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.”
Middleton, Bucks Aiming To ‘Lock In’ As Season Comes To Close
Spencer Davies catches up with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Khris Middleton in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.
Basketball Insiders had the chance to chat with Khris Middleton about the direction of the Milwaukee Bucks as the season comes to a close.
You guys won three out of four before you came into Cleveland. What was working during that stretch?
Just being us. Doing it with our defense, playing fast-paced offense. Just trying to keep teams off the three-point line. We haven’t done that. We didn’t do that [Monday] or two games ago, but it’s something we’ve just gotta get back to.
With the offense—it seems like it’s inconsistent. What do you think that’s got to do with mostly?
Just trying to do it by ourselves sometimes. Standing, keeping the ball on one side of the floor. We’re a better team when we play in a fast pace. And then also in the half court, when we move the ball from side-to-side it just opens the paint for everybody and there’s a lot more space.
For you, on both ends you’ve been ultra-aggressive here in the last couple weeks or so, does that have to do with you feeling better or is it just a mindset?
I’ve been healthy all year. Right now, it’s the end of the season. Gotta make a push. Everybody’s gotta lock in. Have to be confident, have to be aggressive. Have to do my job and that’s to shoot the ball well and to defend.
Have you changed anything with your jumper? Looking at the past couple months back-to-back, your perimeter shooting was below 32 percent. In March it’s above 45 percent.
I feel like I got a lot of great looks earlier this year. They just weren’t falling. Right now, they’re falling for me, so I have the same mindset that I had when I was missing and that’s to keep on shooting. At some point, they’re gonna go down for me.
Is knowing that every game at this point means more an extra motivator for you guys?
Definitely. We’re basically in the playoffs right now. We’re in a playoff series right now where we have to win games, we have to close out games, in order to get the seeding and to stay in the playoffs. Each game and each possession means something to us right now.
Is it disappointing to be in the position the team is in right now, or are you looking at it as, ‘If we get there, we’re going to be alright’?
I mean, we wish we were in a better position. But where we’re at right now, we’re fine with it. We want to make that last push to get higher in the seeding.
Lots of changes have gone on here. Eric Bledsoe came in two weeks into the season. You had the coaching change and lineup changes. Jabari Parker’s been getting situated before the postseason. How difficult does that make it for you guys to build consistency?
Yeah, it was tough at first. But I think early on we had to adjust on the fly. We didn’t have too many practices. There was a stretch where we were able to get in the film room, get on the court, and practice with each other more.
Now it’s just at a point where we’re adding a lot of new guys off the bench where we have to do the same things—learn on the fly, watch film. We’re not on the court as much now, but we just have to do a great job of buying in to our system, try to get to know each other.
Does this team feel like it has unfinished business based on what happened last year?
Definitely. Last year, we felt like we let one go. Toronto’s a great team. They’re having a hell of a season this year, but I feel like we let one go. This year’s a new year—a little add of extra motivation. We’ve been in the playoff position before, so hopefully, we learn from it when we go into it this year.
Would you welcome that rematch?
I mean, we welcome anybody man. We showed that we compete with any team out here. We can’t worry about other teams as much. We just have to be focused on us.
What has to happen for you guys to achieve your full potential?
Lock in. Just play as hard as we can, play unselfish, and do our job out there night-in, night-out.
NBA Daily: Raptors Look To Fine-Tune The Defense
The Toronto Raptors’ defense had a letdown against the Cavaliers, but has been outstanding overall.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors engaged in an offensive shootout on Wednesday that could be a playoff preview. The Cavs protected home court with a single-possession, 132-129 victory. Afterward, the Raptors spoke about the types of defensive adjustments the team needs to make as the postseason rapidly approaches.
“That’s how a playoff game would be,” said DeMar DeRozan, who missed a three at the buzzer that could have forced overtime. “This is a team we’ve been playing against the last two years in the postseason. Understanding how we can tighten up things defensively, how to make things tougher for them [is key].
“[It’s] little small things that go a long way, and not just with them … with every team.”
Raptors coach Dwane Casey concurred with DeRozan that fine-tuning of the defense is needed. He also pointed out that, with young contributors such as center Jakob Poeltl and power forward Pascal Siakam on the roster, defensive experience against the league’s best player, LeBron James, is something they will have to gain on the fly.
“I don’t think Jakob Poeltl played against him that much, and Siakam,” said Casey. “This is their first time seeing it. I thought Jak and Pascal did an excellent job, but there are certain situations where they’ve got to read and understand what the other team is trying to do to them.”
Poeltl was outstanding, leading the bench with 17 points and tying for the team lead in rebounds with eight. Casey praised the diversity of his contributions.
“I thought he did an excellent job of rolling, finishing, finding people,” said Casey. “I thought defensively, he did a good job of protecting the paint, going vertical. So I liked what he was giving us, especially his defense against Kevin Love.”
Basketball Insiders previously noted how the Raptors have performed vastly better as a team this season when starting point guard Kyle Lowry is out of the game. Much of that is due to Fred VanVleet’s emergence as one of the NBA’s best reserve point guards. VanVleet scored 16 points with five assists and no turnovers against Cleveland. It’s also a reflection of how good Toronto’s perimeter defense has been up and down the roster.
According to ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic, three of the NBA’s top 15 defensive point guards play for the Raptors. VanVleet ranks seventh while Lowry is 12th and Delon Wright is 14th. Starting small forward OG Anunoby ranks 16th at his position.
The Raptors also rank in the top five in offensive efficiency (third) and defensive efficiency (fifth). Having established an identity as a defensive team, especially on the perimeter, it’s perhaps understandable that Lowry was the one player in the visiting locker room who took the sub-standard defensive showing personally.
“It was a disgraceful display of defense by us and we’ve got to be better than that,” said Lowry. “We’ve got to be more physical. They picked us apart and made a lot of threes. We’ve got to find a way to be a better defensive team.”
Lowry continued the theme of fine-tuning as the regular season winds down.
“I think we’ve just got to make adjustments on the fly as a team,” said Lowry. “We can score with the best of them, but they outscored us tonight. We got what we wanted offensively. We’re one of the top teams in scoring in the league, but we’re also a good defensive team.”
Lowry was clearly bothered by Toronto’s defensive showing, but Casey downplayed the importance of a single regular-season game.
“We’ve got to take these games and learn from them, and again learn from the situations where we have to be disciplined,” said Casey. “It’s not a huge thing. It’s situations where we are that we’ve got to learn from and be disciplined and not maybe take this step and over-help here. Because a team like that and a passer like James will make you pay.”
While the Raptors continue to gain experience and dial in the fine defensive details, Casey was insistent that his players should not hang their heads over falling short against Cleveland.
“Hopefully our guys understand that we’re right there,” said Casey.
The Raptors host the Brooklyn Nets tonight to open a three-game home stand that includes visits from the Clippers Sunday and the Nuggets Tuesday. After that, Toronto visits the Celtics March 31 followed by a return to Cleveland April 3 and a home game against Boston the next night. With three games in a row against the other two top-three teams in the East, the schedule presents plenty of opportunities for the Raptors to add defensive polish before the playoffs begin.
NBA Daily: Jaylen Brown Set To Return For Celtics
The Celtics finally got some good news on Thursday. Jaylen Brown’s return is imminent.
Finally, some good news for the Boston Celtics.
Jaylen Brown is set to return to action.
Brown has been M.I.A. since sustaining a concussion during the team’s 117-109 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves back on March 8, but has traveled with the team to Portland and is expecting to return to the lineup on Sunday when the Celtics do battle with the Sacramento Kings.
As the Celts gear up for a playoff run, which they hope will result in them ending LeBron James’ reign atop the Eastern Conference, they’ve picked the wrong time to run into injury issues. Along with Brown, both Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart have each been conspicuous by their absences, and the team could certainly use all of their pieces as they attempt to enter the postseason on a high note.
Fortunately for Boston, with the Toronto Raptors leading them by 4.5 games in the standings and the Celts ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers by a comfortable six games, Brad Stevens’ team is enjoying the rare situation of having a playoff seed that appears to be somewhat locked in.
Still, with the team only able to go as far as its young rotation will carry it, Brown addressed the media on Thursday.
“I’m feeling a lot better. I’m just trying to hurry up and get back,” Brown said, as quoted by Celtics.com.
“I’m tired of not playing.”
Stevens is probably tired of him not playing, too.
As we head into the month of April, playoff-bound teams and conference contenders begin to think about playing into June, while the cellar-dwellers and pretenders begin to look toward the draft lottery and free agency.
What’s funny is that in the midst of the Raptors and their rise out East, the Celtics and their dominance has become a bit of a forgotten storyline. When Gordon Hayward went down on opening night, the neophytes from the Northeast were thought to be a decent team in the making whose ceiling probably wasn’t anywhere near that of the Cavs, the Raptors and perhaps even the Washington Wizards.
Yet through it all, with the impressive growth of Jaylen Brown, impressive rookie Jayson Tatum and the rise of Irving as a franchise’s lynchpin, the Celtics stormed out the games to the tune of a a 17-3 record. What made the strong start even more impressive was the fact that the team won 16 straight games after beginning the season 0-2.
Although they weren’t able to keep up that pace, they began the month of February having gone 37-15 and turned a great many into believers. With their spry legs, team-first playing style and capable leader in Irving, the Celtics, it was thought, were a true contender in the Eastern Conference — if not the favorite.
Since then, and after experiencing injuries to some of its key cogs, the team has gone just 11-8.
In the interim, it seems that many have forgotten about the team that tantalized the Eastern Conference in the early goings of the season.
Brown’s return, in one important respect, will signify a return to Boston’s prior self.
With Marcus Smart having recently undergone surgery to repair a torn tendon in his right thumb, he is expected to be out another five weeks or so, meaning that he’ll likely miss the beginning of the postseason.
As for Irving, although reports say that his ailing knee has no structural damage, everything the Celtics hope to accomplish begins and ends with him. FOX Sports 1’s Chris Broussard believes that it’s no slam dunk that Irving returns to action this season, but he’s in the minority. This team has simply come too far to not give themselves every opportunity to compete at the highest level, so long as doing so doesn’t jeopardize the long term health of any of the franchise’s cornerstones.
Make no mistake about it, the Celtics are far from a finished product. With their nucleus intact and flexibility preserved, they will have another offseason with which to tinker with their rotation pieces and plug away at building a champion.
But here and now, with what they’ve got, the Celtics are much closer than any of us thought they would be at this point.
And on Sunday, when Jaylen Brown rejoins his team in the lineup, to the delight of the Boston faithful, the Celtics will be that much closer.