The final five minutes of Game 7 were punctuated by a handful of truly iconic basketball plays. Captivating displays like LeBron’s superhuman chasedown block of Andre Iguodala and Kyrie Irving’s dagger three-pointer will be treasured forever in the annals of NBA lore. For me though, the most memorable moment in that defining stretch was the highlight that didn’t happen, the one that defies the logic of everything we’ve come to expect from the league’s most celebrated player—and its most maligned.
On the whole, the Cavs had defended Steph Curry exceptionally well all series. Despite a couple of hot shooting nights, they had been able to contain the MVP with solid perimeter defense and effective switching from guys like LeBron and Tristan Thompson. Yet somehow, down by three in the most important possession of Golden State’s season, Curry found himself matched up against Kevin Love—a below average defender and the league’s favourite punching bag—just outside the three-point line. Whether Curry decided to maneuver for a three or use the mismatch to wreak havoc off the dribble, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that Golden State would end up with a favourable shot.
Instead, the unthinkable happened. Love kept his composure and played sterling defense while Curry tried to create enough separation for a good shot attempt. The unexpected resistance forced Curry to pass the ball into the post, where an ill-positioned Draymond Green could do nothing, and seconds later, sent it right back. Curry spent a few more ticks on the shot clock dancing around Love before launching an awkward jumper that rattled off the rim and all but extinguished the Warriors’ hopes of winning the title. That was what stopped Golden State from putting the final brush stroke on its 73-win masterpiece: an improbable shutdown effort from a guy who was borderline unplayable at times in this series. Now Kevin Love is basically a cult hero. You can’t make this stuff up.
That possession was a microcosm of what made the final result feel so freaking unbelievable. For two years now, Golden State has dominated the league with a collection of high-end players whose impact is far greater than the sum of its parts. Steve Kerr’s squad approaches the game with a philosophy that maximizes the rules of the modern NBA and epitomizes unselfish play. Up until the conference finals, they hadn’t lost consecutive games all season, let alone the three in a row that Cleveland had to muster to pull this one off.
Meanwhile, the Cavs were on the opposite end of that eliteness spectrum. They weren’t a model of cohesion, but rather, the antithesis of it. For the better part of two years, NBA pundits questioned the structure of Cleveland’s roster and not-so-silently wondered if it would have been far better off having never given up Andrew Wiggins for Love (pretty much the basketball equivalent of Voldemort going after Harry Potter before seeing how Neville Longbottom stacked up to him). Like their playoff motto suggests, the Cavs’ front office went all in and spent exorbitantly on players with hefty price tags and vital question marks, leaving much to be desired in terms of skill sets and chemistry. However, with no telling how long LeBron’s patience in this second stint might last, it was their only real option.
And it paid off.
That’s the beauty of this championship. Cleveland never needed to get Love to consistently replicate his Minnesota production, or permanently move LeBron to the four, or get Kyrie to iso less; it just needed to play at a high enough level to beat the Warriors. At the end of the day, a title’s a title. There’s a road map for getting to it but nobody can tell you which route to follow.
The greatest strength of this Cavs team was their ability to simply make it all work (ironically enough, their identity falls right in line with the attitude of Bay Area legend Al Davis: “Just win, baby”). Even though they eventually lost to the Warriors in 2015, we saw that trait on full display when LeBron had his squad within two wins of a title, coaxing 20-point games from the likes of Timofey Mozgov and Matthew Dellavedova. Realistically the team should never have made that much progress in holding off Golden State last year, but it reinvented itself on the fly with the ingredients at hand—chiefly the massive cut of filet mignon that is LeBron James.
Having LeBron at one’s disposal is a luxury unlike any other in the NBA. He carries such a substantial burden that far less is asked of his teammates than it would be literally anywhere else. As much as Kyrie is starting to look like the greatest pure scorer of our generation, his Cavs were a hopeless lottery team before LeBron returned (they continue to play worryingly in King James’ absence).
To beat the Warriors though, LeBron’s brilliance was far from enough. Once again, the Cavs were forced to veer from the style of play that they rode to the Finals. Channing Frye, a sharpshooting three-point marksman who pulverized teams for three rounds, was relegated to the bench. Despite finally integrating many of Love’s post skills into its offense against other teams, Cleveland found itself struggling to deploy them effectively against Golden State, and adapted accordingly.
These adjustments were the product of the glaring reality that Cleveland is simply not built to be the best version of itself—or at least, the best version of a team that is led by LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. Against an opponent like the 2016 Golden State Warriors—who are not only the best version of themselves, but arguably the best version of any NBA team ever—that flaw should’ve been Cleveland’s downfall. Hell, Golden State was so polished from top to bottom that “Finals MVP Shaun Livingston” was a legitimately possible thing after Game 1.
For whatever reason though, things started to coalesce for the Cavs in a fashion that almost defies reason. First you have Harrison Barnes concussing Love, an occurrence that allowed Richard Jefferson to unexpectedly step into the spotlight and give the team a spark it hadn’t previously sought but desperately needed at that point in time. Then there’s the internal developments, like LeBron hitting his jumper consistently for the first time in ages, Kyrie stepping up on both sides of the ball, Tristan Thompson becoming the Cavs’ third-most important player, and Dhantay Jones and Mo Williams showing signs of life. You have Draymond Green’s suspension, which was ostensibly the turning point of the Finals. His literal disappearing act and Andrew Bogut’s injury were coupled with Barnes and Festus Ezeli’s figurative no-shows. Off the court, Warriors players started doing and saying all the wrong things, from the LeBron provocation to Klay Thompson’s assertions that they would beat the Showtime Lakers teams. Just as LeBron delivered the two best consecutive games of his career, his defensive kryptonite (Iguodala) started experiencing critical back issues. By the time Curry whipped his mouthguard in frustration at the end of Game 6, there was a palpable sense that the Warriors were unraveling while Cleveland was peaking at the perfect time.
Still, in spite of everything, the Warriors wouldn’t be vanquished until the Cavs won a do-or-die game in Oracle Arena with Draymond Green—Golden State’s leading Finals MVP candidate—on the floor. And as much as Cleveland had responded to a series stranglehold thus far, it was Golden State who was deservedly known as the NBA’s ‘back-against-the-wall team.’ From last year’s epic comeback in New Orleans to the unlikely triumph over an emboldened OKC team three weeks ago, Kerr’s Warriors had never run into anyone who could fully derail his juggernaut squad—its mastery of a three-point-centric system always made sure of that. Even if Cleveland had seized all the momentum in Games 5 and 6, there was no reason to think that Golden State couldn’t stop the bleeding, as it had done continuously for two years.
What’s exhilarating about a Game 7 is that, aside from homecourt advantage, it makes you throw any preconceived assumptions about teams out the window. When the underdog is just as vulnerable as the favourite, everything boils down to who can rise above in that decisive moment. Going into these winner-take-all games, the conventional blueprint for victory is to have everyone contribute as they typically do, and then hope that one or two people step up to push you over the edge.
The Warriors are special, and that thinking applies to them a bit differently. Because they have such depth and scoring prowess, they can stay afloat even when neither of the Splash Brothers have quite gotten it going (Game 1 was a great example of it). In Game 7, that was once again the case. Green had unleashed such a timely barrage of threes that both Klay and Steph could afford to be patient and let their opportunities come to them. Over the course of the evening we saw several mini-runs—notably the one at the end of the first half—where it looked like Golden State was primed to pull away as it usually does in these high pressure situations. The system wasn’t broken though, so nobody was trying to fix it.
For the Cavs, that very well may have been the last variable of the perfect storm that fell into place for them. I don’t mean to discount what LeBron and the team accomplished—anyone who tries to do so is either being silly or probably Skip Bayless—but it worked in their favour that they could avoid ever threatening to put the game out of reach. As we saw in Game 6 of the Oklahoma City series, Golden State can be devastating when it’s forced to mount a Herculean comeback. Their superlative three-point stroke allows the Warriors to visualize such vast deficits as being far more manageable than anyone else possibly could. A huge part of their mystique is the fact that no lead ever feels safe against them.
So it comes as no surprise that in the game where the 73-win behemoth was finally slain for good, fate was sealed on the heels of an 89-89 stalemate that felt like it lasted as long as it takes officials to review one of Draymond’s nut shots. But to get to that point—where a thunderous rejection, a dagger three-pointer, and mesmerizing perimeter defense could seal things—Cleveland had to overcome its inherent flaws one last time and compensate in ways that Golden State has never had to. Love, relegated to a lowly rung on the Cavs’ offensive totem pole, played with an out-of-character ferocity and had a game-high plus-minus rating. J.R. Smith, who has been dismissed and ridiculed time and time again, keyed Cleveland’s response to Golden State’s largest lead of the night with consecutive threes. Richard Jefferson, once an afterthought in the lineup, summoned the kind of energy that diminished veterans aren’t supposed to have and grabbed nine boards. Kyrie consistently hit shots that demanded an ungodly degree of difficulty while putting in serious work on D. Even the slumping Iman Shumpert had a four-point play!
On this all-important evening, every single one of the Cavaliers’ question marks became irrelevant. Ever since the summer of 2014, the only thing that mattered was whether they could put together the team that LeBron was capable of leading to a championship. While the road there was often rocky and full of growing pains for the Cavs’ supporting cast, he was always the constant, the keystone in an otherwise shaky structure (subtweets and media manipulation aside). Cleveland’s success will never be as sustainable or natural as Golden State’s is, but LeBron didn’t come back with his sights set on record-breaking seasons or dreams of “Not one, not two…” He just wanted to bring a championship to the tortured fans of his home region, and when you’re operating with a pass-fail mindset, perfection is just a win away.