by: Michael Shields
In one of the most unlikely and impressive NBA Finals performances of all time, Lebron James brings a championship home to Cleveland…
It was an uphill battle. To say the least. For the Cleveland Cavaliers, when the Golden State took a 3-1 series lead in the NBA Finals the sentiment abounding was that this series was O-V-E-R! It seemed certain even. Golden State was the better team and that was that. History, too, was not on the Cavaliers’ side. Home teams in Finals Game 7s were 15 – 3 and this final showdown was to take place in Oracle Arena in Oakland. Also, teams that fell into a 3-1 hole in previous NBA Finals have been decidedly unsuccessful, to the tune of an 0 – 32 record. AND, the team in the Finals that claims the current season’s MVP (in this case Stephon Curry) have won 18 straight game 7s. An uphill and triumphantly improbable battle for Cleveland indeed.
But the Cavaliers had Lebron James, the only player on either team in last night’s contest to play in an NBA Finals Game 7. Playing in his sixth consecutive Finals, Lebron James put on a performance of a lifetime. He put a competent but outmatched Cleveland Cavaliers team on his back and carried them to glory in spectacular fashion. Becoming the first player in NBA history in any series of any length to lead outright or tie for the lead among all players from both teams in points (208), rebounds (79), assists (62), steals (18) and blocks (16) for an entire series, Lebron James propelled the Cleveland Cavaliers to becoming the first team in the history of the NBA to come back from a 3-1 deficit to win the title. Over the seven-game series, James averaged a monstrous 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds and 8.9 assists. Not enough can ever be said about what King James was able to do in these 2016 NBA Finals, and as he raised the trophy high above his head, with a stream of tears still visible upon his cheeks, any questions about his greatness fizzled into the void above. The 2016 NBA Finals have sealed Lebron James’ legacy and place amongst the greatest to play the game, and his performance in these final three games will be trumpeted for as long as the game of basketball is played.
In order to highlight the depth of this achievement it is crucial to take a look back and, with the benefit of hindsight of the entire series, we can begin to truly understand the hole that the Cavaliers dug for themselves, and then to marvel at their ability to dig themselves out of it. In Game 1, in early June at Oracle Arena, Golden State’s bench came with it, outscoring the Cavs’ reserves 45-10. Led by Draymond Green who had 16 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists while Shaun Livingston posted a personal postseason best of 20, the Warriors were the deeper and better team from front to back. While the Splash Brothers (Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson) totalled a paltry 20 points on 8-for-27 shooting, it didn’t matter, and the “strength in numbers” approach to success that has stimulated the Warriors good fortune this season (to the tune of a record breaking 73 win regular season!) suggested this could be a short series, one where Golden State celebrates its second championship in as many years.
In Game 2, Draymond Green, who was quickly fashioning himself into the presumptive Finals MVP, put up 28 points with five 3-pointers, seven rebounds and five assists, all while Stephen Curry returned to form tallying 18 points despite foul trouble. In what was the most lopsided win in a Finals game ever, the Warriors overwhelmed the Cavs and embarrassed them with a 33-point win. At this juncture, the Warriors had won the first two games of the Finals by a combined 48 points. The end felt nigh…
Even after a Game 3 win by the Cavaliers, a one-sided blowout where the Cavs won by 30 and Lebron James had 32 points and 11 rebounds while Kyrie Irving added 30 points (even 35-year-old Veteran Richard Jefferson contributed scoring nine points with eight rebounds), it was hard to believe the Cavaliers had a legitimate chance to slay the beast that is the Golden State Warriors. And in the waning moments of Game 4, one where the two-time MVP Stephen Curry reclaimed his touch (Curry scored just 48 total points in the first three games) scoring 38 points1 while Klay Thompson added 25 and the Warriors beat the Cavaliers 108 – 97, no one in their right mind believe the Cavaliers had a chance to come back from the Warrior’s commanding 3-1 lead in the series. But then, things changed…
Lebron James’ performance in Game 5 and Game 6 was nothing short of mind blowing. In those two games he became the first player with consecutive 40-point performances in the NBA Finals since Shaquille O’Neal did it in 2000. This astonishing feat commenced in a Game 5 where Draymond Green was banned from the arena, suspended for his fourth flagrant foul of the postseason2, and forced to a baseball suite in the Oakland Coliseum next door, joined by Golden State general manager Bob Myers. Up to that point in the series, it would be fair to state that Draymond Green was the MVP of the series, and so his absence was consequential, but it is hard to imagine that even with Green on the court that Golden State would have had a chance that evening as not only did The King come to play (41 points, 16 rebounds, and 7 assists) but his running mate, Kyrie Irving, was spectacular from all points on the court, totalling 41 points in unbelievable fashion. James and Irving became the first teammates to score 40 points in an NBA Finals game and the Cavaliers were heading back home for Game 6 with the faint smell of hope in the air.
It was Lebron who stole the show in Game 6, scoring 41 points (again!), as Kyrie Irving added 23 and the Cavaliers improbably evened the series at 3 games a piece. Encapsulating the frustration of a team that was on the brink of a title and feeling it slip from their palms, the normally level-headed Stephen Curry got tossed with just minutes left in the fourth quarter after he was whistled for his sixth personal foul, cursed at the ref, and whizzed his mouthpiece at a fan in the front row. The series was now headed back to Oakland for one of the most implausible Game 7s of all time.
A win by the Warriors would have solidified their place as one of the greatest teams of all time. After a storied and record breaking regular season, taking home the Larry O’Brien Trophy is all it would take for them to be included in the conversation of the best of the best forevermore. Conversely, if the Cavaliers were to win on the road, and become the first team to come back from a 3 game deficit, Lebron James’ career would be regarded in a whole new light. The latter is now the case, as The King went ahead and notched the only triple double (27 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists) recorded in the history of a game 7 besides two legendary Lakers, Jerry West (1969) and James Worthy (1988), and capped last night’s win with a ridiculous chasedown block (vintage Bron!) of reigning Finals MVP, Andre Iguodala, in the final minutes of the game. Soon after Kyrie Irving put the Cavs up for good with a clutch 3 pointer with 53 seconds remaining, and just like that the championship curse in Cleveland was eradicated.
The Cavaliers Game 7 performance was amazing on many levels, but chief amongst them and critical to note is their defensive effectiveness, on par with some of the most impressive defensive performances I have witnessed in all my days, where the Cavaliers held one of the most dynamic and potent offenses to ever play the game to a meager 13 points in the fourth quarter. Reigning MVP Stephen Curry was particularly kept in check in the fourth, held to an inept 3 points and an unforgettable around the back pass that lept out of bounds in embarrassing fashion. While Draymond Green, inarguably the second best player in these 2016 Finals, got his to the tune of 32 points, 15 rebounds and 9 assists, Cleveland shined on both ends of the court, and the stunning win for the Cleveland Cavaliers allowed for Lebron to keep his promise to a champion-starved city that he calls “home.”
I will admit it. As an ardent admirer of the National Basketball League, and in particular the Playoffs which seem to admirably deliver the goods each season, the 2016 Playoffs frustrated me some. In the first round, the only competitive series of worth was between two Eastern Conference teams (the Charlotte Bobcats and the Miami Heat). In the second round the Oklahoma City Thunder came to life and stomped out the flame of the Mighty Spurs, but besides that series, the competitiveness the Playoffs as a whole was lacking. In the Conference Finals, it was again the Thunder providing the dramatics, backing Golden State into a 3-1 hole behind phenomenal performances by Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, and fortunately the intensity began to heighten approaching the Finals. But a quarrelsome series of blowouts to start the Finals amplified this irritation with 2016’s NBA tournament, which is why it is even more extraordinary to sit here today marveling about what just occurred.
In a championship that was 52 years in the making3, Lebron James was unanimously named MVP of The Finals for the third time. “This is what I came back for,” James said postgame. Cleveland’s native son had come from thirty miles down the road in Akron, to Cleveland, to gift the Cavs and their fans with glory, and a sensation they haven’t felt in over five decades: championship elation. Whatever you may feel about Lebron James, The Decision, or the way in which he has meticulously crafted his career, it is time to give props where props are due. The crown situated upon Lebron’s head prematurely, now fits like a glove. And this Finals run is a storybook ending for Lebron’s third act, for Cleveland, and for another magical season for the National Basketball Association.