Since last Sunday, the Cleveland Cavaliers have been NBA champions.
With a 93-89 victory over the Golden State Warriors, the Cavs had achieved one thing many Clevelanders had only dreamt of, and they did it in historic fashion.
First off, the Warriors had set history themselves. In the 2015-16 regular season, they posted a record-breaking 73-9 record, surpassing the 72-10 record set twenty years ago by the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, which featured players like Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Toni Kukoc, and were coached by Phil Jackson. They also had a guy named Michael Jordan in there somewhere if I recall correctly. In that record season for Golden State, they had their star player and leading scorer Stephen Curry win the scoring title averaging around 30 points a game, while shattering his own 3 point records en route to posting the NBA’s first and so far only 400 3-pointer season by any player. Fellow Splash Brother Klay Thompson also broke records, surpassing Curry’s 2012-13 season which was then a record breaking season from the 3 point line as well. After comfortably winning the first two rounds against the Rockets and the Trail Blazers, the Warriors would find themselves in a 1-3 hole against the Oklahoma City Thunder, led by stalwarts Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Even so, Golden State went on and won the last 3 games to advance to the Finals.
The Cavs had a tougher route. While they started the season well with a 30-11 record, they decided there and then to relieve head coach David Blatt of his duties, replacing him with assistant Tyronn Lue. While Blatt was a great coaching mind, it seemed that his inability to establish rapport with the Cavs’ starts, especially LeBron James, was what led to the decision. Cleveland finished the season with a 57-25 record, which was still rather good particularly in the context of the season. After sweeping through the Pistons and the Hawks, the Cavaliers were then briefly given a scare by the upstart Warriors before closing out the series to get to their third Finals appearance.
And in the Finals, the Warriors looked at first to be the 73 win team that they were. Game 1 was a 15 point victory (104-89) wherein a balanced attack prevailed, with reserve guard Shaun Livingston pacing the Dubs with 20 points. Game 2 saw an even more lopsided Warriors win (110-77), with Draymond Green scoring 30 points in a rout. The Cavs kept things honest with a 30 point win at home in Game 3 (120-90), led by LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, but the Warriors counterpunched with a crucial road win in Game 4 (104-93), with Curry tallying his best game of the series with 38 points. At this point the Warriors looked to have the clear upper hand. However, an altercation between Draymond Green and James may have turned the series.
With Green’s hit on James being deemed a Flagrant 1 foul, he was suspended as he had accrued 4 flagrant points over the postseason (1 point from the Houston series for a hit on Michael Beasley, and 2 points from the Oklahoma City series for a hit on Steven Adams). This led to really polarizing reactions, with fans on both sides both decrying and supporting the decision. Whatever the reasoning, the Warriors would have to go into Game 5 shorthanded. Things got worse when in the middle of Game 5, Andrew Bogut had to exit for what was later diagnosed as a bone bruise, keeping him out 6-8 weeks and therefore out for the rest of the Finals. Nevertheless, even with a weakened Warriors team, the Cavaliers did not take it for granted. Irving and James both scored 41 points, with the latter also netting 16 rebounds and 7 assists en route to a road upset (112-97). The Cavs were not done yet; not only would they have to defend home court in Game 6, they would also still need to win in Oakland once more to win it all.
And defend home court they did. The Cavaliers led wire-to-wire in Game 6 (115-101) as James put in yet another virtuoso performance, scoring 41 points again and adding 8 rebounds, 11 assists, 4 steals, and 3 blocks, earning the highest Game Score in NBA Finals history. (Game Score is a stat that adds up box score stats and assigns a weight to each to quantify a player’s performance). In what seemed to herald the tables being turned, Stephen Curry, who was in foul trouble throughout the game, picked up LeBron James on the inbound late in the fourth and was assessed his sixth and final foul. Frustrated, Curry threw his mouthpiece which hit a fan (though said fan, thankfully, was not hurt), and was assessed a technical foul and had to be escorted to the locker room afterwards. At this point, the Warriors juggernaut was reeling and the Cavaliers had taken momentum.
Game 7 would prove to be a classic for the ages. Both teams went on runs and countered each other, with Golden State holding a slight edge at halftime 49-42 principally thanks to Draymond Green’s heroics. Thankfully for Cleveland, the Cavaliers closed the gap and held a small lead for most of the third, though the Warriors closed the third strong enough to have a 1 point lead to start the fourth. And yet everything played out like a sports movie. For the last 4:39 of the game, Golden State scored zero points after scoring 89 in the previous 43 minutes and 21 seconds. The Cavaliers couldn’t quite score, either, but some key moments included a LeBron James block on Andre Iguodala’s layup that prevented the Warriors from scoring, Kyrie Irving hitting the game (and series) clinching 3 pointer that gave Cleveland the lead for good, or what seemed to be a rather bad injury as James fell on the floor after a Draymond Green foul. Thankfully, it was merely a scare as James hit the free throw that would put the game away for the Warriors.
In the end, with the Cavaliers winning it all on the road against a 73 win team, with LeBron James picking up the Finals MVP award unanimously, with an entire city hoping and praying for the wine and gold, they did snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
Congratulations to the Cleveland Cavaliers.