My family moved from Connecticut to Northeast Ohio when I was ten years old in the fall of 1995, which, if you know anything about Cleveland sports history, was a pretty monumental time for the team on the south shores of Lake Erie. The Indians were on their way to the World Series. The Browns were on their way to Baltimore. And down in Columbus Eddie George was running all over the Big Ten on his way to winning the Heisman Trophy. It was not very difficult for young kid who already had a pretty sizable love for sports to get hooked on the local teams. To that point I had never been much of a basketball fan, but I figured if I was living in Cleveland I might as well make the Cavs my team.
I don’t remember which year it was that I went to my first game, at what was then called The Gund Arena, whether it was 1995-96 or the next season. Either way, at the time the Cavs young up-and-coming player was a white kid out of Florida State named Bobby Sura. And it was something this young exciting player who would go on to compete in the Slam Dunk contest did that stands out in my mind forever as the only thing I can recall from that first game (other than the random fat guy sitting next to me offering me his binoculars so I could look at the cheerleaders). It was an unassuming moment in the game, not high pressure or anything, and the ball was being inbounded from the baseline to Sura to bring the ball up court and initiate the Cavs offense. Without any pressure from a defender, Sura dribbled the ball off his foot and out of bounds. I didn’t know a ton about basketball back then but I knew enough to realize that was about as embarrassing as it gets.
I also knew in that moment and remember thinking “Well, this is my team. For better or worse.”
The interests of kids can be super fickle and it’s certainly not unheard of for pre-teen’s rooting interests in sports to shift from year to year. And I will willingly cop to the fact that I had a string of different favorite NBA players and none of them played for Cleveland. I loved watching Hakeem play. Then it was Iverson. Then Tracy McGrady. I got really into Darius Miles (who did eventually come to Cleveland and was terrible—turns out it’s usually pretty good if your shooting guard can, you know, shoot) and that super fun Clippers team that also had Quentin Richardson, Elton Brand, Corey Maggette, and Lamar Odom. But in spite of having favorite players sprinkled throughout the league, there was never a question that my favorite team was the Cleveland Cavaliers.
And let’s be honest, can you really blame me? Those Cavs teams weren’t exactly littered with stars. We had Terrell Brandon for a while who was really exciting until they traded him to get Shawn Kemp who then got fat. Big Z was always injured. Andre Miller was certainly good but his cerebral talents were wasted on a team that started Chris Mihm and Lamond Murray among other middling players. As I got into high school the Cavs drafted “the next Shaq” in Desagana Diop who, spoiler alert, didn’t exactly live up to that billing. The next season they drafted “the next Allen Iverson” Dajaun Wagner who also didn’t end up being anything close to that (though, no real fault of his own thanks to some really bizarre injuries and illnesses).
It was into this quagmire of perpetual losing and going-nowhereness that the Cavs found new life. They finished tied for the worst record in the NBA my senior year in high school and everyone knew who the prize was for winning the draft lottery. I’ll never forget, we had a baseball game that day and instead of taking the slow ride on the bus back my dad drove me home from the game so I could get back in time to watch it. When the cards were unveiled and it was realized that my hometown team had just won the right to draft the hometown superstar it was like my fandom for the Cavs finally had meaning and purpose.
Fast-forward 12 years. I don’t need to rehash everything that’s happened since then. It’s was great until it sucked. Then it was the worst. And now…
Now is the best.
Winning the “LeBron Lottery” was really exciting. Winning the Eastern Conference Finals by knocking off that defensive machine of a Detroit Pistons team was unreal at the time. LeBron announcing he was coming home last summer was beautiful and surreal.
But none of those moments compare to last night, which easily was the biggest win in Cleveland Cavaliers history.
The Game 3 win over the Golden State Warriors was something of a microcosm for this entire Cavs postseason run. Some guys got injured along the way (Shumpert went out for a while, LeBron came up limp and had to call a time out, Delly had to sit for a while in the fourth before going to the hospital for dehydration after the game) but through it they kept on playing and looked unbeatable when they pressed their lead out to 20 late in the third quarter. Then, as it often happens against this Warriors team, things turned seemingly in an instant. In the blink of an eye the lead was down to one and it looked like Steph Curry had re-gained his confidence. But when everything seemed like it was slipping away, the Cavs beared down and gutted out another tough win, staking themselves to a 2-1 series lead in the NBA Finals.
What this Cavs team has been able to do since losing both Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving is nothing short of incredible. Going into Game 2 the Warriors were 6.5 to 1 favorites to win the title. People were predicting a sweep. No one knew how the Cavs could possibly muster enough offense to beat this great Warriors team.
But while analytics and predictability and conventional wisdom are all saying one thing, this Cavaliers team has refused to believe any of it. This gritty identity they’ve bad-lucked themselves into has taken on a life of its own and it’s proving to be the Kryptonite for Golden State. The relentless defensive pressure, dominance on the boards, and slow plodding pace has worn down the Warriors players who thrive on playing fast and loose. It got to the point in Game 3 where Steve Kerr broke that “In Case of Emergency” glass that has held David Lee for most of this season. That change had a big impact on the game and Lee played well on offense but I read that as a positive sign for Cleveland—the Warriors are the team grasping at straws, trying to keep a hold on the series as it slips away. Dramond Green, so instrumental to Golden State’s identity (especially on defense) this season, has been rendered almost useless. Andrew Bogut can’t match up with Mozgov who is basically eating the former No. 1 overall pick’s lunch. The Cavs have basically told Green and Andre Iguodala that they can shoot as much as they like because they aren’t the ones who can really hurt the Cavs in the long run. Harrison Barnes is a complete waste at this point and it shouldn’t shock anyone to see him get benched in favor of Iguodala, who can at least play defense. When Barnes has been matched up on LeBron the Cavs star has been able to get really whatever shot he wants. And Barnes isn’t doing anything on offense to make up for his negative defensive play. Check out Barnes stat line from last night (warning, this may be NSFW and if there are children in the room you may want to have them leave): 19 MIN, 0 PTS, 0-8 FG, 3 REB, 0 AST, 0 BLK, 0 STL, 3 TO, 2 PF, -14 +/-. Klay Thompson is the only Warriors player who has performed with anything resembling what he did in the regular season and playoffs leading up to the Finals, but even he disappears for stretches under the hounding of Iman Shumpert.
Matthew Dellavedova, while he may not be a “Steph Stopper” per se, is certainly making life miserable for the insurance salesman and he’s doing it on both ends of the court. For a guy who is generally even-keeled emotionally, Curry’s body language screams frustration. His body is slack during dead ball situations and he shakes his head whenever something doesn’t go his way—which has happened quite often thus far. It’s as if he can’t come to grips with the fact that an undrafted Australian kid with no basketball pedigree is giving him this much trouble. Delly can’t stop Curry because no one can really do that. But he’s making everything as difficult as possible and that’s been one of the biggest keys to the Cavs success in this series.
But that fourth quarter last night is of course what you always worry about with the Warriors…they can look completely broken and then in an instant they’ve snapped themselves back to life. Had they not gotten hot in the fourth quarter and put up 36 points after mustering only 55 through the first three quarters, they may not have been able to find the will to win another game in this series. So nothing is over.
Even still, many of their players appear to be teetering on the edge. And that is likely due in large part to the fact that the Cavs never seem down. Cleveland led wire-to-wire last night, which is almost unheard of in a Finals game. But this rag-tag bunch of overachieving misfits believes that it’s better than it is. Is that all attributable to LeBron? Probably a lot. David Blatt certainly deserves some credit, especially for the defense. And while one could quibble with some of the match-ups and decisions that Blatt has made, no one can make the case that he’s made a panicked decision or that something he’s done has really cost the team to this point.
LeBron is obviously the best player in the world and without him the Cavs wouldn’t be here. But what makes LeBron the best is that, more than any player, he makes everyone around him better. And not just “better” in the sense that they look better because they’re playing with LeBron. He helps them to perform better. This team is the living embodiment of “a team that is better collectively than the sum total of its parts.” Prior to the series most people would have ascribed that title to the Warriors. If fact, coming in and especially after the Cavs lost Kyrie, many people called this a battle of a great team against a great player. And while that’s true in a sense it continues to belittle what makes this Cavaliers team so great and so much fun to root for. Because it isn’t just one guy. It’s one guy driving a collective team to outstanding success. As great as LeBron is he couldn’t do this without other great perimeter defenders like Delly and Shump. He couldn’t do it without outstanding rebounding coming from Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov. He couldn’t do it without dangerous shooters in JR Smith and James Jones. He couldn’t do it without a locker room full of players who have been there before like Shawn Marion, Mike Miller, Kendrick Perkins, and Brendan Haywood.
He couldn’t do it without rookie Joe Harris who carries everyone’s luggage. He couldn’t do it without a coaching staff that has empowered him and has put the right pieces on the court and orchestrated a great defensive scheme. He couldn’t do it without a GM that was willing to make some tough decisions on some moves that have proved masterful in putting a complete team on the court in spite of numerous injuries that would cripple most teams.
LeBron is great, and he’s carrying huge load, but isn’t doing it all himself.
One of my favorite podcasts is The Moment with Brian Koppelman. On his show Koppelman (the writer of Rounders, a couple of the Ocean’s movies, among other things) interviews accomplished people from all walks of life from athletes to chefs to comedians to writers and musicians. (Among the seemingly unconnected people he’s sat down with are Baron Davis, Seth Meyers, and Dave Ramsey.) He likes to examine the inflection points (or “moments” as the title aptly describes) in their lives where things could have gone one way or another. Inevitably, each individual went a direction that lead him or her to accomplish great things. Koppelman’s over-riding theory is that people who accomplish great things process the inflection points in their lives differently than most people. He believes that they are, in some way, driven by adversity or obstacles or the doubts of others to achieve great heights where others may have given up on their dreams.
The “moment” for this Cavaliers team, I believe, were the two days after Game 1 of the Finals. Golden State had played a bad game but were able to pull out the win in overtime because the Cavs blew a late fourth quarter lead and then couldn’t throw the ball in the ocean in OT. Almost every single talking head brought up that that was the game Cleveland needed to win because there was no way the Warriors were going to play that poorly again. And then it was announced that Kyrie had suffered a broken knee cap and was out for the rest of the series.
So here are the Cavs…they had come into the series undermanned without Kevin Love and as underdogs. Then they blew a game they should have won. Then they lost their second best player. Talking heads wondered aloud whether Dellavedova might be the worst player to ever start an NBA Finals game. A sweep was almost expected by most and the thought of the Cavs winning was almost laughable.
No one would have blamed the Cavs players for believing they couldn’t win and basically played out the string and went home. How could anyone win with what was left on the team? They could have blamed curses or just bad luck and said “better luck next year” and packed it in.
But they didn’t. They accept that they had been dealt a crappy hand but they made the best out of it. If any of the Cavs players actually believed that they didn’t have a chance they certainly didn’t play like it. They took the challenged, listened to the disrespect and allowed it all to serve as fuel for the court. They hit the moment, that inflection point, and have only gotten better as a team because of it.
After Game 3 we of course heard the predictable stats about how the team that wins Game 3 when the series is tied 1-1 goes on to win the series however many times out of whatever. That stat, along with any notion that the Cavs are sitting pretty because they stole homecourt advantage, is of course mostly useless. Both the Cavs and Warriors were in this same position in the second round that Golden State now sits in being down 2-1 after “losing” homecourt advantage. Both teams not only went to win those series (obviously, because they’re in the Finals) but they did so winning three straight. So while it’s better to be up 2-1 than down 1-2, this series is far from over. Every game is huge in the playoffs, especially in the Finals.
On the importance of every game in the NBA Finals, LeBron summed it up well last night: “The next game is the most important game.”
And I believe the Cavs will win that game. Because I believe in this Cavs team. They’ve embodied the heart and soul of the city of Cleveland and have imposed their will upon their opponent. I’ve maintained it the whole time…
Cavs in six.