June 20, 2016, 2:45 pm
Somewhere in the middle of Game 1, I had never been more convinced that the Warriors would probably take this series in five games (“sure, the Cavs have LeBron so we’ll be nice and give them a game at home” was the common thinking after that embarrassment to kick off the NBA Finals).
Las Vegas agreed. So did most NBA fans in several polls around social media. Soon after, the Warriors took a 3-1 lead after destroying all hope for Cleveland with a win on the road. The Cavs would have to beat a 73-9 team three times in a row (twice in Oracle Arena), something that no team has ever done before in the NBA Finals. Records don’t get broken against teams as great as the all-time 2015-16 Warriors.
Until they do.
The kid from Akron, Ohio who famously left his home state to chase championships in South Beach decided to return and come home back in the summer of 2014. He did much more than that. LeBron James and the Cavaliers brought the city of Cleveland their first championship in 52 years by defying the odds and ripping off three straight wins over the Warriors. How in the world did this happen?
Game 5 is a great starting point. The Cavs were down 3-1 and went on the road for an elimination game. Draymond Green was suspended for having one too many punches to groins in the playoffs, so he had to watch next door. LeBron and Kyrie Irving stole the show in a hostile Oracle Arena with 41 points a piece and let the Cavs live another day.
Many thought the return of an “angry” Draymond in Game 6 would put a stop to LeBron’s madness (as if Draymond needs more motivation than playing in the NBA Finals), but the King ended up having one of the best games of his life. LeBron posted one of the great all-time fantasy playoff stat lines with 41 points (16-of-27 FGs, 6-of-8 FTs), 11 assists, eight boards, four steals, three blocks and three treys. Toss in a thrown mouthpiece, an ejection of the NBA’s MVP, an all-time performance and there we were. A Game 7 winner-take-all Super Bowl of heavyweight NBA faces with legacies on the line awaited us in prime time on Sunday night.
It didn’t disappoint. There were 20 lead changes and 11 ties in the most watched NBA game since Michael Jordan‘s final game as a Bull in the 1998 NBA Finals. Just before halftime, the Warriors built a quick lead 49-42 and started to look like their home crowd momentum would blow the game wide open as they had done all season.
The Cavs clawed back with a 13-5 run to start the third quarter and tie the game, surprising us all time and time again. Kyrie Irving led the way with 12 of his 26 points in the third to keep the Cavs in it. All they needed was a chance. They would enter the fourth quarter down just one point from the unfathomable.
THE FOURTH QUARTER
One quarter. That’s what opinions come down to in a close winner-take-all, a few plays here and there. How the ball bounces off the rim. The microscope gets bigger as the game wears on.
LeBron and Kyrie put the team on their backs. To open the fourth down one, LeBron quickly gave the Cavs the lead with a five-footer near the basket. Kyrie made a huge bucket (it seemed like he did this all night) with a short miss then a rebound and tip-in as if he was playing 21 in the backyard with his friends. This game was a little more important than that though.
Just after LeBron hit another big shot to give the Cavs a 83-80 lead with just over seven minutes to play, Stephen Curry nailed a three-pointer to tie the game at 83-83. Game on. Curry’s three started a mini 7-0 run by the Warriors to take a four-point lead with 5:37 remaining. “Believeland” could see it all slipping away. Not on LeBron’s watch.
He may lack a certain shooting stroke at times, but LeBron is one of the smartest basketball players of all-time. After the King got the ball and called over for a switch to get Festus Ezeli on him beyond the arc, he knew he had the right matchup. Most big men are not as disciplined about closing out on the wing because they are always chasing blocks underneath. LeBron caught Ezeli on a pump fake and drew a foul for three shots. A 73 percent shooter, LeBron nailed all three and closed the gap back to one. Still, you expected the Warriors to make some threes and run away with it at some point. It didn’t happen.
The game was tied at 89-89 at the 4:39 mark after Klay Thompson drove to the basket for a big lay up. What ensued over the next three scoreless minutes was probably the most entertaining scoreless three minutes in NBA Finals history. The stars wanted the ball. LeBron missed a shot, then Curry missed, then LeBron again, then Klay, then LeBron was blocked by Andre Iguodala, then Iguodala missed a three-pointer, then Kyrie missed a close shot and then Draymond Green missed the most wide open three-pointer he had all night. Every shot was a hold-your-breath moment where die hard fans and even casual fans may have felt their hearts skip a beat. There were so many chances back and forth.
Then “The Block” happened.
With 1:50 remaining in Game 7 of a tied game in the NBA Finals, LeBron James had his signature moment. Known for his patented chase-down blocks, he got one with the whole world watching in a career-defining play. Iggy had an easy layup for the lead but he was denied by the sheer will and athleticism of a legend. When a statue is built in LeBron’s honor, this block will be highly considered to be portrayed by the sculptors. This will forever be known as “The Block.”
LeBron and Curry again traded missed shots (Curry with nothing but glass from downtown, yikes!) and the NBA was awaiting a hero to save the moment. After a Cavs timeout with 1:09 left, a hero finally emerged. Kyrie Irving dribbled around the ball behind the three-point line and faded away to nail the greatest shot of his life in Curry’s face to give the Cavs a three-point lead with 53 second remaining. What a game.
Steve Kerr made a conscious decision not to call a timeout and let the Warriors race down the floor to run the offense. Kevin Love was switched in to guarding Stephen Curry and was somehow able to keep him from driving to the basket. Love forced Curry to settle for a three-point attempt that he has hit in his sleep all season, though it was difficult. It rimmed off to LeBron’s hands and the whole arena gasped for air.
Kyrie made quite possibly the dumbest move to attempt a layup right away with plenty of time left on the shot clock but he got his own rebound and found LeBron for what was nearly the highlight to end all LeBron highlights for a thunderous dunk over Draymond Green, but Green 90’s fouled the King for two free throws. James sulked on the floor holding his wrist but he nailed 1-0f-2 and that was it.
The Cavaliers erased a 52-year draught and became the first team to come back down 3-1 in the NBA Finals, winning Game 7 on the road (the last time that happened was the ’78 Washington Bullets).
Legends and Hall of Famers are judged by their accolades and achievements. So many of those achievements come down to a loose ball or a buzzer-beater which was out of their control. It may be unfair, but that it how sports figures are judged.
LeBron went from being compared to Elgin Baylor and Jerry West for poor NBA Finals records (would have been 2-5 in the finals) to silencing the critics with his third NBA Championship and NBA Finals MVP award. A month ago, not everyone would admit that he was even the best player in the NBA currently. Now, that isn’t even a question to entertain unless you are a) delusional or b) Skip Bayless (synonyms).
This championship is obviously much more impressive than his rings with the Heat. This time, LeBron won one for the city of Cleveland. He did it against a 73-9 team who looked unbeatable for most of the season. He did it as an underdog. He did it down 3-1 in the best-of-seven series. He did it by winning on the road twice in the toughest arena. He did it for Ohio.
The comparisons to Michael Jordan will continue all summer once again, fair or not. That is where LeBron is at this moment, in the conversation to at the very least be compared to the greats. His career numbers are staggering and he is only 31 years-old. The mileage on his body makes him much older, as he has surpassed Larry Bird in minutes played, but his athleticism should keep him on top for a few more seasons. We can’t forget, LeBron is still writing his legacy. All of the greats are in basketball heaven, but LeBron still roams the NBA earth with time left.
Perhaps the craziest stat of them all: LeBron led all players on both teams in this series with the most points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. That has never been done. It goes to show how historic of a performance we all witnessed. Hold a grudge for his Decision all you want, but he did return and successfully fulfilled his promise to a city desperate for their Chose One to deliver.
Deliver he did.
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