Cavaliers slog through doubt and come out the other side with a title

ByZach Lowe ESPN logo
Tuesday, June 21, 2016

OAKLAND, Calif. -- After unraveling the Golden State Warriors in Game 6, LeBron James ordered the NBA's camera crews out of theCavaliers' locker room in Cleveland andgathered his team together.

"This is a business trip," he told teammates of Game 7, according to people in the room. James then closed his eyes, put his hands in front of his face, and exhaled: "One more. Just one more. Get me one more."

Several team members were struck by the depth of LeBron's emotion -- how badly he wanted it now that his dream was so close and the strength of his belief that they could do it.

"I think everyone knew, when he said that, that this is what we were meant to do," Cavs general manager David Griffin told outside a delirious Cleveland locker room after the Cavaliers' exhausting 93-89 Game 7 win over the Warriors.

Tristan Thompsonoffered his take.

"He just told us to lock in," Thompson said while chugging champagne in the bowels of Oracle Arena. "That these 48 minutes -- these last 48 minutes of our season -- were all that mattered."

LeBron played two of the best games in NBA history to tie the NBA Finals 3-3, but to cross the finish line, he needed help from every remaining rotation player -- including the two stars whose fit next to the King had been so scrutinized. They were an accidental assemblage: Kyrie Irving, the product of post-LeBron losing; andKevin Love, the hastily acquired superstar for whom the Cavs -- now on LeBron's win-now schedule -- forked over a king's ransom.

Irving matched LeBron's 41 points in Game 5, and he won these Finals with a 3-point shot for the ages late in Game 7.

Love never quite found his footing in this series, but he finally showed some bounce in Game 7 with 14 rebounds and some much-needed free throws. And on the last meaningful possession of Golden State's shattered season, Love did what everyone -- including this writer -- said he could not do: He shadowed Stephen Curry through a gauntlet of dribble moves, stayed down and harassed the MVP into one last miss.

Teams will call about Love, and the Cavaliers will listen, because that's what teams do. But in the afterglow of an unprecedented Finals comeback, they justifiably exuded hope that this sometimes awkward nucleus could get even better -- and more importantly, that LeBron might share in that hope.

"This team did not fit particularly well for playing Golden State, and that's my fault," Griffin said. "But against the East, we were historically good. Now that we've experienced this, I'm very confident this group has its best basketball in front of it. They know what they have now."

Most of all, they have LeBron. He is the Eastern Conference power structure at this point.

He shot just 9-for-24 in the biggest game of his life, but his all-around genius carried the Cavaliers on both ends. There has never been a force quite like him in basketball: double figures again in rebounds and assists; the ability to switch across all five positions on defense; and the nastiest rim protection ever from a wing player. His chase-down block of Andre Iguodala that preserved an 89-89 tie with 1:51 left will go down as one of the grandest defensive plays.

"That is the greatest play I've ever seen," Cavs assistant coach Jim Boylansaid after the game.

The moment so overwhelmed Boylan that even as the Cavs streaked back the other way, he turned to the coaches sitting beside him and declared LeBron's block the best play he had witnessed on any level.

The LeBron nonsense can finally end now. This is the singular achievement of his career. He just led an underdog from a city that always loses back from a deficit that had been a death sentence.

And he did it against a 73-win powerhouse.

The demagogues shrieking about LeBron's alleged "clutch" failures usually ignored any evidence that clouded their pre-packaged talking points. They mentioned the 2010 loss against theBoston Celticsand his meltdown against the Dallas Mavericksthe next season.

Everything else magically vanished: the 25 consecutive points against theDetroit Pistons;pouring 45 on a massively superiorBoston team in Game 7 the next year; his impossible 39-9-9 line against theOrlando Magicin 2009.

The qualityof his teammates and the opponent never mattered.

One ho-hum 25-point game in these Finals and it was as if all that stuff -- and everything in Miami and Cleveland that came after 2011 -- had never happened. It was the same old noise: Why couldn't LeBron take over? Was something wrong with him? His 2-5 record in the Finals would be his scarlet letter.

Goodbye to all that.

LeBron controlled the Finals. Again.

When the Cavaliers sensed a chance to run, they rushed to score before Golden State's switch-everything defense could set itself. In the half court, LeBron moved Curry around like a pawn until he engineered a mismatch. When the Warriors avoided switching Curry onto him, LeBron drove to the rim or kicked out for open 3s -- including two massive bombs from J.R. Smith after the Warriors opened an eight-point lead in the third quarter of Game 7.

He reminded us for the second straight Finals that even in the age of pace-and-space, a brutal sort of one-on-one game can still work in the playoff slog -- provided you have a human mismatch.

The Warriors could have used a touch of mismatch basketball. Even on this crushing night, they were so much more than a jump-shooting team. They played ferocious defense and went stop-for-stop with the Cavaliers until Irving's backbreaker. But on offense, they couldn't muster a secondary weapon beyond their historic long-range shooting. They earned just 13 free throws, snagged a paltry seven offensive boards and shot a hideous 17-for-42 from 2-point range.

Three-point shooting and defense alone were nearly enough to win Golden State the title and a claim as the best team ever, but as every other method of scoring melted away, so did the Warriors' margin for error.

Golden State had a cushion after a gut-punch road win in Game 4. And in the locker room that night, the Cavs did not seem primed for a historic comeback.

"We did not project confidence," Griffin said.

That was not the case at the outset of the series. The Cavs were almost preposterously overconfident. All season, Cleveland's higher-ups worried they played with peak urgency only when some adversity struck -- injuries, a coaching change or a losing streak. They pointed to their throttling of theThunderin Oklahoma City without Irving as evidence of whatthey could do when motivated, and then they wondered why they needed Irving's absence to motivate them.

"It took artificial things to galvanize us," Griffin said. "We had to stop believing things were going to be easier than they really were."

That didn't happen over the first two games in Oakland, when the Warriors walloped a lackadaisical Cavs team despite below-average production from both Curry and Klay Thompson. After those games, Thompson joked that the Warriors were better than his father's Showtime Lakers teams.

The comment infuriated Cleveland players, team sources said, but it also sparked discussion about Golden State's impressive résumé: They really did compare favorably with those Lakers teams, and it would take a desperate effort to beat them.

"It was the first time we have ever had appropriate fear [of an opponent]," Griffin said.

The Cavs played harder at home, but the series appeared over after Game 4. They were dejected. When they reconvened the next morning for their flight to Oakland, the mood was noticeably better, in part because they had good reason to believe the league might suspend Draymond Green for Game 5. Green's suspension gave the Cavs a second life, and they would not waste it.

"Everyone showed up that morning with much more of a 'we got this' mindset than I had expected," Griffin said.

As late as March, the Cavs did not look like a team capable of such resiliency. Replacing coach David Blatt with Tyronn Lue had not resulted in some seismic, instant culture change. Lue did hold everyone more accountable from the start. Blatt rarely called out LeBron during film sessions, and on occasion, one player would simply abandon practice drills midstream, per team sources. Lue didn't tolerate that and famously chided LeBron for uninspired play.

Lue simplified the defense so that everyone could understand it. And when the team slumped on that end in the winter, he didn't panic and overcomplicate things.

But 65 games in, the Cavs were still bickering on the floor. After every defensive mistake, LeBron would either glare at Love and Irving or shoot a passive-aggressive stare toward the bench.

"It's time for everyone to stop all the glaring and just compete," Lue told in March.

The environment wasn't as poisonous as it looked from the outside, but the Cavs at that stage were not playing for each other.

"We didn't have any drama or finger-pointing," Griffin said. "It was just kind of, 'Eh.' We hadn't learned to trust each other."

As Boylan said, "We had all the talent, but that only gets you toward the top with a bunch of other teams. After that, it's the little things -- the details, the fortitude, the perseverance."

Frye noticed the grouchiness upon his arrival via trade from Orlando, and he told his new teammates it was absurd. He needled them, team sources say: You guys want to be really miserable? Go down to Orlando and lose. Frye was thrilled to be on a title contender, and he suggested Cleveland's players might do well to appreciate their situation.

"He was like, 'You guys win almost every night!'" Boylan recalled, laughing. "Everyone might not be getting exactly the touches or the points they want, but we were winning. For Channing, it was like, 'Wake up and smell the roses, everyone.'"

Frye and Richard Jefferson livened up the team's group chat and pushed everyone to hang out together off the floor. LeBron and Love hosted more team dinners, and attendance boomed.

Improved chemistry doesn't increase a team's talent level or fix structural issues. There is still only one ball for LeBron, Irving and Love. LeBron on some level probably still does yearn to play with his banana boat friends. Love's defense won't get any better, and he will struggle at times against teams who space the floor and shoehorn him into a ton of pick-and-rolls. He misses being the fulcrum of the offense, as he was in Minnesota.

"This is a strange series for me," Love told between Games 5 and 6. "I mostly just run to the corners and get out of the way. But I'm going to try to do what I can -- contest shots, get up on the pick-and-roll, get deflections."

Perhaps Love wouldn't have embraced that secondary role if the mood around the team hadn't improved. He might not embrace it indefinitely, but indefinitely didn't matter to these Cavs. They needed to win once, right now, and they figured out just enough to do it.

And Green helped that cause; his ill-timed groin shot might have cost Golden State a repeat title. Andrew Bogut's injury forced the Warriors to overplay Festus Ezeli and Anderson Varejao. Harrison Barnes slumped at the worst time, contributing to Golden State's team-wide falloff on open 3s.

But this championship belongs to the Cavaliers. They took it with a fury and physicality the Warriors couldn't quite match in the end. They took it because they have LeBron.

Winning might raise as many questions as losing would have. There will be speculation about LeBron's future now that he has delivered on his promise to Ohio. Irving and Love did enough, but LeBron rarely needed A-plus play from both of them to win. You don't necessarily look at this roster and feel 100 percent confident it is the very best one possible for LeBron.

Love's fit is unclear, especially with Thompson thriving in a grunt work role that meshes more easily with LeBron's ball-dominant orchestration.

But this team just won the damn championship, and there is no one who can touch it in the East. The core of this roster, or even a slightly rejiggered core around LeBron, should make the Finals every season. Lue proved his coaching mettle with key midseries adjustments -- including slotting LeBron onto Green -- and a blueprint that got sharper every game. Irving will only get better. He grinded harder on defense in this series than he ever had. Love is still a very good player. And with time, the Cavs might figure out a better use for him.

"We're really built for sustaining what we do," Griffin said. "And LeBron -- he makes everyone better. He makes our team bigger than life."

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