King James Does As Promised, Ends Curse and Warriors with Championship Win

[image-1]Mayhem broke loose last night at Oracle Arena in Oakland. To Golden State fans it was as though a perfect storm materialized directly above, out of stylishly thin, California Cool air. The storm had been brewing for weeks, of course, but their myopia prevented them from seeing it coming.

Dressed in Hawaiian shirts and sporting noisemakers, they stepped aboard the Titanic, Warriors comforted in their choice of such a grand, seagoing vessel, that could never in a million years sink. Why, in the entire history of the NBA nothing like it had happened.

So assured were the ship’s navigators, ESPN’s Jeremias Englemann and Kevin Pelton, that they thought Golden State should just ram the little Cavaliers that stood in their way: It’d be fun to see the dinghy gurgle its last breath and sink to the depths in five or even four games. They never believed there could be more going on below the water line than they were capable of seeing.

When the allegedly unstoppable force ran into the half-hidden, but wholly immovable object, hence dubbed the LeBron James, the entire ship quivered. Not knowing any better, Pelton and Englemann gave it more juice. These were the goddamn Warriors for crissakes.

Sadly (or not, depending on your predilections), the ship’s figurehead Unanimous MVP wasn’t soldered tightly, but rather attached with Velcro, and the moment it hit the Cleveland dinghy, it went right into the soup and sank quickly. While passengers moaned and screamed that this was all a scam to collect the insurance money, the ship continued its slow descent, deaf to their complaints.

Disappointed friends and family of the defending champions, sat on the floor lining the walls around the Golden State locker room by the dozens. We had not thought inchoate fandom had undone so many.

With their glum faces buried in social media feeds, the Warrior faithful looked like those disconsolate losers from steerage, suddenly realizing they were expected to vacate the boat last, like those at the back of the plane.

If there were a glimmer of recognition and empathy for the broken-mast sailboat they rammed and sunk last year, it wasn’t evident in their faces, still long with entitled regret almost daring onlookers to dispatch an equal dose of schadenfreude as Golden State delivered last year at this time.

Pelton and Englemann ran to the portside to make their getaway, but found a huge commotion on the deck, where a mad Draymond Green was Rochambeauing anyone attempting to grab a raft. A pile of groaning bodies clutching their groins lay strewn about in front of him.

Klay Thompson was also on board, busy trying to convince them that there was a mistake and he was Kay Thompson – only he wasn’t female (though perhaps something of a bitch) – there was a misspelling; but he still wanted to get onto the rafts with the women and children. “I’m the right Thompson,” he could be heard yelling, “and my name is Klay!” Someone yelled from behind, “And so are your feet!”

Amin Elhassan’s body still lay face down in a four foot deep pool of champagne water after being incapacitated by a Harrison Barnes elbow – just about the only thing he hit successfully in a week. Yet Amin enjoyed a terrific bird’s eye view of the carnage – the sinking ship, the drunk winos, presumably from Northeast Ohio, feasting on the dancing wine waters, and taunting the Warriors fans drowning in their own fetid lagoon.

Elhassan looked about stunned by the vistas he could see, freed of his sausage casing. Why even Cleveland looked pretty good from up here, he thought, sort of stunned by the revelation. At the moment, something strange happened. His body struggled to its feet aided by a wino and wholly without him. Then it started dancing and frolicking with the Cavs fans.

To his right Elhassan heard a voice go, “oh dear.” The angel next to him, he’d soon discover, had rescued taken his soul before he was actually dead, and some Cavs beat writer had taken control of his body. It was very regrettable, but considering Mr. Elhassan’s credentials, the angel was sure he could find him the body of a hot dog vender at Progressive Field, a job well-suited to his loud mouth and limited skills.

* * * *

Where respect isn’t given it must be earned, or if necessary, wrested from the hands of the defending champions at which point you pummel them to death with it. The Golden State Warriors carried themselves like cocksure high school jocks right up until the moment they realized they were sharing the gym with college athletes.

We suspect the denial only lasted until midway through Game 6. It naturally gave way to anger fired like buckshot at anything in range – the referees, the NBA, LeBron James – with similar accuracy.

By Game 7 we imagine them fully into bargaining: “Okay, fine, let us win, and we’ll play hard and say all kinds of nice things about the Cavaliers for the first time all series.” Unfortunately the Cavaliers were going to get that either way, and they preferred their way, with a peremptory slap of the ass, and a summary “get to bed Sonny, it’s way past your bedtime.” And with that they lit their cigars.

Winning a championship in a major sport for Cleveland was destined to be a bellwether moment however it came. But it’s hard for us to imagine a sweeter dish than this. They avenged last year (putting back into question whether a healthy Cavs would’ve beat them), beat a historically great team, made the NBA’s only unanimous MVP look brittle, petulant and soft (not to mention shitty defensively), and became the first ever Finals team to win after going down 3 games to 1. Check and mate, LeBron.

The next stage, as any Cavs fan can tell them, is “Depression.” It’s the kind of thing you can really perfect with a few years of practice, maybe months if combined with video reviews of prior Browns seasons, which we suppose can be substituted rather freely with Oakland Raiders lowlights. Just remember Warriors fans, you want to stay on depression for a good long time until you come to Acceptance. You might hit it sometime next March. Good luck!

We understand the poor form in ridiculing Warriors fans, but after the disrespect heaped on the Cavaliers leading up to and through the first four games of the series, we feel it’s their due. Call it a smug tax.

Cavaliers Ride Into Sunset

As for the Cavaliers, what can you say? It’s been a rollercoaster ride all season long, and the Finals were no exception. They were in-and-out all season like a poor cell signal, though obviously injuries, new players and eventually a new coach played a role in that. But even into the season’s final month, they were still trying to find themselves, and their intensity, particularly on defense.

Then in the last three weeks of the season, LeBron began to prepare for the playoffs with the furor of a jet engine. The other guys fell in line behind, and the team swept its first two opponents, going 10-0 before suffering their own Golden State-like loss of humility. That was Toronto’s gift to Cleveland. They repaid the Canadians with their best game of basketball all season to take Game 6, where the Big Three combined of 83 points in a 113-87 victory.

The Cavs weren’t ready for the Warriors in Game 1, and came out flat in Game 2, getting themselves blown out. It looked like the Warriors were dominant, but really, the Cavs just played really poorly. Those things happen in playoffs, as we’ve noted citing the ’84 and ’84 Celtics/Lakers series featuring a 30+ point blowout by the team that lost the series.

The Cavs played their kind of basketball in Game 3, making a big adjustment in where and how LeBron James received the ball, as they moved their action into the center court, complicating the Warriors switching defense (better passing angles for LeBron, easier backdoor, or slipped screen rolls to the hole) and making doubling LeBron more difficult.

The Cavaliers reverted in the second half of Game 4, which truthfully was a game they lost, not one the Warriors won. Indeed, beginning with Game 3, we felt the Cavaliers outplayed the Warriors pretty steadily most of the last four games of the series. Only Game 7 found a competitive game.

This is part of what we found so maddening about ESPN’s Warrior lovers. They kept making excuses and calling this a fluke, when it was pretty apparent to us they were suffering from chronic confirmation bias, which is only curable by being utterly fracking wrong. Still, we’re not sure Pelton, Tom Haberstroh or Englemann see any errors in their logic. They probably mark this off as something unfathomable that nobody could’ve foreseen, like Uber or Spotify.

But it was always in there. It just didn’t always come out as expected.

"So much was made of this team really the last two years, and we always thrived under chaos,” said Kevin Love. “We were very resilient. We played. We had offensive output from different guys throughout. Game 5 LeBron and Kyrie were absolutely magnificent. Bron in Game 6 back home, we were able to get the crowd into it early. Never really looked back from there.”

While people on the outside fretted about the team, worried about the chemistry and constructed fanciful rumors about LeBron’s intentions, the team trusted itself.

"It was like if we take care of what’s important for us internally in our locker room then we’ll be all right. Regardless of what anybody else says of what needs to happen for our team,” said Kyrie Irving afterwards. “It was just everyone had an answer for what the Cleveland Cavaliers needed to do.”

It was simply a matter of the Cavaliers playing their game for the full 48 minutes. They didn’t do that much during the season, but as the postseason wore on, they got better and better at maintaining their intensity. Toronto forced Cleveland to turn up their intensity another notch, and once they found their way in Game 3 it was almost downhill from there.

“That’s why it’s an 82 game season. That’s why you play a 7-game series. You’re never perfect but you pursue perfection. So we’re gong to be ready for game 7 and give it our best shot,” said James Jones before Game 7. “We’re a confident group. We put in the work. And when you put in the work, confidence follows.”

That’s how they turned the series around. By circumscribing their vision and focusing not on 48 minutes of solid play, but a quarter at a time.

“After we lost Game 4 at home, I said, hey listen, we’ve got to take one possession, one game at a time. We’re going to Golden State, so we’ve got to fly home anyways, so why not have another game?” said James after the win. “I believed in that and my guys believe in me as their leader every single day. I preach to them every single day. I’m their leader and they allow me to lead those guys every night. I was just true to that. I believed and nobody else believed besides the other 14 guys, and our coaching staff and our fans. It’s just going out and executing and putting things together and making plays, and we were able to do that.”

The Game

The game opened like a defensive slugfest, as each team came out with good intensity and defensive purpose. The Warriors started Festus Ezeli rather than Andre Iguodala, who had started in Bogut’s place in Game 6. We imagine the way they were manhandled on the boards, Kerr wanted to start the game with some size. That’s about all Ezeli offers.

One of the game’s signature moments occurred early, when we got a good idea where Steph Curry’s head was at. After missing a 3, he kind of made a Love-like “drats” and lingered in the frontcourt as J.R. sprinted up court for a layup.

In another of the game’s early signature moments, Kevin Love missed a short jumper, got it back and missed the follow, lost the rebound to Ezeli, and then just ripped it out of his hands and put it in for the Cavaliers third bucket. While a small thing, it set the tone for us and spoke to Love and the team’s intensity.

As many have noted (but few listened) the Warriors pose a particularly difficult matchup for Kevin Love who’s as lacking in lateral quickness as any Cleveland front court player.

Last night Love compensated for his physical deficiencies by playing some of his most hard-nosed basketball of the year. While everyone will talk about his play on Stephen Curry late in the fourth (below), Love played well all game long posting a team best +/- of +19, almost twice Kyrie’s second-best, +10. He only finished with 9 points but had 14 boards, two steals and three assists (second on the team).

However Love got a second foul with about three minutes remaining in the first quarter, and Tristan and J.R. Smith picked up their second fouls in the second. This was undoubtedly why Iman Shumpert wound up playing the entire second quarter, tied for the team’s lead in scoring during the quarter with 6 (same as LeBron). When Shumpert leads your team in scoring, bad juju’s afoot. Yet Shumpert drew a foul on a made 3 (the team’s only one that quarter against nine misses), and made the foul shot for a key four-point play

Indeed the Warriors outscored the Wine and Gold 27-19 in the second behind Draymond Green’s 15 points in the quarter (4-4 from three), and 22 at half. While the Cavs had held them to 40% shooting at halftime, Cleveland was only shooting 38% themselves. They fell into too much hero ball and over-dribbling, shooting 33% in the second and earning just 3 assists on 7 baskets.

However, almost all of the Warriors points were coming from 3. They were 10-21 from 3 in the first half, just 8-24 elsewhere. We suspected that 3-point rate was due for a regression in the second half. In Game 6, the Warriors were 5-21 in the first half and 10-18 in the second. Last night they were 5-20 from 3.

Isn’t it ironic it’s the Warriors not the Cavaliers who must wear, “Live by the 3, die by the 3”? Or maybe it’s just the fact that even if you hit a lot of bad shots, they’re still bad shots, and at some point (against a good team) that will return to bite you in the ass

In the second half the Cavaliers came out with better intensity and aggression. Cleveland would hold the Warriors to 37% shooting in the second half, while committing just three turnovers and shooting 43% themselves, including 5-11 from 3.

“I told the guys at halftime I didn’t think we were giving our all in the first half. We made a lot of mistakes. We didn’t give the maximum effort for a Game 7. I just told them that Game 6 in Toronto, that was maximum effort,” Lue said. “In the first half I don’t think we did that. In the second half we came out, we really had a defensive mindset. J.R. came out and made eight straight points for us, which was big for us. And that kind of got us going.”

Smith’s points keyed a 12-5 run to open the period, and tied the game at 54. Golden State got two hoops (5 points) from Steph to open a 5 point lead and Lue called a time out with 7:40 left in the quarter. Over the next three minutes the Cavs put together a 14-2 run to take a 68-61 lead on pull up 3. Not to be outdone, the Warriors took back the lead with a 15-7 run the final four minutes of the third, 11 of them by Green and Harrison Barnes.

The final period was a defensive battle. The Cavs shot 6-19 while the Warriors were 5-19 including 1-10 from three. They missed their last eight shots, including 7 threes. Steph Curry in particular was 1-6 in the final frame, including some pretty poor quality threes, that he nonetheless can often hit. However, often isn’t the fourth quarter of Game 7. In those situations you probably want to take some better shots.

James wasn’t real efficient in the second half (4-13) nor was Kyrie (6-14), but the other three starters (J.R., Love, Tristan) were 7-12 in the half, adding scoring to take some weight off James and Irving. That said, James scored 11 in the fourth, almost singlehandedly outscoring the Warriors (13).

Even so it took this 3 right in Steph Curry’s face to take the lead, and a chase down block of an Andre Iguodala fastbreak to secure the 93-89 win.

Here’s the chase-down.
James hit one of two free throws for the four point lead, and that was the final margin. James fell to the floor in tears and a surprising number of Cavaliers fans in the Oracle went crazy and the floor flooded with excited Cavaliers players and staff, enjoying the long promised stroll in the promised land, which just happened to be in enemy territory. C’est la vie, eh, Warrior biatches?

With that, James and company flushed 52 years of rotten luck and heartbreak, exorcising the curse, and giving Cleveland the joy it’s so long deserved but always had to live without.

Hallelujah Cleveland. The King fulfilled his promise, and it’s nothing but smiles this morning in Mudville because our very own Casey brained those West Coast fools!

FINAL Final Analysis: How This Blog Came To Be

We moved to Cleveland in 2007 to take a job as the music editor at the Cleveland Scene. The job didn’t last, and we planned to go to Portland, but instead met and married our wonderful wife, Michele. For a long-time before and after the job at the Scene, I wrote about bands and musicians that ran the gamut from folkies to hardcore, and has included conversations with Lindsay Buckingham, Ray Davies, Elvis Costello and Doc Watson.

Hungry for something different, we started doing cover stories for alt-weeklies ranging from the Sacramento News-Review and the San Antonio Current to the Village Voice, LA Weekly and the Dallas Observer. Subjects included Anonymous, For-Profit Schools, Medicare Fraud, Corporate Tax Evasion and looming scientific advances. What can we say, our interests are broad and our mind is curious.

When LeBron returned two years ago, it struck us that this was probably the greatest sports story of our generation, and it was happening in our backyard. Having experienced the Boston Red Sox miracle comeback against the Yankees and the World Series win that ended their 86-year curse, we couldn’t help but feel something similar was afoot. We even bought a poster of Fever Pitch, the movie with Drew Barrymore and Jimmy Fallon which follows the Red Sox through their 2004 championship.

The Farrelly Brothers’ (loose) adaptation of Nick Hornby’s book (about soccer, natch) was written to feature the Red Sox losing (natch), and had to be reshot because of the surprise ending. It just seemed so Cleveland, and we thought what a great chance to get in on the groundfloor of history.

So we contacted the Scene and offered to cover the Cavaliers season with the reward being access to the team and the games. They didn’t have any money for a sports blogger. At first we offered to do occasional pieces. But the more we thought about it, the more we realized there was really only one way to do this: Balls Out.

We’d followed the Cavaliers for a couple years and had always been struck by how bad the coverage generally was. The questions were typically hackneyed and drama-driven even though the idea of drama driving all 82 games seemed almost sitcom-ish. We also found the stories themselves to often be little more than warmed over boxscores with quotes. BLAH!

We found immediate inspiration in Zach Lowe of Grantland. Why wasn’t there coverage for people that want something deeper in-depth? How come they can show play diagrams on the broadcast, and presumably feel people can get that, but the newspapers think their audience is too dumb for it? Bill Simmons’ pop-culture soaked columns were another inspiration.

We decided that if we were going to do this, we’d do it all out, and our way, no quarter. We didn’t always play nice, and when Joe Vardon decided to post a picture of me as his Twitter avatar, we had our first enemy. It was exciting.

That’s essentially how we came to follow the Cavs and start writing 2500-3500 (cover story length) stories on the Cavaliers, thick with video and analysis of the sort you wouldn’t find anywhere else in Cleveland. (Or so we thought until we found people like Tom Pestak, David Zavac and the Worthy of the Jersey fellows, to name a few.) Even when we discovered similar styles, nobody, nobody wrote as long as we did.

We knew that some would find it too long and not read. No matter. We’re not trying to reach everyone. We’re only trying to reach those who would appreciate this kind of an alternative.

In some sense it was utterly crazy. We were spending 4-6 hours writing postgame columns, for free. Eighty-two times a year. And then the playoffs came, and we knew the only way to properly cover this and pen a book was to follow the team through the playoffs.

So we dug into our pockets and forked out the cash to do this. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. At least as a freelancer, we could fit our other work around it (when we had time). Well, we know where that road ends. Though we had an agent, nobody was interested in a book about a second place team, from Cleveland, no less.

My wife thought maybe a year was enough, but in our heart we knew that were the Cavaliers healthy, they would’ve beat the Warriors. Hell, they won two games with two guys starting that couldn’t even get on the floor this year. So we threw in again.

At some point in the year it became difficult to ask the coach questions. We weren’t being called. We were eventually told that because we didn’t write for a “deadline” we were “less preferred” than other beat writers.

But we don’t quit. So we started doing the postgame by the next morning. Beginning in December, we started staying up after we got home from the game (which counting the 2 hours before and the 90 minutes after for interviews adds up to six hours), and writing/watching the game/looking at stats for six hours a night to write a postgame that was three to four times longer than anyone else in town. We acclimated ourselves to going to bed between five and seven in the morning. But we didn’t quit and we didn’t short-shrift the coverage.

We were going to do this the way we thought was right, and write the kind of stuff we would want to read. It didn’t hurt finding a wonderful, supportive audience who felt very much like us – that local sports coverage was often aimed at the lowest common denominator and not super insightful from the intricacies of the game perspective.

So that’s what we’ve been doing. We believed in this team. We had this going 7 from the jump. We felt it would go into Game 5 split; so that part we were wrong, but we had always had it in 7 and going the Cavs way. Check the Worthy of the Jersey podcast if you doubt my bonafides on this.

We didn’t publicize the pro-bono nature of our work because (1) many equate quality with money, so if someone isn’t being paid, they’re obviously worthless, and (2) because we thought we’d seem even stupider and easier to criticize for spending TWO years chasing a story that we had no assurance would materialize. Just our faith.

Now it’s here, and it’s even crazier than we imagined. It’s been such a ride, and to have it all end like this, with a game down to the buzzer, and the greatest comeback in NBA Finals history, well, you can’t make stuff like that up, or no one would believe you.

We couldn’t find an agent this time, though a third-degree of separation connection announced in April they had a book deal to write on the Warriors. Perhaps now agents will be more receptive. However, we mostly decided to do this book the same way we did this season. We just wrote the hell out of everything we did, and hope the chips fly somewhere good. We trust we can write, and we know its one of the best sports stories ever.

And we are all witnesses.

So that’s it. We don’t know if we ever will write another basketball column again, but if we do, it will probably be paid. So this is it for me doing Scene writeups after every postgame. It was grueling at times, but deeply rewarding in the subtle way things you wouldn’t generally do under most circumstances often prove to be. In all our years of writing, we’ve never had such a thoughtful and responsive audience. We will miss you.

We want to thank Vince Grzegorek for giving us the opportunity, the Cavs PR staff for all their support, and Chris Haynes for being the only local beat writer who really embraced me and always treated me with respect and kindness.

Thanks for the ride Cleveland. It’s something we’ll never forget as long as we live. And we’re relieved to remove that Fever Pitch poster. Barrymore and Fallon are not pleasant people to look at day after day after day for two years. And look for our book in the Fall. In the meantime, you can always keep up with us on Twitter @CRS_1ne.

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