Monday, June 8, 2015

NBA Finals Game 2: Team Grit


   Rarely, in the history of seven-game series in any sport has a 1-0 lead felt so insurmountable as it did going into Game 2 of these NBA Finals.
   Cleveland — improbably — surmounted the hell out of it.
   Until yesterday, no team had ever won a Finals game without the services of its second-[1] and third-[2] leading scorers, yet with those guys relegated to hospital beds footnote status, the Cavaliers went into Oracle Arena, where the Golden State Warriors sport the best home-court record in the NBA, dictated the pace of the game from beginning to end, and won, in dreaded overtime[3], 95-93.
   Remind me again why we[4] thought the Cavs were toast?
   They’ve played 106 minutes of basketball, on the road, against the 67-win, best-in-the-NBA Warriors, and led for more than 79 of those minutes.
   They’ve had four opportunities for buzzer-beaters in regulation, two in Game 1 (LeBron and Iman Shumpert), two in Game 2 (LeBron and Tristan Thompson), missed all four, and emerged with the series tied 1-1, with no need to thank anything resembling good luck.
   Matthew Dellavedova, who as recently as the trading deadline seemed to be holding down the position (backup point guard) most in need of an upgrade, started at point guard. And he didn’t start especially well, either, getting torched at both ends of the court by Klay Thompson. But once he switched to NBA MVP Steph Curry (and vice versa), the game turned around. In fact, with Delly guarding him, Curry, probably the best and most resourceful outside shooter in the history of the game, didn’t make a single shot[5].
   The Cavs, who as recently as January were one of the worst defensive teams in the NBA, are winning because they’ve transformed themselves into one of the best. It ain’t always pretty, but no fan base is better equipped to embrace winning ugly than we are.
   That said, don’t try telling Cavs fans that we’re not beholding a vision of rare beauty.
   Behold: LeBron James.
   He entered this season as part of any NBA Mount Rushmore conversation.
   It’s increasingly likely that, however it ends, he has emerged to challenge Michael Jordan as the NBA’s GOAT.
   LeBron has led his team in points, rebounds and assists in 35 playoff games — 11 more than the next two highest[6] combined.
   Michael Jordan never had a stat line in the Finals like LeBron’s 39 point, 16 rebound, 11 assist game yesterday. In fairness, because he never played a single game in the Finals without his two best teammates, Jordan didn’t need to. In the series in which Jordan carried the heaviest load, the 1998 Finals against Utah, he totaled 24 rebounds and 14 assists in six games. In just two games, LeBron has 24 rebounds and 17 assists. Jordan averaged 33.5 points per game. LeBron is averaging 42.5[7].
   Yesterday, the Cleveland Cavaliers celebrated the biggest win in the history of the franchise.
   Now, they, as ever, are following LeBron’s lead and coming home[8].   // Mark Winegardner

[1] Kyrie Irving, DNP, fractured left kneecap.
[2] Kevin Love, DNP, left arm nearly yanked off by a clumsy Celtic.
[3] So maybe, just maybe, the overtime loss in Game 1 won’t go down in ignominy and history as The Overtime? At minimum, it’s pretty to think so.
[4] Maybe not you, but, yes: me. And pretty much everyone in the NBA chattering class.
[5] Dellavedova has used the playoffs to go from folk hero to damned good player, a journey highlighted by being responsible for postseason career-worst offensive games from former MVP Derrick Rose, current all-star Jeff Teague and now Curry.
[6] Larry Bird with 13 and Tim Duncan with 11.
[7] If you think Jordan shot dramatically better, you’d be wrong; he went 43% from the floor and 31% from three, while LBJ is shooting 40% from the floor and 36% from three.
[8] Me, too! I’m leaving Florida today, flying back to the only place I’ve ever lived that felt like home, where I’ll crash for a few days in my mother-in-law’s spare bedroom so I can cover the Finals for Cleveland Magazine. Stay tuned!

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