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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

LeBron James Rewards Long Suffering Cleveland Fans With an Eastern Conference Championship

This article was originally published at NBCSports.com on 6/3/07

Cleveland is home to perhaps the most star-crossed sports fans in the country; after all, in Cleveland, athletic disasters come complete with their own dramatic names: "Red Right 88," "The Drive," "The Fumble." One of the greatest moments in Cleveland sports is "The Miracle at Richfield," which happened when the Cleveland Cavaliers made it to the 1976 Eastern Conference Finals only to lose to the Boston Celtics in six games but, as Steve Kerr wryly put it recently, that is hardly much of a miracle.

All of that tortured history means that Saturday night’s 98-82 victory over the Detroit Pistons in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Finals is a very special moment in Cleveland sports history. The Cavaliers became just the third team to win a conference championship after trailing 2-0. They also avenged last year’s seven game loss in the Conference semifinals to the Pistons. This set off much celebrating in the arena, which later spilled out into the streets of Cleveland, which were jam-packed with cars--horns honking and people leaning out to high-five each other--and ecstatic pedestrians for hours after the game ended.

The game had a strange flow to it, not least because of a delay of more than 20 minutes prior to the start of the second quarter due to a scoreboard malfunction. That stoppage seemed to rob the Cavaliers of a lot of momentum and they went from leading 27-21 after the first quarter to being deadlocked at 48 at halftime. Not surprisingly, there was much doom and gloom talk in the hallways and the media room at Quicken Loans Arena, as writers quipped that if the Cavaliers lost this game then it would forever be known as "The Clock."

That nickname will not join "The Drive" and the others, however, because the Pistons lost their poise and the Cavaliers discovered an outside shooting threat who can punish teams for double and triple teaming LeBron James. Rasheed Wallace got ejected after he fouled out, which may be some kind of record, but the Pistons already trailed 81-69 at that point, largely because of the three point shooting of rookie guard Daniel Gibson. Detroit swarmed James throughout the game and in the fourth quarter Gibson exploded for a franchise record 19 points as Cleveland turned a close game into a rout. He finished with a game-high 31 points and his nickname, "Boobie," is already becoming a cult phenomenon in Cleveland, as fans came to the game with signs and T-shirts utilizing the word in several ways, some of them at least vaguely off-color.

Of course, none of this Cleveland success would be possible without the singular talents of James, who delivered a performance for the ages in Cleveland’s Game Five road win. That forced Detroit to literally send their whole team at him in Game Six, hoping that no one else on the Cavaliers would make a shot. James shot just 3-11 from the field but he still stormed to the hoop enough to shoot 14-19 from the free throw line and finish with 20 points. He also had game-high totals of 14 rebounds and eight assists, but perhaps his best contributions are intangible: James believes in his teammates and infuses them with confidence. That is why he passed to Donyell Marshall at the end of Game One instead of taking the shot himself--and before Game Six, James informed the assembled media that, if presented with that choice again he would not hesitate to do the same thing.

Prior to the game, I suggested to Cavaliers General Manager Danny Ferry that if James can carry the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals that it would be an unprecedented accomplishment for a player who is so young and who is not playing alongside another current All-Star. Ferry immediately responded, "His goal is not to get to the Finals, but to win it. If he can do that, then obviously it will be an incredible feat for our whole team. I think that our players are better than everyone gives them credit for, but at the same time, the greatness of LeBron is going to overshadow a lot."

posted by David Friedman @ 7:10 AM

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