LeBron James warned all of us two summers ago. Upon returning home to play for the Cleveland Cavaliers, James cautioned fans in his letter to Sports Illustrated that he wasn’t promising a championship. He remained realistic in his approach, and knew just how hard it would be to deliver the Cavaliers’ first championship.
James’ quest to deliver that elusive title looked at times to be extremely difficult. During the two years since James penned that infamous letter, the Golden State Warriors cemented themselves as the team to beat in the NBA. Stephen Curry transformed into arguably the best offensive player in the game. Klay Thompson took on the role as Curry’s sidekick to form one of the best backcourts in the league, and Draymond Green emerged as one of game’s most versatile players.
Cleveland’s hopes of returning to greatness with James coming back home were at an all-time high heading into the 2014-15 season. Shortly after James officially signed with the Cavaliers, the team pulled off the blockbuster trade to acquire Kevin Love from the Minnesota Timberwolves. Parting ways with the No. 1 overall pick in Andrew Wiggins seemed like a lot to give up, but if it meant Love would help bring a title to Cleveland, it would be worth it.
But when the Cavaliers began James’ first season back with a 19-20 start, it seemed a bit premature to believe Cleveland could win any sort of title soon. Questions were beginning to be raised about the team. When the best player on the planet states his desire to bring his hometown a championship – and things don’t go his way – we pay attention.
It almost seemed as though James and the Cavaliers were cursed. After all, the city had seen its fair share of bad luck. As James noted himself last night, “You could look back to the Earnest Byner fumble, [John] Elway going 99 yards, to Jose Mesa not being able to close out in the bottom of the ninth to the Cavs went to The Finals – I was on that team – in 2007, us getting swept, and then last year us losing 4-2.”
In the midst of the Cavaliers’ rough start to the 2014-15 season, the team executed a trade to acquire J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert from the New York Knicks, and in a separate trade also picked up Timofey Mozgov. James revealed last night in his post-game press conference that Smith was a “throw-in” player in the deal.
The Cavaliers picked up a shooting threat in Smith, a great defender in Shumpert and a big man in Mozgov. In Smith’s second game with the Cavaliers, he led the team in scoring after dropping 27 points on those same Warriors that the Cavaliers would eventually battle in the Finals. While Smith might have been a throw-in player by the Knicks, he became arguably the most important player the team acquired in those two trades.
“It goes without saying,” James said last season of Smith’s impact to the team. “Sometimes what’s known doesn’t need to be said. He comes in with a defensive mindset for one. He plays all of the two-guards in our league. Then he just makes the right plays offensively. If he’s got a shot, he takes it; if not, he swings it. He continues to get everyone involved, but obviously his shooting ability definitely helps our team as far as space and it’s a very key component for us.”
Shortly after acquiring those three players, the Cavaliers went on to finish the rest of the regular season by compiling a 34-9 record. The team looked to be well on their way to the NBA Finals – James’ fifth-straight Finals appearance, and the franchise’s first since 2007. Of course, we know how that story ended: with the Warriors eliminating the Cavaliers in six games.
The Cavaliers seemed destined to return to the Finals again this season. They were the top-ranked team in the Eastern Conference virtually for the entire season and were the clear-cut favorites to advance out of the East. Their path through the playoffs offered little resistance as they suffered just two losses prior to the Finals (against the Toronto Raptors).
This was after the team opted to fire head coach David Blatt. It’s not often that a team in first place in its conference makes a coaching change during the middle of the season. But the reported turmoil between Blatt and James proved to be too much for the organization and Tyronn Lue was promoted to take over and quickly learned to be a head coach.
While the Cavaliers were adjusting to a new head coach, the Warriors were full-steam ahead to the best record in regular-season history. The Warriors had virtually no distractions during their historic run. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers were mired in drama and were answering questions if their first-time head coach would be able to lead the team to a championship.
Players were sending cryptic tweets. James removed “The Land” from his Twitter bio and unfollowed the Cavs at one point. Kevin Love was involved in several trade rumors and was cropped out of a team photo. There were reports of players clashing in the locker room. Despite everything, James warned us in his letter that his patience would get tested and, by all indications, it was certainly tested and then some.
There were no excuses for the Cavaliers this year. They were at full strength, unlike last year when they were missing two of their top players in Love and Kyrie Irving in the Finals. They played nearly the minimum amount of games through the Eastern Conference and were about as healthy as a team can be heading into June.
All indications pointed to a more competitive series this year between the Warriors and Cavaliers. With Love and Irving in the mix, the Cavaliers were going to seriously challenge the Warriors this year. James proved last season that one player can only take a team so far in a playoff series. He would need other players to step up and help him.
Through the first four games of the series, it was anything but competitive. The Warriors had stormed out to a 3-1 series lead after taking Game 4 in Cleveland. But, something happened that would alter the series in favor of the Cavaliers. James and Draymond Green were involved in an altercation late in Game 4 that saw Green take a swipe at James near his groin. The NBA reacted and assessed Green a flagrant foul, which in turn suspended him for Game 5.
It seems as though something was said that fired up James to a level that we hadn’t seen yet this postseason. During the scuffle, James said that he took offense to some of the things that Green said. The motivation that fired up James was likely comments made by Klay Thompson regarding the incident between James and Green.
“I saw them barking at each other, but it’s nothing — I mean, guys talk trash in this league all the time,” Thompson told reporters. “I’m just kind of shocked some guys take it so personal (laughing). It’s like, I mean, you know, it’s a man’s league and I’ve heard a lot of bad things on that court, but at the end of the day it stays on the court. We’re all competitive people. I mean, trash talk is a part of the game in basketball. It’s a part of any sport, especially this competitive.
“I don’t know how [James] feels. But obviously people have feelings and people’s feelings get hurt even if they’re called a bad word. I guess his feelings just got hurt. I mean, we’ve all been called plenty of bad words on the basketball court before. Some guys just react to it differently. All I can say for myself individually, I just try to ignore it or just let it fuel the fire, but I don’t carry it with me when the job is done.”
This was followed by Marreese Speights tweeting out a baby bottle emoji. Following those comments, James came out and dropped two of the best Finals performances that we’ve ever seen. In Games 5 and 6, James combined for 82 points, 24 rebounds, 18 assists, seven steals and six blocks, while shooting 56 percent from the field. James, a 31 percent three-point shooter during the regular season, knocked down 7-of-14 shots from three-point range during those two games.
Of course, that set the scene for James and an encore performance in Game 7. While he didn’t score at least 40 points for the third-straight game, he did record 27 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists, three blocks and two steals to become just the third player in history to have a triple-double in a Finals Game 7. He is now tied for second place all-time for most Finals MVP awards, and won this season’s trophy unanimously.
When LeBron James is done playing basketball and settled into retirement, this Finals performance will be what’s remembered most. His first championship with the Miami HEAT will be talked about to some degree since it was his first ring, but what he was able to accomplish this season will go down as one of the best Finals performances in history.
James will be remembered most for bringing the Cleveland Cavaliers their first championship in franchise history. He’ll be remembered for ending a 52-year major sports championship drought. He’ll be remembered for staging the biggest comeback in Finals history after trailing 3-1, and he’ll also be remembered for ending the Warriors’ chance at clinching the best season in NBA history.
James will eventually have a statue in front of Quicken Loans Arena and will go down as one of the best players to ever lace ’em up. In the meantime, we remember James for delivering on one of the greatest vows in NBA history.
“I came back for a reason,” James said. “I came back to bring a championship to our city. I knew what I was capable of doing. I knew what I learned in the last couple years that I was gone, and I knew if I had to — when I came back, I knew I had the right ingredients and the right blueprint to help this franchise get back to a place that we’ve never been. That’s what it was all about.”
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