Sport

How the Cleveland Cavaliers Broke the Formula to Win Their First NBA Title

LeBron James winning the NBA championship for the Cleveland Cavaliers marks the end of a chapter in one of sport’s greatest stories.

LeBron James and Stephen Curry. Credit: Reuters

LeBron James and Stephen Curry. Credit: Reuters

Two moments stood out in the dying minutes of the fourth quarter of the National Basketball Association (NBA) Finals, Game 7. The matchup was between the Golden State Warriors, reigning champions, and Cleveland Cavaliers. The NBA, consisting of teams from the US and one from Canada, is the most competitive basketball league in the world, and after a long regular season and a brutal postseason, it all boiled down to one game.

With the game tied at 89 points apiece, Stephen (“Steph”) Curry and Andre Iguodala of the Warriors bolted on a fast break, trading passes between them, as Iguodala rose for what seemed like an easy layup, only to be denied by a vicious chase down block by LeBron James. As the game clock and shot clock wound down, the teams still tied and pressure mounting, Kyrie Irving unleashed a shot from beyond the arc, gifting the Cavaliers an invaluable lead with 53 seconds left in a game that had both sides exchanging advantage as often as the teetering ends of a see-saw. The lead proved to be insurmountable as the Cavaliers held their nerve to clinch their first-ever NBA title, ending a title-drought that had lasted more than 50 years.

An emotionally-charged James rushed to his teammates on the bench and held them in a tight embrace before collapsing to the ground in tears. His road to an ever-elusive NBA championship as a Cavalier was far from a fairytale. In 2010, when he announced his decision to take his “talents to South Beach” in Miami, he attracted criticism from every quarter. Overnight, he went from being the most loved sportsperson in Cleveland to being labelled as opportunistic and a traitor, his effigies burnt. Fans were outraged that James, born and brought up in Akron, Ohio, would desert the city to win a championship with another team.

But James had to get that monkey off his back if he ever wanted to be a part of the all-polarising ‘G.O.A.T.’ discussion. Individual accomplishments and statistical achievements have always been regarded as an incomplete measure of greatness in basketball. Ask Charles Barkley or Karl Malone, who racked up impressive numbers throughout their careers but fell short of a championship in an era dominated by the Chicago Bulls and its Michael Jordan. At Miami, James won two consecutive championship rings. As his work in Miami was done, and he announced his return to Cleveland, his status as Cleveland’s favourite son was restored. James has remarked time and again that it is his single-minded aim to bring an NBA championship to the city of Cleveland. He had an opportunity last season when he faced a rampaging Golden State Warriors team coming off a 67-win regular season.

Time to reset

The Cavaliers’ hopes of a championship the previous year received a major setback as injuries riddled a team already inexperienced on the big stage. Lacking anyone to share the offensive load, James fought a losing battle, dragging the finals series to six games on the back of some staggering individual performances. However, the Warriors’ stifling defence combined with their ability to shoot three-pointers at will proved to be too much for the James-led Cavaliers. It was time to reset.

This year, as the Warriors capped a historic regular season with 73 wins, the Cavaliers achieved an impressive but underwhelming 57 wins. The Cavaliers franchise fired their head-coach after a 34-point blowout loss to the Warriors early in the season. If that game was a glimpse of things to come, the Cavaliers were no match for the Warriors.

The Warriors work beautifully as a team. Their roster is filled with talented role players who know exactly what they need to bring to the table. They play an unselfish game, distributing the ball at ease around the perimeter. But their offence largely centres around their ability to hit three-point shots. In their guards Klay Thompson and Curry, they have two of the best shooters in the league, who may very well end up being the best of all time. As opposed to the usual lineup that consists of at least one ‘big’ man, the Warriors have redefined how offence is run. The presence of players like Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala, excellent two-way men, gives them the opportunity to go with a ‘small lineup’, a lineup that is quicker on the feet and can easily switch from one player to another and keep a taut defence. Dubbed the ‘death lineup’, it broke and set numerous records in the regular season. Before the start of the playoffs, they never lost back-to-back games, and held records for the best start, most consecutive home wins and most wins in a single season. Leading to the playoffs, the Warriors had a near perfect season.

The playoffs, however, are a different beast altogether. While both the Warriors and Cavaliers swept through the initial rounds uncontested, they faced competition in finals. The Cavaliers lost two away games against the Toronto Raptors but won their home games convincingly to proceed to the finals. The Warriors faced-off against Oklahoma City Thunder, a team that humbled the San Antonio Spurs in a surprise series. Countering the Warriors’ small-ball lineup by playing ‘big’, the Thunders dominated presence in the paint, and, coupled with the dynamism of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durrant, pushed the series to a game 7, in which the Warriors’ superior defence and shot-making ability carried them through. In a rematch of the finals last year, the Warriors were pitted against a healthy Cavaliers team. And James had had another shot at glory.

The seven games

The finals series unravelled much like a movie script, with drama on and off the court. If heightened emotions, high stakes and arguably two of the best basketball players on the planet were not enough to make it a series to remember, there were external factors that upped the ante.

In games 1 and 2 in Oakland, the Warrior’s home, the Cavaliers were outplayed in every department. All throughout the playoffs the Cavaliers were able to make plenty of shots from beyond the arc, aided by James’s penetrative offence and passing abilities. Their offence had a sense of fluidity to it, which broke down when the Cavaliers had to contend with the Warriors’ strong perimeter defence. Such was the one-sided nature of the first two games that most pundits predicted a four-game sweep.

Game 3 at Cleveland changed all that. The Cavaliers fought back with a 30-point difference rout, with Cleveland’s offensive trio of James, Irving and Smith getting back in form. But, just when it looked like Cleveland might be in with a chance, the Warriors took a game at Cleveland, going up 3-1, a win away from a second straight championship.

Game 4, however, will be remembered for one single moment that led to an eruption of controversy. Draymond Green, a player known to wear his heart on his sleeve, was one flagrant foul away from being suspended for a game. Green had already racked up flagrant fouls, deemed as excessive, intentional or unnecessary, in earlier playoff games. In a moment that has been replayed and micro-analysed countless times, Green flailed his arms, connected with James and earned a suspension for Game 5. Lacking their premier defender in Green, the Warriors’ defence fell apart in Game 5, and both Irving and James feasted on the weak defence – scoring 41 points each in a combined performance for the ages.

James’s alleged role in Green’s suspension attracted criticism from the Warriors camp, with players saying that his feelings were hurt and one even going so far as tweeting an emoji of a baby milk bottle. James, however, was unfazed, and followed his performance in Game 5 with an equally good, if not better, performance in Game 6, in which Curry, the reigning ‘Most Valuable Player’ (MVP), was fouled out and removed. The Cavaliers, after being 3-1 down, succeeded in forcing a Game 7. But to win Game 7, the Cavaliers had to do what no team had ever done before: come back from a 3-1 deficit in the finals to win the championship. Thirty-two teams had tried and failed.

To make matters difficult, the Cavaliers had to defy history at a venue that had proven to be a fortress for the home team, a team that lost just 9 out of 82 regular season games. The odds were heavily stacked against the Cavaliers, but momentum was with them. Game 7 at Oakland unfolded as a classic series decider. Both teams traded leads, had corresponding hot and cold moments, and there were words thrown around. But at the end of it all, in a closely fought game, the Cavaliers emerged victorious, ending the Warriors’ historic run and leaving their otherwise spotless regular season tainted. Their 73-9 regular season record became just a statistic.

Tainting the spotless

How did the seemingly inferior Cavaliers defeat the Warriors? How did they erase a 3-1 deficit, win two games on the Warriors’ home turf and rewrite history?

For starters, the Cavaliers got contributions from every teammate when it mattered. Kyrie Irving, a supremely talented guard, had had some brilliant games and for the most part did a good job in his matchup with Curry, not allowing him to ever get into a groove. Tristan Thompson transformed into a rebounding machine, giving the Cavaliers second chances and even finished well at the rim. J.R. Smith chipped in with 10-odd points and his tenacity in defence unsettled the Warriors’ shooters. And, well, there was LeBron James.

In typical James fashion, he left an indelible mark on the series, leading every department from blocks to steals. In a career filled with defining moments, this series has to be James’s finest. After a few quiet games in the beginning, James bounced back with vengeance. He trusted his jump shot, attacked at the rim and made plays that are worthy of life-size posters. If there is one event that will set in stone James’s legacy when he retires, it is this: bringing home a championship to Cleveland. Amidst all the chaos on and off the court during the finals, James absorbed all the controversies, soaked in all the pressure and performed when it mattered the most. Often, James’s losses in the NBA finals are cited as a deficiency in his big-game temperament. Never again. James winning the NBA championship marks the end of a chapter in one of sport’s greatest stories. It also furthers his rivalry with Curry, a rivalry destined to be as great as the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird rivalry in the 1980s, or the Wilt Chamberlain-Bill Russell rivalry in the 1950s and ’60s.

No basketball fan in her right mind would say that the Warriors deserved to lose the championship. But their loss opens up the NBA league and makes it interesting. Throughout the regular season the Warriors’ death lineup wreaked havoc on teams and highlighted the importance of the three-point shot. What the Thunders first revealed was that the Warriors are not invincible and that good old-fashioned basketball can still triumph in this day and age. If a team can play a tight, physical game and guard the perimeter efficiently, the Warriors are forced to make plays inside the arc, where their offence slows down and often gets stagnant.

The Cavaliers, in their run to victory, really upped their defence, closing down the Warriors’ shooters and leaving others open to try and make three-point shots. None of the Warriors – save Green in Game 7 – responded. The Warriors still have enough mettle to bounce back next season, and it remains to be seen if teams take a leaf out of the Cavaliers’ and Thunders’ playbooks and implement a tighter defence against them, like the Spurs occasionally did this season. Had the Warriors won Game 7, they would have laid a legitimate claim to being the greatest team of all time. They still can. But the fact that over a seven game-period a supposedly perfect team’s gameplay could be dissected and countered bodes well for a basketball fan. If there ever existed a blueprint for a successful basketball team, the Warriors came close to creating it. But what fun is a game if it becomes a formula?