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Monday, June 20, 2016

LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers Make History by Overcoming a 3-1 Deficit to Win Game Seven on the Road

In one night, LeBron James ensured his place alongside Jim Brown in the Cleveland sports pantheon and he elevated his already lofty position within pro basketball's pantheon. James followed up twin 41 point performances in games five and six of the NBA Finals with a rare game seven triple double as his Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Golden State Warriors 93-89 to complete an unprecedented rally from a 3-1 deficit.

That was an epic performance by a player who added immensely to his already impressive legacy that included two championships, two Finals MVPs and four regular season MVPs. Lebron James was not perfect but he came up LARGE when his team needed it most. His numbers were big (27 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists, three blocked shots, two steals) but that is beside the point because James' numbers are almost always big. What matters is James' impact when game seven and the series were on the line: in the fourth quarter, James scored 11 points, grabbed three rebounds and dished for one assist as he personally accounted for 13 of the Cavaliers' 18 points in the final stanza. James did not shoot well from the field (9-24) but that is to be expected in a tightly contested game seven--and I stated as much in my previous article when I asserted that what will matter is not James' "efficiency" but rather his aggressiveness. James did not settle for jumpers when he had the chance to attack and that is the major reason that the Cavaliers won. James unanimously won Finals MVP honors after averaging 29.7 ppg, 11.3 rpg and 8.9 apg in the series. James joined Julius Erving (1976 ABA Finals) as the only players in pro basketball history to lead both teams in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocked shots in one playoff series--but, again, this is less about numbers and more about impact, because the deciding factor in this series is that James changed his mindset and approach after Cleveland fell into the 3-1 hole.

James was clearly the best player in this series--and is the best player on the planet--by a landslide but it should be noted that Kyrie Irving played at an MVP level in the Finals. Irving averaged 27.1 ppg versus Golden State and his 26 points in game seven included the three point shot that gave Cleveland the lead for good with :52 remaining in the fourth quarter. Irving completely outplayed the reigning two-time regular season MVP Stephen Curry. 

Kevin Love has consistently been the scapegoat for the Cavaliers whenever anything went wrong but he
had a positive impact throughout the series and particularly in game seven as a rebounder with a team-high 14 boards.

Draymond Green stepped up big time for Golden State (32 points, 15 rebounds, nine assists) in game seven but his foolish actions throughout the playoffs that culminated in being suspended for game five of the NBA Finals are his fault alone. That said, Golden State had game seven at home, Green played very well and the Cavaliers still won, so it is ridiculous to say that the suspension swung the series. The Cavaliers proved that once James played with the requisite aggressiveness the Warriors had no answers individually or collectively.

Curry played well in the Finals by most players' standards, posting a 22.6 ppg average, but he did not place his stamp on this series by performing at an MVP level. The Warriors won the first two games easily without needing much from Curry, so Curry's numbers are somewhat skewed, but again this is less about numbers (as hard as that is for some people to understand in this so-called era of "analytics") and more about impact. Curry was a non-factor at home in game seven with the championship on the line (17 points on 6-19 field goal shooting looks better on paper than Curry actually played) and that is part of his resume now the same way that James' earlier Finals failures are on his resume; James has three great Finals performances to his credit and perhaps Curry will accomplish that as well but right now Curry does not "feel" like a two-time MVP in a world where Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant won just one MVP each.

Curry's backcourt running mate Klay Thompson was solid (19.6 ppg) but not exceptional throughout the series and he also was well nigh invisible in game seven (14 points on 6-17 field goal shooting). Thompson is an outstanding two-way player whose worth cannot be measured just by looking at his offensive numbers but he did not have the impact at either end of the court in this series that Golden State needed from him in order to repeat as NBA champions.

Switching from the key individual players to the team versus team perspective, perhaps the most remarkable team statistic from this series is that the Cavaliers held the Warriors' historically great offense to 11 points in the first quarter of game six to deliver a knockout blow in the first 12 minutes and then limited the Warriors to 13 points in the fourth quarter of game seven to capture the only close contest of the series. James' fingerprints were literally all over that defensive dominance (in terms of some spectacular blocked shots and timely steals) but Coach Tyronn Lue also deserves credit for a great defensive game plan and the entire team deserves credit for executing that game plan.

It is also worth noting that the Cavaliers outrebounded Golden State 48-39 in game seven. Coach Lue resisted the temptation to go small when the Warriors went small during this series and as a result the Cavaliers pounded the Warriors in the paint at both ends of the court, which more than nullified Golden State's record-setting three point assault. The "stat gurus" blithely insist that "3 is more than 2," ignoring the reality that a team that can pound the paint can (1) generate extra possessions with great rebounding, (2) wear down the legs of three point shooters by making them work on defense and (3) erode the confidence of jump shooters by placing them under physical and mental pressure that they are not used to facing. Curry and Thompson are considered by many to be the greatest shooting backcourt in history but they combined to shoot 6-24 from three point range in what may turn out to be the biggest game of their careers. The Warriors succeeded last year where previous jump shooting teams failed because they complemented their offensive fireworks with defensive dominance and because the teams they faced lacked either the mindset or the personnel to effectively utilize size against the Warriors in the paint; this year, the Oklahoma City Thunder used size/paint dominance to push the Warriors to the brink in the Western Conference Finals and then the Cavaliers used size/paint dominance to wear down the Warriors in the NBA Finals.

From a historical standpoint, this series will likely be remembered first for how it redefined James' legacy, second for how it removed the Warriors from the greatest team of all-time conversation and third for how it affected the perception of Stephen Curry's two MVP awards. James is now 3-4 in the NBA Finals and could very possibly end his career at 4-4, but a loss to Golden State would have dropped him to 2-5 and all but ensured a sub-.500 career record on the sport's biggest stage. The Warriors proved to not be the best team of 2016 and, at least by my reckoning, can no longer be seriously considered in the greatest team of all-time conversation. Curry has already won a championship and he is a better defender than Steve Nash ever was so Curry's MVPs are not as suspect as Nash's but--as mentioned above--it just feels wrong that Curry owns as many MVPs as O'Neal and Bryant combined.

Much will be made of the Cavaliers ending Cleveland's 52 year drought for professional sports championships but the Cavaliers franchise is not even 52 years old and the majority of that drought had nothing to do with James. It is significant that James returned to Cleveland after the "Decision" p.r. disaster and fulfilled his promise to win a championship with the Cavaliers and it is even more significant that James did so by attacking the hoop aggressively in the climactic portion of the series; James' ability to change the passive mindset that haunted him in several of his previous Finals' appearances is the biggest single news story about this championship.

On a personal note, the first time that the Cavaliers made it to the NBA Finals I covered games three and four in person with a credential from NBCSports.com. Those were the first Finals games I attended in person and I thought that they would always be the most special Finals games of my life for that reason--but I watched this game seven at home on Father's Day as my soon to be 22-month old daughter Rachel fell asleep on my lap. This Father's Day Weekend was all about Rachel for me, pushing Bar Exam prep, the NBA Finals and everything else to the side. My life has changed a lot in the past two-plus years and I don't know what the future holds, so if this game seven recap in some way does not fully match up with the moment or with my previous recaps I am sorry about that but I don't regret it, because the alternative would have been to send the message to Rachel that this game matters more to me than she does--and that is not the case. She will not remember this day or this weekend but when she is older she will know and feel that I always put her first and that I have restructured my entire life to put her first--and she will know that my favorite NBA Finals memory will always be not the first Finals that I attended in person but rather the first NBA Finals that I shared with her.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:59 AM