Monday, June 20, 2016

LeBron & the Cavs Make History in Game 7

It was a bad night to be a LeBron hater, as the King orchestrated the first ever comeback from down 3-1 in NBA Finals history, and averaged 29-11-9 throughout the series, with back-to-back 40 point games facing elimination in Games 5 & 6, and a triple-double in Game 7. That's a mouth full, and it earned LeBron his third ever championship, and third Finals MVP, where he was a unanimous selection.
By Andy Dougherty (@AndyDougherty10)

Finally a close game! It had been over a month since the last NBA game decided by five points or fewer, but what better time for a nail-biter than Game 7 of the NBA Finals?

After 52 long years, Cleveland has won a major professional sports championship, as the Cavs edged Golden State 93-89 in front of a raucous crowd inside Oakland's Oracle Arena.

Cleveland's residents can now forget about LeBron James's infamous decision to take his talents to South Beach and focus instead on his triumphant return. James delivered on his promise to bring a championship to his home state, and he more than earned his 3rd career NBA Finals MVP. James took over, becoming the first player in any series to lead both teams in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals.

For James and the Cavaliers to reach those achievements, they needed to get past an incredibly imposing obstacle. After the Warriors set an NBA record with 73 regular-season wins, along with dozens of other records (most 3-pointers, best start in NBA history, never losing consecutive games, and the list goes on), they seemed unbeatable on a nightly basis, let alone in a seven-game series.

But the Thunder showed that the Warriors were not invincible. They pushed Golden State to the brink in a hard-fought 7-game Western Conference Finals. The Cavaliers had hope, and even after being embarrassed in Games 1 and 2, they believed they could turn the series around.

While they believed, few others did. Cleveland's last championship came in football before the Super Bowl era, when Jim Brown led the Browns to the 1964 NFL Championship. It was only natural for the maligned fanbase to be skeptical of the Cavaliers' chances, especially after they dug themselves such a hole against an all-time great team.

Teams down 3-1 in the NBA Finals had an all-time series record of 0-32 before Sunday. The narrative had already been written. The Warriors would win their second straight championship and go down as the best team ever, supplanting Michael Jordan and the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, who won the championship after going 72-10 in the regular season.

LeBron James would fall to 2-5 in the NBA Finals, and people would criticize him for not being clutch or competitive enough when it mattered.

That all changed on Sunday night. James was not ready to be overtaken by unanimous regular-season MVP Stephen Curry as the face of the NBA. When Curry won the award after shattering the record for 3-pointers in a season and leading the league in scoring (and hitting shots like this), James caused a stir when he hinted that he might still be more valuable to his team than Curry.

Curry’s remarkable season and spotless public image made some people forget how great LeBron has been for the last decade, and LeBron is not one to idly stand by as the spotlight moves away from him. Curry might have been hampered by injuries in the playoffs, but LeBron backed up his comments by outplaying Curry throughout the postseason.

James is now a 4-time regular season MVP and a 3-time Finals MVP. He joins Michael Jordan as the only members of that club (Bill Russell would be a member too if the "Bill Russell NBA Finals MVP" had been around when he was playing). Few players in the history of the game have been able to dominate individually and make their teammates better the way LeBron does.

Hanging LeBron's losing Finals record over his head does not tell an accurate story either. Numerous times in his career, he has taken a depleted, struggling team and carried it as far as he could. When the rest of his team was ravaged by injuries in last year's Finals, he was the best player in the series. He won an ESPY for best championship performance, but Andre Iguodala beat him out for Finals MVP simply because the Warriors had the better team. This year James got enough help from his teammates to win the award he truly wanted, a championship for Cleveland.

Kyrie Irving was the most important member of LeBron's supporting cast. He and LeBron both scored 41 points on the road in a pivotal Game 5 win. Irving also hit the biggest shot of the series, a go-ahead 3-pointer with 53 seconds left in Game 7. Coach Tyronn Lue called it "one of the biggest shots in NBA history."

Let's not forget about Lue's contributions either. Many were shocked when the Cavaliers fired David Blatt halfway through the season, despite boasting the best record in the Eastern Conference. But the unconventional move paid off, and Lue did a fantastic job of coaching and managing his players throughout the playoff run.

Oddly, Lue joins the Broncos' Gary Kubiak and the Penguins' Mike Sullivan as 2016 champions in their first season with their respective teams. In each case, experience came instead from a future Hall of Fame player. It helps a new head coach when a player like Peyton Manning, Sidney Crosby or LeBron James can lead the way.

Amid all that the Cavaliers accomplished with this win, the Warriors should not lose sight of what they accomplished. The loss evokes memories of Super Bowl XLII for Patriots fans, when New England was chasing an unprecedented 19-0 season behind Tom Brady and Randy Moss' record-setting passing attack. The Giants shocked them in the Super Bowl, and their legacy took a huge hit as a result, but their accomplishments remain relevant.

That Patriots team and this Warriors team will be remembered more vividly than many championship teams. They broke records that most championship teams could never touch, and that can't be nullified by one game or one series.

The Patriots also proved their championship pedigree in the years before and after that game. The Warriors are poised to do the same. They have won a championship, and the pieces are in place for them to contend in the years to come. The Warriors, Curry and James are far from done sculpting their legacies.

With both Curry and James near the height of their powers, each man will have something to say about who is the face of the league next year, and it might come down to a third straight meeting in the Finals.

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