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Long Live the King
It’s completely fitting that LeBron James’ animal equivalent is the lion. He is the King of the jungle -- the alpha male of today’s NBA and, following his legendary performance in the 2016 Finals, unquestionably the greatest player on planet Earth.
And after leading the Finals in all major categories – earning MVP honors for the third time in his already-illustrious career – James will begin creeping into the conversation of greatest of all-time. He hasn't won six titles, like Jordan. But what he did this June – and how and where he did it – is certainly something to consider.
In the 2016 Finals, LeBron averaged 29.7 points, 11.3 boards and 8.9 assists in the series. He doubled-up in six of the seven games, notched back-to-back 41-point games (his fourth and fifth 40-point outings in two Finals appearances against Golden State) – leading in all three major categories for the second straight year.
Among all-time Finals leaders, James ranks first in three-point field goals (68), fifth in assists (289), seventh in points (1,079) and points per game (40 games, 1,079 points, 27.0 ppg) and ninth in rebounds (396). This June, he became the all-time NBA Playoff career leader in 20-plus point games (176) -- passing Michael Jordan (173).
And by now, most Cavs fans have seen the video montage based on Christopher Walken’s lion soliloquy from “Poolhall Junkies” – synched to Number 23’s various highlights.
But if we’re going to go with animal idioms for the following item, take your pick from “let sleeping dogs lie” or “don’t poke the bear.”
James was having a great series through the first four games, but near the end of Game 4, after Draymond Green poked the bear both physically and verbally, LeBron was “a man possessed” – to quote Phil Jackson.
After Green’s suspension was announced, the Warriors began taking pot-shots at the four-time MVP at the podium in-between Games 4 and 5 – giving James just enough time to simmer and come to a boil as the series returned to Oakland.
What he and the Cavaliers did the rest of the way is now NBA and professional sports history. And it’ll be a long time before any recreates the magic and magnitude of what the King accomplished over the last week.
During LeBron’s first stint in Cleveland, media and fans couldn’t wait to coronate a “Robin” for LeBron’s “Batman.” Larry Hughes auditioned for the part and Mo Williams held it briefly, making the All-Star squad with James in 2009. But there’s no doubt who brought the role of Boy Wonder to life at this point.
LeBron and Kyrie do their damage in different ways.
You could almost say that LeBron is a hot-blooded killer and Kyrie is a cold-blooded killer. Number 23 wears his emotions on his sleeve; there might not be a more animated and expressive player in the league. Kyrie rarely shows emotion, a sleepy-eyed assassin a la his Cavalier ascendant, Mark Price.
LeBron and Kyrie can both flourish in the clutch – as they exhibited throughout the postseason, in the Finals and in the final moments of the Finals. And Tyronn Lue taking Kyrie off the ball and having James run the point proved to be exactly the right move.
After a 10-point outing in Game 2, Irving hit the afterburners – averaging 35.0 points over his next three outings, including a 41-point outburst (along with James) in Game 5 and, of course, the atomic dagger he buried in Golden State’s season with 53 seconds to play on Sunday.
In the 2016 Finals, the three-time All-Star averaged 27.1 points on 47 percent shooting, including 41 percent from long-range and 94 percent from the stripe, topping the 30-point plateau thrice – numbers that’ll get him riding shotgun in the Batmobile for the foreseeable future.
Early in the seven-game set with Golden State, the Cavaliers initially struggled doing any damage in the paint – while the Warriors had their way, scoring on countless uncontested back-cuts at the rim in the first two games.
But a series of developments changed all that.
After taking just nine shots through the first two games, J.R. Smith started to find his range when the Finals returned to Cleveland. He was just 2-for-7 from long-distance in Oakland, but went 5-for-10 in Game 3 in Cleveland – elevating his confidence the rest of the way.
Another occurred when the Warriors continued to switch with Curry against James. When LeBron’s outside shot started falling beginning in Game 5, the Warriors superstar guard was in a precarious position, needing help everywhere on the offensive end. The matchup kept Curry in foul trouble while taking a toll on him physically.
And finally, the injury to Andrew Bogut – an All-Defensive Second Teamer in 2015 and the league’s leading shot-blocker in 2011 -- left the Warriors without any type of rim protector.
Tristan Thompson flourished in Bogut’s absence (although he flourished in last year’s Finals with Bogut fully healthy) – grabbing 15 boards in Game 5 and 16 more in Game 7, netting three double-doubles in the series.
The Cavaliers outrebounded Golden State, 307-279, in the series – including a 52-32 mark in Game 3 – and beat them, 134-117, over the last three games of the series.
In that storied three-game run, the Wine and Gold outscored the Warriors in the paint (138-88), on second chance points (38-34). And for as much as Golden State is viewed as the up-tempo team, the Wine and Gold completely ran past Golden State on the break over the final three contests – 65-26.
The Defense Rests
With all the other headaches the Warriors present with the Splash Brothers and Draymond Green, having Harrison Barnes to contend with is one of the reasons Golden State set an NBA record with 73 regular season wins. And it looked like Barnes -- who averaged 11.7 ppg in 59 starts this season – would be a thorn in Cleveland’s side early in the series.
Over the first four games of the series, the fourth-year forward averaged 12.5 points – going 20-of-39 from the floor, including 6-of-14 from deep. The Cavaliers completely closed Barnes’ door in the final three games – holding him to 5.0 points per on 5-for-32 shooting, including 3-for-15 from long-range.
As incredible as LeBron James was on the offensive end of the floor, he was just as exceptional defensively. (Think about that for a moment.)
Over the final four games of the series, LeBron blocked 12 shots – three in each contest – and tallied 11 steals over that stretch. He blocked two shots in the second half of Game 5, two in the fourth quarter of Game 6 and, of course, had the iconic chase-down swat on Andre Iguodala with just under two minutes to play in Game 7.
And in terms of guarding Stephen Curry, the Cavaliers held the two-time MVP under 20 points in four of the series’ seven games – holding him to 22.6 points per game, nearly eight points below his league-leading regular season scoring average.
That’s the big picture look at defending Curry.
Small picture: Kevin Love’s defensive stand against Curry in the closing seconds of Game 7 – switching onto and guarding the game’s greatest shooter on an island with the World Championship on the line – will go down as one of the greatest late-game stops in postseason history.
The easy answer when asked what’s the difference between this year’s trip to the Finals and last season’s, would be the health of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. But a deeper look at a deeper bench is equally accurate.
That conversation starts with Richard Jefferson – who represented a huge upgrade at the backup 3/wildcard spot all season long and particularly in the postseason. In the Finals, Jefferson – who had an impromptu retirement announcement following – was indispensable for the Wine and Gold.
His scoring average in the series (5.7 ppg) series belies his overall importance.
Last year, as the shorthanded Cavaliers struggled to find enough offense to hang with Golden State, veterans Mike Miller and Shawn Marion simply didn’t have enough left in the tank. Jefferson, who played 79 Playoff games between career Finals appearances, had plenty of juice left to fill any gap the Cavaliers had over the epic best-of-seven – both on the floor and in the locker room, on the plane, on the bus, on Spapchat, etc.
Coach Lue and his staff had to completely adjust their bench strategy after the first half of the series. Channing Frye and Matthew Dellavedova – who were so critical in the run-up to the Finals – gave way to Mo Williams and, in a short, impressive burst, Dahntay Jones.
Iman Shumpert, Cleveland’s defensive everyman, was the one constant in the second unit’s ever-changing universe.
Over the course of the 2016 Playoffs, Tyronn Lue went 10-deep and – because of the respect he commands in the locker room – not a single reserve soured when he wasn’t playing and was completely ready to rumble when his number was called.
The Cavaliers had to win at least one game in Oakland to win the NBA title. Instead they won two games over a six-day span in a gym that hosted just two regular season losses all year.
But over the past two postseasons, no team has been better than the Cavaliers on the road – going 14-7 away from The Q.
It helps that their two best players are impervious to the rigors of the road. LeBron James feeds off a road crowd’s vitriol – taking the heat away from Irving. (Although he’d probably feed off it, too.)
Sunday night’s classic was the 19th Game 7 in NBA history. The last time a team won it on the road was 1978 – with the Bullets winning in Seattle.