Prior to this year’s Warriors vs. Cavaliers matchup, 32 teams had fallen down 3-1 in the NBA Finals and all had been defeated. Climbing that mountain of history, against a 73-win defending champion with the two-time MVP on their roster, should place the 2015-16 Cavaliers very high up in the pantheon of great Finals performances.
This is also the crowning achievement of LeBron James’ career, unlikely to be eclipsed by him, or anyone else in the league for a long time, again. Rarely is a player like James the underdog in any situation, and to beat this specific Warriors team and to win three games in a row against them, is an achievement that is the sum of such perseverance and basketball talent there’s nothing else to do but enjoy the moment. With such hyperbole surrounding everything that happens in the NBA today, it’s a wonder when something eclipses all our words and expectations.
Just to get it out of the way, there will always be some people somewhere that will want to take something away from the team that won an NBA championship. The Warriors have received endless criticism for beating injured opponents last year, and this season fans will point to Andrew Bogut’s series-ending knee injury, Andre Iguodala’s back problems and Stephen Curry’s volatile play after suffering an MCL sprain – not to mention Draymond Green’s suspension in a crucial Game 5 at home that gave the Cavaliers life.
Guess what? Something weird happens virtually every season and it impacts the end result of the playoffs. Even the mighty 2014-15 Spurs, who blew out the Heat in the Finals, benefitted from an untimely Serge Ibaka injury in the Western Conference finals. With Ibaka on the floor, the series was tied 2-2 (the Spurs ended up winning in six games), and the Thunder were probably the better team in the last four games overall.
To win an NBA championship, you have to play at incredibly high level, and yes, a few lucky breaks have to go your way. At the highest level of competition, the margin for error is nothing. If your focus is somewhere else besides appreciating the will and greatness of the Cavs and James, you are directing your attention in the wrong place.
Game 7 was an incredible battle, and a fitting end to one of the epic matchups in NBA history, but the road to every championship is a long process. So let’s take a look back at what the Cavaliers did right, and what the steps were that led to their first title.
Controversial moves en route to the Finals
Tristan Thompson’s free agency was the big show during the summer. After significant drama and with the potential threat of Thompson sitting out the entire year, the stalemate between Thompson and the Cavaliers was finally resolved by a five-year, $82 million deal.
By the pure salary cap math, the deal doesn’t make sense. And with Thompson coming off the bench many were pointing to the dollar figure and laughing at the cap management of the Cavs. However, that was never the correct analysis. Cleveland was coming off a season where they were two games away from winning the title, and were already restricted in their potential moves over the cap.
They knew the Eastern Conference was unlikely to produce a great matchup, and the only analysis that was relevant was looking ahead to the Finals, and a very likely Warriors rematch. The question wasn’t whether or not Thompson’s contract is fair purely by player value, but how much the Cavs needed him in the Finals.
Thompson had incredible leverage to negotiate and took advantage of his situation because the Cavs didn’t have another viable alternative. The one big way to hurt the Warriors is by beating the crap out of them on the offensive glass, which is Thompson’s speciality. If the Cavs hadn’t re-signed Thompson, it would have impacted their probability of winning the championship negatively. And when you are right at the finish line cap, considerations go out the window. The only reason to have cap space is a team can go all-in at a time when there’s a shot to win the title.
Against an incredibly efficient offensive team like the Warriors getting extra possessions is the key to victory. One way the Warriors help that equation is being turnover prone and the other is what the Cavs could do on the offensive boards. The Cavs rebounded 30 percent of all their misses in the Finals, and Thompson was the key player in their success in that vital statistic.
Firing David Blatt late-January was a controversial move in many ways. It’s hard to instill new concepts both offensively and defensively, Tyronn Lue had never been the head coach of an NBA team and Blatt had some successes in his tenure – culminating in the Finals when the Cavs took a 2-1 lead.
During the regular season, the coaching change looked like a lateral move. Before the All-Star break, the Cavaliers were ranked fourth in net rating, outscoring opponents by 5.8 points. Post All-Star, the net rating stayed the same, though the offense improved while their defense took a slight hit. The Cavaliers fell out of the Top 10 on defense, but the offense jumped to second and the Cavs scored 110.3 points per 100 possessions, a mark that was just behind the Warriors.
One aspect that hasn’t been captured in the numbers is the improvement in chemistry and overall happiness. The rumblings around chemistry issues began to quickly die down, and the epic era of cryptic tweets from James started coming to an end. Four days after a 34-point mauling by the Warriors, a game where Thompson played just 12 minutes, Blatt was fired.
Turning around a 3-1 series against a 73-win team requires more than a change in strategy. It’s hard to imagine the Cavs pulling that feat with lingering animosity against Blatt, who didn’t command the respect of his star player and wasn’t even in charge of play-calling anymore. As James started to increasingly deviate from the game plan, so were the role players emboldened to ignore Blatt too. And by the end, the team were in “open rebellion” against Blatt, per Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical.
From playoff success to Finals turnaround
Even though the Cavs started the Finals poorly, losing Games 1 and 2 by a combined 48 points, the one thing they could take away from the 2016 playoffs is that they had played extraordinarily well before that, and be confident of potentially doing so again. The Pistons, Hawks and Raptors were never going to dethrone the Cavs as the Eastern Conference champions, but more than winning it mattered how the Cavs played.
Had it been a slog through the first three rounds, it would have been impossible for the Cavs to stand against the Warriors, who were coming off a series against the Thunder where the level of play was outstandingly high.
By their standards, the Pistons actually played a nice series despite being swept, Games 1 and 4 going down to the wire. Against the Hawks, the gates were blown open and most of the series ended up as unwatchable schlock. The Cavs made an absolutely hilarious 77 three-pointers against a team that should have had an opportunity to push them.
Even with two consecutive losses against the Raptors, each of the Cavs’ wins in the Eastern Conference finals were extraordinary games – winning by 31, 19, 38 and 26 points. Coming into the series the Cavs had reason to be cautiously optimistic about their chances. But in the first two games of the Finals, all the Cavs’ worst fears, and potential problems we knew they may have, showed.
The Cavs couldn’t get a stop, and against the ball- and player movement in front of them they looked hopeless. Backdoor cuts all over the place and endless pick-and-rolls against Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love that ended in disasters. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson had shot the ball poorly, but it didn’t matter since the gravity they commanded off the ball put the entire Cavs’ defense out of whack.
Offensively, the Warriors switching quickly nullified Cleveland’s ball movement. Channing Frye was quickly played out of the rotation on both ends. Last year the Warriors got all the practice they need helping against James in the post and recovering out to shooters, and the Cavs couldn’t get open looks.
After Game 3, if you told me the Warriors were up 2-1 and the one they lost was the Cavs’ first home game where the Cavs shot the three-pointer well and the Warriors didn’t, it would make perfect sense. Just par for the course for the Warriors and they would bounce back.
The real surprise is the 30-point differential. Even though the Cavs shot well from behind the arc, they only took 25 attempts and made 12. In one game, the Cavs found multiple things that worked for them, where they knew they had an advantage that could be pressed. The Game 4 loss didn’t erase any of those things for the Cavs, as they held the Warriors to just 40 percent on two-pointers and insane shooting from three saved the Warriors in a close game.
Game 3 was where the Cavs knew they could outplay the Warriors, and Green’s suspension sealed the deal and they were back in the series.
In the playoffs two-way play is highlighted in a way that it just isn’t during the regular season. Teams have more time to prepare and are more willing to try out of the box rotations and strategies. Most of the time, teams don’t use finely optimized strategies game to game during the regular season simply because it’s more important to focus on yourself. We’ve seen players like Tony Allen and even Tim Duncan this season become nearly unplayable because they can’t demand the respect of the defense.
The Warriors fell, in part, due to having this conundrum with their two time MVP Curry. No matter who Curry is guarding, it’s their job to set an on-ball screen to entice switches. Iman Shumpert has never set so many ball screens up top in his life, but the Cavs went to those actions all the time in the finals (starting from Game 3).
Curry-Thompson switch on the 1-2 pick and roll
Irving had the opportunity to attack one-on-one, where he’s at his best. James in turn would post up Curry, leading to fouls, easy backdowns and open shots on the help rotation.
The Cavs probably caught a break with Love missing Game 3 and being limited in Game 4 due to NBA’s concussion protocol. Love isn’t a terrible defender, but on switches he just doesn’t have a shot of staying in front of the Warriors guards or contesting their shots. The floor is always spread when the Warriors are attacking, and the long distances are a killer for Love. Give Love credit, however, despite a bad series and a terrible matchup… he found a way to contribute in Game 7 by hitting the offensive glass – reminding us of one of his best attributes that hasn’t been utilized in the Cavs’ spread offense.
LeBron James is unbelievable
At 31 years old, with another decade of basketball in him, James already ranks 42nd in career regular season minutes and fourth in playoff minutes. After the incredible workload he’s gone through, it’s insanity that we’ve never seen James at a higher level.
The first signs of decline were clearly there. James got to the free throw line 6.5 times per game this season, the lowest mark since his rookie year. His jump shot complete left him for big parts of the year and opponents blocked James with twice the frequency compared to his previous five seasons – pointing to a decline in athleticism and new limitations finishing around the rim.
For now, we can forget those concerns. There’s no way to play better than James did cumulatively over the final three games of the series. And James makes half of his jump shots, it’s impossible to stop him and the Cavaliers. While James’ Game 7 wasn’t the same in terms of shot-making, he once again led the team in every way.
Just the fifth player to post consecutive 40-plus point games in the Finals, and James was even more impressive in every other part of the game. His defensive lead was just as important as the offense.
Finally, we can lay to rest all the ridiculous psychoanalysis about James’ ability to handle adversity and crunch time. Back from a 3-1 deficit, against the 73-win Warriors with the two-time and first unanimous MVP, with some of the biggest games we’ve ever seen. Irving deserves a ton of credit and his shot-making was astounding – and his three-pointer on Curry in the final minute was the biggest shot of the year. Jefferson’s energy turned vital possessions to the Cavs advantage. Thompson’s rebounding, finishing and newfound patience to make plays under the rim was a revelation. The entire Cavs roster deserves a ton of credit for turning around their defense on a dime into a lockdown monster.
James has now cemented his place among the greatest athletes in history. He’s done the impossible and it was an absolute thrill to watch.
Mika Honkasalo is an NBA writer, geek, chart maker and most of all fan. He studies computer science and works in software development and business analytics. His writing can be found at Nylon Calculus and Vantage Sports, and you can find him on Twitter @mhonkasalo.