks.
The performances he provided were similar to last year’s Finals when he single-handedly kept the Cavs in contention; but where last year Lebron came up short, this year he had help. Kyrie Irving shined in these Finals after two absent performances in Oakland to start the series off. Perhaps still haunted by the thought of Kehlani, he wasn’t himself on his first trip to Oracle, but provided the offense the Cavs needed the rest of the way.
Despite Klay Thompson & Co cowering over him every time he touched the ball, Kyrie managed to salsa dance his way through, around and behind the defense. His footwork and ability to finish at the rim helped keep the Cavaliers in the series, but it was his 3-point shooting and clutch shots that helped bring the trophy home to Cleveland.
The Warriors should be given their due credit. They fought hard to go up 3-1, but just didn’t want it as much as Cleveland and let it slip through their grasp. Over their final three defeats of the season, Golden State showed glimpses of the team that won an NBA-record 73 games in a season, but looked fatigued, mentally and physically. Worn down by an exhausting season and a grueling journey through the Western Conference, the Warriors couldn’t muster a single shot in the final 4 minutes of the NBA Finals, going 0-9 with the score tied 89-89. All that was left after that was to watch Cleveland celebrate, bringing joy to a city with fond memories of what Warriors fans are feeling right now.
Now every championship comes with an asterisk, a list of things and circumstances that made the path easier for the winning team. The Cavaliers had one for when they lost to the Warriors last year, and Golden State fans are already returning the favor.
Stephen Curry wasn’t fully healthy. Andrew Bogut was injured and didn’t play in Game 6 or 7. The refs favored the Cavs, calling ticky-tack fouls on Curry, but let the Cavs grab and hold him at every opportunity. The Cavs had a gentle stroll through the Eastern Conference on their way to the finals. DRAYMOND GREEN SHOULD NOT HAVE BEEN SUSPENDED FOR GAME 6.
These things may be true, but they don’t matter now. They are all part of the game, a game, that when it came down to crunch time, they lost. The Warriors, with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green on the floor for the final minutes of a tied game 7, couldn’t hit the shots when they meant the most.
The Cleveland Cavaliers just wanted it more. Lebron James wanted it more. Kyrie Irving wanted it more. They were out for revenge and got just that, ending a 52-year championship drought for the city of Cleveland. Lebron played like his legacy depended on it, cementing himself among basketball royalty. He won his third NBA Finals MVP award, with back-to-back 41-point performances and a Game 7 triple-double, dominating each stat category among all the players that played in the series. But he won’t care about any of that, because he finally did what he promised he would: “win one for the ‘land.”