One timeout was all that separated the Cleveland Cavaliers from potentially, vitally making this a series. We were so close. We were as close to Heaven as we’ll ever be. But JR Smith had other ideas.
Somewhere between Chris Paul’s hamstring injury in Game 5 and their dubious, NBA playoff-record streak of 27 consecutive missed three-pointers in the second half of Game 7, the Houston Rockets lost the best chance any team was going to have of felling the Golden State Warriors. It was foolish for any of us to doubt them – not that all of us did, mind you, but some did – and now, the team which stands to define a generation sits four wins away from its second straight title and third championship in four years.
The proposition was always thus: beat the Warriors, a team with four current All-Stars, five probably Hall of Famers and a wealth of role players to fill in the gaps, four times in seven tries. Even after the Rockets won 65 games, grabbing the top seed and home court advantage in the Western Conference playoffs, it was never a real possibility that Golden State would lose until and unless such a catastrophe actually happened.
After going down 3-2 and entering halftime of both Games 6 and 7 down by double-digits, Golden State calmly and mechanically worked its way back, outscoring Houston 64-25 and 58-38 over each game’s second half, respectively. As always, the Warriors were able to turn to all of their other stars if one didn’t shine so brightly. That didn’t turn out to be a problem.
You remember the switch, don’t you? Consider it flipped. Riding a fully-engaged LeBron James, the Cleveland Cavaliers ripped the doors off the Toronto Raptors in Game 4 on Monday night, completing another sweep against a team which hasn’t beaten them in the playoffs since 2016. In a rather pedestrian performance, James chipped in a mere 29 points to go along with 11 assists and eight rebounds. It was certainly his worst game of the series, and the Cavs won by 35.
It took a surprising seven-game first round series against the Indiana Pacers to really light a fire under him, but since the candle’s been burning, he has been his typical forceful self. What finally clicked against the Raptors wasn’t just LeBron riding the high of his clutch Pacers series form. Instead, as LeBron was great, so, too, were his teammates. Better late than never.
The switch exists. I’m telling you right now because, for the second time in my life, I was lucky enough to see the man at the helm in person, and at 33 years young, he was as commanding of attention as he was in command of the game, and when he needed to, LeBron James turned the volume all the way up and told your parents to mind their Ps and Qs. Last Sunday, in Brooklyn, I saw the switch in action.
It isn’t that he isn’t great all the time – he is, and he has been for the overwhelming majority of his breathlessly Hall of Fame career – but to watch him have to be, with his still-gelling team nervously jetting and firing around him in an effort to show that yes, we’re good enough, please stay, adds another layer to an almost unquantifiable NBA experience.
With Andre Roberson closing quickly, Brook Lopez launches a three, early in the shot clock but with enough space to give it a chance. The ball clanks off the front of the rim, kisses the backboard and falls into the left hand of professional basketball’s most perplexing genius, to rapturous applause from what should be a hostile crowd. It is the latter’s tenth rebound of the night, and after adding two more, combined with his 25 points and 19 assists, the intensely focused scientist sits, his team all but guaranteed a victory they would soon officially claim, his 33rd triple-double of the season secure.
Thunder doesn’t only happen when it’s raining. It was in the middle of March, in the midst of an overhyped blizzard, that the Brodie came to Brooklyn.
At some point, somebody was going to hit a bucket. Tied 89-89 for what felt like several eternities, because playoff fourth quarters contain multitudes, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors kept hurling rocks at windows several stories above, waiting for the sound of shattered glass. When Kyrie Irving finally shattered that glass to put the Cavs up 92-89, a pin dropping in Oracle Arena would’ve registered many more decibels.
LeBron going down with an apparent injury with just over ten seconds left gave him one more opportunity to lift up a city against the odds, but he’d done that all series. The first missed free throw was vaguely Starks-esque in its presumed defeatism, but then, defeatism doesn’t get you anywhere when you’re trying to win, and it doesn’t seem likely that anybody has ever tried to win harder than LeBron was trying to win Game 7. He did, as we know, and now he is a champion as a Cleveland Cavalier, for the first time and for all time.
Filed under “nothing we don’t already know,” playing with emotions is tricky. At a turn, it looks like Russell Westbrook punching through a brick wall of defenders at light speed, a grass-fed Novak Djokovic urging the crowd to get behind him or Mark Messier shouldering the weight of a cursed franchise, as well as his own guarantee. It looks like Chris Paul scoring 61 points for his grandfather, or Brett Favre throwing for four touchdowns on Monday Night Football. It also looks like Russian hooligans bringing their country’s soccer team to the edge of disqualification at Euro 2016 over fits of violence with other fans and the police.
In Game 5 of the NBA Finals, we saw two facets of this imponderably massive spectrum. Draymond Green’s inevitable suspension for extracurricular activity gave rise to stellar performances from the four biggest stars in Oracle Arena, as LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson dared each other into the best game of the series thus far. Whether this acts as fuel to Cleveland’s fire or simply delays the inevitable made it an altogether more compelling spectacle.