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Five things we learned during 2016 NBA Finals

LeBron, Cleveland proved a lot during their series win

POSTED: Jun 20, 2016 6:50 PM ET
UPDATED: Jun 20, 2016 11:59 PM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner

NBA.com

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— Five things we learned from the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors in their 2016 Finals clash across seven games and 17 days:

1. The LeBron James bashing can officially end now.

You're rarely going to get 100 percent clearance on anything. The NBA would have to hand select and hermetically seal its fan base, and even then the occasional rodent hair or pest dropping would sneak in. But by and large, there is no longer any basis for people to nitpick at LeBron James as one of the league's all-time great players, who is motivated by and largely manages to do the right things.

James has played in seven NBA Finals (including six in a row) and won three of them. With the Game 7 victory Sunday night, he completed his most stunning masterwork yet, beating an opponent with the all-time best regular-season record, clawing back from a 3-1 deficit that no Finals participant ever had survived and winning the clincher on the road. He and the Cavaliers ended Cleveland's drought of 52 years and 146 sports-team seasons without a title, dating all the way back to the Browns' NFL success in 1964.

James dragged the Cavs all the way back in the final three games with 41 points, 41 points and a triple-double, and made a defensive play -- his chase-down block of Andre Iguodala in the closing minutes with the score tied -- that ranks with his or any of his teammates' scoring highlights.

LeBron Sends It Back

LeBron James goes up for the huge block.

Bottom line, James did what he set out to do when he returned to Cleveland 23 months ago, and if this Finals didn't make it up to the folks still cranky about "The Decision" in July 2010, there is no satisfying those folks. What were they so unhappy about when James left, if not for the lost opportunity to experience ... precisely what he delivered Sunday? And they're kidding themselves to think he simply could have stayed and won those two Miami titles right there in The Land.

The Cavs franchise wasn't ready to do that, his teammates at the time weren't ready for it and frankly, neither was James. He finally spoke long after the final horn Sunday, revealing to ESPN that his secret motivation when he hit the 2015 Finals came from the way his departure from Miami was received.

"When I decided to leave Miami -- I'm not going to name any names, I can't do that -- but there were some people that I trusted and built relationships with in those four years [who] told me I was making the biggest mistake of my career," James told the Web site. "And that [expletive] hurt me. ... That right there was my motivation."

When James announced his return via an SI.com essay in July 2014, he likened his team in Miami -- learning how to win and growing up generally -- to a young person's four years in college. So if folks want to haggle over James' place among the NBA's all-time greats -- top five? top 10? -- or his future whereabouts while playing on a series of short-term contracts for maximum earnings and leverage, that's fine. But for his basketball resume, and the absence of bad-citizen stuff that weighs down a lot of star athletes, there's really no legit argument that can be made portraying him as one of sports' bad guys, phonies or failures.

That doesn't put him on pedestal. He does simply play basketball for a living, while being compensated at the level of some smaller nation's annual budgets.

But isn't it at least good to know that a "college education" can actually pay off so well for somebody?

2. It don't mean a thing if you ain't got that ring.

If the outcome of this championship series was 51 percent due to Cleveland winning it, the other 49 percent belonged to Golden State for losing it. Steve Kerr, Steph Curry & Co. looked unexpectedly fallible over the final five games, starting with their somnambulant walk through Quicken Loans Arena in Game 3 to the blasé attitude they exhibited in Game 5 and Game 6, up to and including flashes of ho-hummery in Game 7.

The Warriors kept waiting for their A game to return, talking about the lack of rhythm with which they were playing offensively, the absence of crisp ball movement -- without ever really crediting the Cavaliers for disrupting all that regular-season purring. Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and others were maddeningly casual with the basketball at a time in the NBA schedule when even grade schools kids can parrot the "every possession is valuable" standard.

Warriors on Series Loss

Steve Kerr, Draymond Green and Stephen Curry address the media following the Game 7 and Finals loss to the Cavaliers.

The it's-only-basketball, life-is-good perspective put out by Kerr several times is smart and true -- but not with three games left to win one in The Finals. Cleveland circled its wagons around a singular urgency and purpose. Golden State kept casting about to find its muse, while some inner voice was making like the young Kevin Bacon of "Animal House" ("All is well!").

Curry got caught several times in the too-cool-for-school mode -- that behind-the-back turnover deep into the fourth quarter of Game 7 was a classic example of style obliterating substance -- and the way the Cavaliers isolated and attacked him, you kept expecting Dave Semenko, Wayne Gretzky's goon protector of yore, to skate over and take umbrage. When Kerr took over as Warriors coach before the 2014-15 season, one of his early messages to Curry was, "No more hiding you on defense." Well, there was no hiding Curry on defense the past 18 days.

Kerr seemed to lose his magic keyboard, too, because the buttons he pushed in using Festus Ezeli and Anderson Varejao were hardly magical.

And there's this nagging sense that Golden State's style of play, so entertaining and breezy and different in its run to 73-9, is like any other when a top opponent can lock in, game-planning or playing night after night after night. It's one thing to catch the Warriors in January in between games against, say, Chicago and Houston -- it's harder to adjust to their offensive and defensive ways relative to other NBA foes'. But with a steady diet of six Finals games last June and seven more this month?

Teams learn about each other. The Cavs learned a few things about "death lineups" and the "Splash Brothers," while the Warriors seemed mostly to learn how difficult to defend Kyrie Irving is, how tough it is to beat Tristan Thompson to loose balls and how formidable James remains.

3. Every Finals needs a Father's Day.

Actually, most of the time, that June holiday dedicated to Dad synchs up nicely with The Finals. Last year and this, of course, there was the Dell Curry and Mychael Thompson connection with Steph and Klay, respectively. Kevin Love's dad Stan played in the NBA and ABA as well. There were expressions and demonstration of fatherly love, and offspring to pop, throughout both locker rooms. James toted his three children to the postgame podium in what has become NBA ritual for champions, enabling them to win both the games and the news conferences.

But J.R. Smith's poignant, choked-up couple of minutes when trying to explain the impact his father and other family members have had on his career was something to behold. A guy known for much of his career as a knucklehead, a high-maintenance, high-wire act for teams that covet his long-distance shooting, stripped all that away when he gulped and cried his way through all the genuine emotion.

J.R. Smith on His Father

J.R. Smith gets emotional during his postgame news conference talking about his father and his family.

4. NBA moments need to be adjudicated on the spot.

It was unfortunate that generally happy news -- the enormity of the TV ratings for Game 7 on ABC -- had a tinge of skepticism attached, as far as how the series stretched seven games in the first place. The after-the-fact review process that assessed Draymond Green's flagrant foul against LeBron James, resulting in Green's suspension from Game 5, may have been precisely corrected according to the NBA's rules and policies. But it was still wrong in the suspicions it triggered that the league was "managing" The Finals, not just policing it.

Like any operation that depends on credibility, there are two types of possible breakdowns. The first is an actual breach in the integrity of the process. The second is the appearance or belief that the integrity has been breached.

The cumulative points system used in the regular season and reset at the start of the playoffs was one culprit that needs to be reviewed this offseason. But the practice of issuing rulings a day or two later from HQ in New York should be scrutinized as well. All NBA playoff games have three referees working on the court and a fourth nearby to assist and as insurance. Then there is the all-seeing eye of the Replay Center in Secaucus, N.J., providing multiple glimpse of any play desired.

All those officials with oversight ought to be able to form judgments in the moment. And if those judgments aren't quite right, well, play on -- teams are expected to deal with all sorts of human error for the majority of minutes in every game. Let the league fine participants, at that point, if some transgression calls for more penalty. But if an ejection or a flagrant-2 foul isn't called in live play or after replaying, trust those officials' experience and decision and move along.

If the NBA needs to find a way to see more angles as play unfolds, fine, put the emphasis and technology there. But a morning-after -- or evening-after -- announcement that Green is or isn't suspended opens up the league to the worst possible interpretations.

5. A Warriors-Cavaliers rubber match is hardly guaranteed.

They will have commandeered the stage of the NBA world for more than three weeks, from prelude to parade. But both Golden State and Cleveland face summertime quandaries, not necessarily as serious as the other 28 teams but significant to them and their fans.

The Warriors probably were hoping forward Harrison Barnes would make their decision easier, not harder, as it relates to his restricted free agency. Had Barnes made even twice as many shots in his 5-for-32 fizzle through the last three games, Golden State might have repeated as champs and Barnes would be seen as too vital to lose. Now if a rival tosses the expected $100 million or more at him, the Warriors' brass would need to carefully consider how he and that annual salary would fit.

Andrew Bogut and Andre Iguodala are past their primes, Leandro Barbosa and Marreese Speights are free to sign elsewhere and Kerr's lieutenant Luke Walton is off to coach the Lakers. The Warriors will need to plug in or at least ready several replacements, while finding a fresh, new edge to take a run at their third consecutive Finals.

Cleveland has questions, too. Richard Jefferson announced his retirement so the LeBron understudy role manned by Jefferson and Shawn Marion the past two years needs a warm body. Center Timofey Mozgov was marginalized once coach Tyronn Lue took over and there's the small matter of Lue actually signing the head coaching contract he agreed to when David Blatt was fired.

Smith, at this point, shouldn't be the starting shooting guard on a team with such lofty aspiration but it's on Cleveland GM David Griffin to find someone good enough (and defensively inclined) to move Smith to the bench. Then there's the whole Kevin Love speculation -- the power forward did blue-collar work in Game 7 with nine points, 14 rebounds and a game-high plus-19 in 30 minutes.

But it remains hard to be the third wheel in a three-star system and Love might never reach his potential while trying to fit himself around James and Irving. That's not just about individual aggrandizement, either -- Love as an asset might be able to bring back greater help in new faces than his production is worth to the Cavs. He could dominate per his best Minnesota days, on many nights for a differently constructed team.

It's possible that, having won, the Cavaliers will fall in love with the current crew and make minimal changes for 2016-17. Then again, even defending champions need to sharpen their edge -- that's one more thing we learned from these Finals.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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