They weren’t supposed to be there this year. We were warned as such by the man who brought them here, to the brink of immortality.
In his self-penned letter to Sports Illustrated last summer, LeBron James dismissed to the world the idea that the first incarnation of the new-look Cleveland Cavaliers would be standing tall the first week of June: “I’m not promising a championship,” he started off. “ I know how hard that is to deliver. We’re not ready right now. No way. Of course, I want to win next year, but I’m realistic.”
In some ways, he may have been right. The outfit the Cavaliers began with on their opening night may have never gotten it together, may have never came alive after a sub-par 19-20 start, and may never have been gearing up for Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday night.
But, this isn’t that outfit. These Cleveland Cavaliers are preparing for the second NBA Finals in franchise history after making quick work of the scrappy Boston Celtics, outlasting the Chicago Bulls, and obliterating the East’s top-seeded Atlanta Hawks. Thursday night, the Cavs will take on the Golden State Warriors from Oracle Arena in a series where they are a heavy underdog, even with the best player on the planet.
Exactly where they want to be. Exactly where CLEVELAND wants to be. Then, and only then, as an underdog, can this potential championship run get any sweeter.
To say Cleveland is a favorite in this series is to come off as misinformed, a homer, biased to the King and all of his greatness. That’s a fair assessment. When looking at these two teams on paper, the roads they have traveled, and each sides respective health situations, how can the Cavaliers expect to win one game, let alone four games and a series, with a roster bugged with injuries, questionable depth, and the beneficiary of a historically weak Eastern Conference? Well, that’s easy. The same way they have been doing it all playoffs. The scrappy way. The ugly way. Essentially, the “Cleveland” way.
When one thinks of the city of Cleveland, a certain mentality is given. Hard-nosed. Tough. People who work day in and day out, punching their time cards to do their jobs and provide for themselves and others. “You don’t get anything you don’t earn.” Clevelanders are loyal, dedicated, and always stick together. In a year their hero comes back to their town, it’s only right the Cavaliers postseason play embodies the spirit of their city. Cleveland is home to the playoff’s best defense, giving up 92.6 PPG, while limiting opponents to .412 shooting from the field. Their ability to shut opponents down during this playoff run has aided their cause with the loss and limitations of their stars. Instead of simply outscoring teams like they did in the regular season, the Cavs have adapted their ways and done what the past champions have done: pummeled teams into submission.
Besides their new-found swarming defense, the Cavs have won games and gotten this far by working as a unit, a functioning team where every member is comfortable in their role alongside James. The mid-season acquisitions of JR Smith, Iman Shumpert, and Timofey Mosgov gave them life, but I think it was the loss of Kevin Love in the Boston Series that brought this team to where they are now, as PF Tristan Thompson has emerged as the heart and soul of this Cavalier ball club, bringing a relentless toughness and competitive fire, right when they needed it. It is safe to say the emergence of Thompson has really paved the way for way they are now. Thompson’s presence on the glass as well as the pesky irritant antics of PG Matthew Dellevadova have more than made up for the limitation of Kyrie Irving, and the absence of Kevin Love. They have more than embraced their “ALL IN” mantra, embodied by this team, and this city.
There will be other postseason runs. The Cavs will get Kyrie Back healthy, LeBron will grow even more comfortable with his new (or, are they old?) surroundings, and if Love resigns like he has gone on record saying he will, Cleveland will be a factor for the championship for years to come. But there won’t be other runs exactly like this one. This trip to the Finals, the one they weren’t supposed to make, the one they made while battling turmoil, rumor, injury, and any other possible hurtle a basketball team could face, could be something truly special if completed. This is the run that truly embodies the city of Cleveland: blue-collar, tough, together. The perpetual underdog on the biggest of stages.
They wouldn’t have it any other way. On Thursday night the Cavaliers go back to work, and the City goes back with them. It may be time we witness something special, something not seen in 51 long years: A championship for the city of Cleveland. And this time, if it’s even remotely possible, this title might mean a little more. Enjoy the finals, Cleveland sports fans. Enjoy the ride, enjoy the chance. This run is special, more special than any I have ever seen. It can all come to a storybook close with the man who didn’t think you’d get here in the first place. How, UN-Cleveland. How spectacular.