Tag Archives: David Blatt

The Team, The Moment, and the Greatest Win in Cavaliers History

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.

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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.

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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.

Believeland.

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NBA Finals Preview: The Cleveland Underdogs

“Individual commitment to a group effort – that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.”
Vince Lombardi

I generally don’t consider myself a brilliant writer or anything. I enjoy writing and a couple people have told me that I’m not terrible at it, so that helps. But every once in a while I stumble upon something that even I think is kind of smart.

That is how I feel about the post I wrote ahead of the Eastern Conference Finals. The point of the piece was that this Cavaliers team, beat up and broken and with some unexpected pieces playing major roles, is the exact team that both Cleveland as a city and LeBron James as a player deserve.

The common narrative going into the Hawks series (which continued even during and after) was the idea that it was a matchup of the “team” (the Hawks) against the “individual” (LeBron). And while LeBron was clearly the best player in that series dismantling (averaging nearly a triple double) what bore out through those four games is that this Cavaliers squad is more than just one player. They really are a team. It takes a team to pick up the slack when you are without two All-Star players. It takes a team to play stifling defense and shut down the “machine” that the Atlanta offense was up until they ran into the Cavs. It takes a team to be tougher both mentally and physically than your opponent. It takes a team to sweep a conference finals series.

Cleveland, as a city, is never the favorite for anything. Put aside for a moment that we haven’t won a major sports championship in 51 years. Cleveland from an economic, cultural, political, and societal standpoint is an underdog. About the only thing we’re really good at is being cheaper than other cities for The Avengers to set up shop, destroy, and pretend that they’re saving New York City.

It’s only fitting then that going into the Finals, against a very formidable foe in Golden State, the Cavs actually are the underdogs. As if any team heading into the championship of their given sport—let alone a LeBron-lead one—needs an added incentive to play great, it never hurts to be the betting underdog in Vegas. The Warriors are greater than 2/1 odds to win the championship…which is just fine. Because these Cavaliers were born to be underdogs.

The underdog role suits Cleveland and suits those who call it home. It’s an interesting paradox that the most famous person who calls Northeast Ohio “home” is the one person who is the opposite of an underdog. From the time people began to learn the name LeBron James he was expected to be great. And more than probably any other person with lofty expectations placed on them from an early age, LeBron has met and exceeded them all. And yet, LeBron loves to play the underdog role, and it’s a large part of what makes him great. (That and the fact that God made him 6’8”, 250 pounds with absurd speed, strength, and quickness.)

LeBron’s humble beginnings in the projects of Akron with a single mother struggling to makes ends meet is well documented. The hard work and determination and need to rely on others for help is what LeBron has credited driving his great success. He’s the athlete that you would create in a lab, made to physically dominate all on-comers, and yet he understands what Lombardi was talking about in that quote I used as the intro to this post: it takes a team to win. LeBron didn’t have a team around him when all was said and done a year ago in the Finals as his Heat teammates crumbled under the pressure of the what was the epitome of a team in the 2014 Spurs. LeBron recognized it early on with Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters (RIP) and pushed the individuals on the team to work as one unit. LeBron has done for and with Iman Shumpert and JR Smith was Carmelo Anthony never could—he’s made them part of something bigger than their individual talents. This Cavaliers team has played this postseason with the tenacity and teamwork of an underdog. And the fact is, the individuals who make up the team are underdogs in their own way.

We’ve already covered how LeBron is (and also is not) an underdog. Kyrie is probably the least uderdoggy player on the team outside of LeBron because of his immense skill and everything he’s already accomplished in his young career. But put up against Steph Curry? That’s a different story. Especially given his injuries struggles Kyrie will have a really hard time matching up with Curry defensively, let alone trying to match is scoring production on the other end.

Tristan Thompson, for starters, is from Canada (and no pun was intended equating “Starters” and “Canada” I swear—Pew! Pew!) and no offense to the great white north but it hasn’t exactly been hoops hotbed for very long. Add that to the fact that he’s not super skilled, relies heavily on his energy and hard work, and only recently discovered he’d been shooting with the wrong hand his whole life, and Tristan is the prototypical underdog on the team…if it weren’t for a certain Aussie.

Matthew Dellavedova is from another country (also a place not known for pumping out ballers), went to St. Mary’s, went undrafted, and has only barely held onto a roster spot on this team if you believe Twitter during the regular season. Like Tristan, Delly also has to bust his butt for everything he gets. Only that character quality has been sullied by people who aren’t willing to work as hard and want to call what he does “dirty” which remains the stupidest thing I’ve heard these entire playoffs and I’ve had to listen to a lot of Reggie Miller, Jeff Van Gundy, and Mark Jackson so that’s saying something.

Shumpert and JR were midseason cast-offs from one of the worst teams in the NBA. The Knicks considered them sunk costs and only got back cuttable contracts and a second round draft pick in return—so basically nothing. Shump and JR were considered essentially worthless to the largest market team in the NBA, but have proved to be invaluable to one of the smallest. The two shooting guards have done nothing but thrive since they’ve come to Cleveland and have been (and will continue to be) huge parts of the Cavs’ success this postseason.

Timofey Mozgov is still best known for having his last name turned into an action verb by Blake Griffin. And despite recently being buried on the center depth chart in Denver behind JaVale McGee of all people, Mozgov has looked like the missing piece to the Cavs defense. He’s the anchor. The rock. And with Tristan he makes up part of a terrifying duo on the boards. Don’t sleep on him in those pick and rolls either.

And then, just like everyone expected when they signed him for the minimum this past summer, there’s James Jones. I, like many other NBA fans I expect, was a little surprised to learn after the close of the sweep of the Hawks that Jones, along with LeBron of course, was also headed to his fifth straight NBA Finals. Given that he never saw the court the past several seasons in Miami I had no idea he was still on those teams. You could have told me he’d been cut two years ago off that team I never would have known the difference. He couldn’t get on the court for those teams and even with this Cavs team they clearly signed Shawn Marion and Mike Miller to play bigger roles. And yet, there’s James Jones, still firmly in the Cavs rotation this late in the Playoffs and still knocking down shots. Jones won’t play a huge role in these Finals I don’t think, as he’ll probably only get single digits in minutes per game. But to call the fact that Jones has ANY role in these Finals “unexpected” coming into the season would be an understatement.

No discussion of underdogs or people who were not expected to be here would be incomplete without including the Cavs coach, David Blatt. Never mind that he’d only ever coached overseas before this season and that he had to deal with a constantly developing roster throughout the season…if you believed the national and local media this guy was supposed to have gotten canned back on New Year’s. Only that never happened. And all Blatt has done since is lead this team to play extremely well since mid-January all the way into the NBA Finals. On his way to the Finals Blatt’s team has swept Brad Stevens (who finished 4th in Coach of the Year voting this season), dismantled Tom Thibodeau (finish 7th this season and won COY in 2011), and also swept this season’s COY Mike Budenholzer. All those great coaches combined to only with two games over Blatt’s team. He know has a shot at Steve Kerr who finished a close second.

Throughout this postseason Blatt has made the right decisions with the rotation and matchups. He held out Kyrie when he was ailing, knowing that the team would be fine without him. He put the ball in the hands of his best player and surrounded him with shooters. He’s opted for defense at almost every turn, knowing that is the true key to success in the playoffs. Every series he has out-coached guys that finished ahead of him in the Coach of the Year voting. Go ahead and keep discounting his coaching ability though. Something tells me that Blatt enjoys being the underdog as well.

  
These moments don’t come around all the time, as we well know. It’s been eight years since that magical 2007 Eastern Conference Finals against Detroit when LeBron led the underdog Cavs to beat the Pistons almost entirely by himself (with the help of some Boobie Gibson threes). That team wasn’t supposed to make the Finals. The 2009 and 2010 Cavs, however, were…and didn’t. Nothing is given, as LeBron reminded us this summer. You work for everything you have.

So I’m going to enjoy this moment. Cleveland is in the spotlight. It’s a great time to be someone who calls Ohio “home” (even while currently living 500 miles away).

Cleveland has always been an underdog city. Why should that change for these Finals? Own it. Embrace it. Cleveland pride.

Bring it home, boys.

Cavs in six.

Believeland.