Just nine days ago, everything that unfolded over the next week of the 2016 NBA Finals would’ve seemed utterly preposterous.
Just nine days ago, the Golden State Warriors held a 3-1 lead over the Cleveland Cavaliers. None of the previous 32 teams to lead the NBA Finals 3-1, as the Warriors did, lost the series. Golden State hadn’t lost three consecutive games at any point this season, so the idea of Cleveland coming back from a deficit was laughably unthinkable. And even if the Cavaliers did, somehow, force a Game 7, there was no way they could win. The Warriors held the record for most home wins in a season (50) over the course of the regular season and postseason, and no team had lost a seventh game of the NBA Finals at home since the Seattle SuperSonics in 1978.
And now, just over one week later, the Cleveland Cavaliers are the 2015-2016 NBA Champions.
There are so many story lines one could discuss, in regards to how we got here, and what changed over the course of the past eight days. But many of them will ultimately culminate in the discussion of LeBron James, and how he fulfilled the promise he made in 2014 when he returned to Cleveland, delivering a championship to perhaps the most beleaguered sports city in the United States.
Red Right 88. The Drive. The Fumble. Game 7 against the Marlins. The Decision. James finally gave the city of Cleveland a sports memory to help it overcome it’s haunted past.
To be clear, James might have been the best player on either team throughout the series; it just got lost in the fact that the Cavaliers fell to a 3-1 deficit. But with the stakes at their highest, in Games 5, 6, and 7, he averaged 36.3 points, 11.6 rebounds, and 9.7 assists per game. In Game 7, he had 27 points, 11 points, and 11 rebounds, becoming the first player to record a triple-double in Game 7 of the NBA Finals since James Worthy did it for the Showtime Lakers in 1988.
Golden State simply had no answer for him. The only defensive gameplan that seemed to work for them was hope James would either miss his shot, or pass the ball to one of his teammates. When James put his head down and drove to the basket, there wasn’t one single player on Golden State who could stop him. That opened up lanes for him to utilize the court vision he’s been blessed in abundance with by the basketball gods, whipping the ball to teammates — especially Kyrie Irving — who made back-breaking shot after back-breaking shot over the last three games of the series.
But James dominance transcended the box score. He played tenacious defense. He clogged passing lanes, forcing a good handful of the myriad of turnovers the Warriors had. His swooping blocks that swatted away Warriors fast break layup attempts were just incredible (his block of Andre Iguodala’s layup attempt with three minutes left in Game 7 might’ve been one of the most critical plays in this entire series). And he beat the Warriors psychologically, as the cagey mastermind that helped incite Draymond Green into getting a flagrant foul and subsequent suspension (perhaps turning the tide of the entire series), and the bully who gave Stephen Curry the business after one of the aforementioned swooping blocks.
In general, he was the driving force behind a team that did to Golden State what Warriors did to opponents all season: demoralize their opponent. The Cavaliers counter-punched every time Golden State would start to get a little momentum, destroying all hopes by nailing impossible jumper after impossible jumper. They turned the tables on the Warriors, forcing them to be the ones to jack up bad jump shots to compete. In Game 5 and Game 6, Golden State was uncharacteristically hucking up total garbage at times, hoping for the best. After Game 6, Golden State looked like a fighter who realized, in its core, they can’t beat the guy; they were like Rocky Balboa in his first fight against Clubber Lang. In Game 7, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson — the vaunted “Splash Brothers” — went 12 for 36 shooting, including 6 for 24 from three point range. They were a combined -14 when on the floor.
Of course, as much as the media (and maybe myself?) want to make you think so, this win wasn’t all because of LeBron James. In yet another ironic twist, the Cavaliers were the ones who got the timely contributions from their best role players, especially when it mattered most.
Tristan Thompson averaged double-digit rebounds over the last three games, absolutely owning the glass in Games 5 and 6. He was also locking up Stephen Curry one-on-one for stretches, mirroring what the Oklahoma City Thunder did by putting Kevin Durant or Steven Adams on Curry. J.R. Smith did J.R. Smith things, taking wild shots but making a few when it mattered most. Even the embattled Kevin Love saved his biggest contributions for last, adding nine points and 14 rebounds in Game 7, and totally locking up Curry with second ticking off the clock for a Warriors comeback.
And as much as I absolutely despise the player — and believe me, he’s on my top five “players I actively root against in every way, shape, and form” — no conversation about the Cavaliers comeback can be had without mentioning Kyrie Irving. Irving went from being a Stephon Marbury-esque bad-shot-jacking black hole that was openly, soundly, and rightfully scored by the media, to becoming the player the Cavaliers envisioned getting when they took him with the #1 overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft. He was every bit the Batman to James’ Superman, making clutch shot after clutch shot over the last three games. His Robert Horry-esque three pointer from 25 feet out, with 53 second left in the game, basically clinched the title for the Cavaliers; until that point, both teams had missed a combined 12 shots over a three-and-a-half minute span. Over these last three games, he was the most devastating scorer among all 24 guys on both rosters (he averaged 30 points per game over the last three games). There’s no two ways about it: he was light years more dangerous than Curry — the reigning league MVP — when shooting the basketball.
But ultimately, this was about LeBron James channeling Bryan “Birdman” Williams, and demanding that we put some “Respek on his name.” When the Warriors were up 3-1 and everyone around the country questioned the legacy of LeBron, demanding the “greatness” that’s supposed to be synonymous with his game, he cemented his legacy. He turned the supposed “Greatest Team of All Time” into the 2007 Patriots: a fun historical footnote that history will have a hard time remembering.
The historical ramifications of the Cavaliers title can’t be understated. LeBron James is now tied the legendary Larry Bird with three NBA titles, perhaps cementing his legacy as the greatest small forward of all time. He’s tied Magic Johnson, with three Bill Russell awards: given to the MVP of the NBA Finals.
And there won’t be any more discussions as to whether he was able to be the force that brought a championship to the city where his journey began.