How LeBron James and the Cavs changed their postseason fates
CLEVELAND — Back on June 10, 2007, the same night LeBron James and a rag-tag supporting cast fell down 2-0 in the NBA Finals to the San Antonio Spurs, the finale to HBO’s hit mob drama, “The Sopranos,” aired.
The infamous cut-to-black ending fooled Cavs backup center Scot Pollard back then, just like many others watching around the country. When Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” suddenly quit blaring and Tony Soprano’s face disappeared from the screen, Pollard darted to his feet in the hotel ballroom where league officials had arranged a viewing party of the final episode that evening and exclaimed, ‘What the f—!’, assuming a plug had come loose in the makeshift theater.
In the decade-plus that’s passed since, Sopranos conspiracy theorists have uncovered a previous scene from the show involving Tony and his brother-in-law, Bobby Baccalieri, sitting on a boat, talking about life, believing it gives a clue as to what the final scene really meant.
“You probably don’t even hear it when it happens, right?” Bobby says, talking about what it must be like when a wise guy gets whacked.
Cleveland ended up losing that series in a sweep to San Antonio four days later. It was a disappointing loss for James, but — much like the Sopranos finale — one that’s aged gracefully with the benefit of time and perspective.
It served as a preview of the deep playoff runs and championships that James would lead his teams on in the many years that followed. By the time he embarked on the 2018 playoffs last month, he had already built a body of work that would place his name in any conversation about the all-time greats.
But then the No. 4-seeded Cavs drew the No. 5-seeded Indiana Pacers in the first round.
The Pacers won Game 1, snapping James’ 21-game winning streak in the first round. And the Pacers won Game 3, battling back from a 17-point halftime deficit to take a 2-1 series lead. And by the time the Pacers thoroughly trounced the Cavs 121-87 in Game 6 to knot the series at 3-3, Bobby’s words seemed to apply.
If this was going to be the end of James’ run of seven straight Finals appearances and a 12-0 record all time in the first round, nobody really saw or heard it coming.
The silver lining to getting your doors blown off in a Game 6 when you came into the night with a lead in the series is that even though it might feel like the end when you’re going through it, it actually isn’t.
The Cavs might have let Victor Oladipo run roughshod over them to the tune of 28 points, 13 rebounds, 10 assists and four steals. They might have let seven Pacers score in double figures as Indiana shot 56.3 percent from the field, including a whopping 15-for-30 from 3. They might have only gotten 22 points from James on 7-for-16 shooting as he looked bloody (literally, a first-half collision opened a cut above his left eye that required stitches) and beat up (the 40-plus minutes he was playing in every game of the series up to that point seemed to be catching up with him), but, again, it wasn’t over.
They flew back from Indianapolis to Cleveland late Friday night, had Saturday off and then reconvened Sunday on their home court for an early 1 o’clock tip at Quicken Loans Arena.
What was going through the minds of the players heading into the do-or-die Game 7?
“Basically, ‘F— it. We’re going back to the crib. We got to win,'” Jordan Clarkson told ESPN. “That’s it. Everything else don’t matter.”
Cavs coach Tyronn Lue knew how big of a moment Game 7 was. He also knew that his young players acquired through a series of midseason trades to reshape the roster — Clarkson, Rodney Hood and Larry Nance Jr. — had already struggled in the series with the stakes raised from what they were accustomed to in the regular season.
And so, rather than hope those guys would suddenly show they were ready, Lue leaned on a starting lineup comprised of James, Kevin Love, JR Smith, Tristan Thompson and Kyle Korver, the only five holdovers from last year’s trip to the Finals.
“I just think in Game 7, go with the guys who’ve been here, who’ve been through it all and know what it takes,” Lue said.
Thompson looked like the star role player he’d been during the Cavs’ three consecutive Finals trips, putting up 15 points, 10 rebounds and a block in the 105-101 series decider.
“I wasn’t worried about it,” he told ESPN. “At the end of the day, I know that Game 7, the young guys are going to look to us — me, Swish, Kevin, Bron. So, we got to lead them and show them how it’s done because they’re not going to know what to expect. We’ve been there before. We’ve been in Game 7 at the highest level in basketball — in the Finals. So, we know what it takes and we know what we’re going to have to bring to the table. So, that’s all we were thinking about. We knew the good thing that we were going to be at home in a Game 7 and at the end of the day, when you got the best player in the world, you just got to be yourself and let him go and just take his lead.”
LeBron James drops 26 points on 11-of-16 shooting, leading the Cavs to an 11-point lead over Indiana in the first half.
James was predictably magnificent, shaking off his poor shooting night in Game 6 to put up 45 points on 16-for-25 shooting in the clincher.
Thompson, asked a week later to reflect on that game now that the Cavs have won three games in a row and hold a commanding 2-0 lead in the conference semifinals over the Toronto Raptors heading into Saturday’s Game 3 (8:30 p.m. ET, ABC), says that nobody delivered a rah-rah speech that led to the Cavs getting back on track.
“Nothing to say. Nothing to say,” he told ESPN. “We know what’s on the line. We know it’s either win or go fishing and we don’t want to go fishing. Hell no. Not this team. We’re built for the long haul.”
Maybe so. But they didn’t have long to prepare for the second round. The Pacers series ended on a Sunday. On Monday, they had to travel to Toronto. And on Tuesday they had to play Game 1 on the Raptors’ home floor against the East’s No. 1 seed and a team that had an extra two days rest.
Cleveland fell down 14 points early to the Raptors but clawed back bit by bit, tying it by the end of regulation. The first lead the Cavs held all game came on Kyle Korver’s 3-pointer to open up overtime. They went on to win 113-112. James put up 26 points, 13 assists and 11 rebounds but he shot 3-for-15 from the floor in the fourth quarter and OT combined and 12-for-30 for the game.
Fortunately for Cleveland, Korver scored 19, Smith had 20, Thompson chipped in another double-double off the bench and Jeff Green — another veteran, albeit in his first season with the Cavs — had 16 points on 4-for-4 shooting.
“My teammates were unbelievable tonight,” James said afterwards. “They stepped up when I wasn’t at my best. … It was probably one of my worst games of the season.”
He followed it up with one of his best.
If Game 1 was a reminder to Toronto not to count the Cavs out, Game 2 served as a notice to the rest of the NBA.
Cleveland romped, winning 128-110 to go up 2-0. James had 43 points on a ballet-like array of turnaround jump shots from any spot on the floor one could imagine. He shot 19-for-28 for the game and seven of those makes came on fadeaway jumpers in the second half — tying him with Klay Thompson for the most fadeaways made in a playoff game in the last 15 years, per NBA Advanced Stats.
“Those third and fourth quarters, that was probably the craziest s— I’ve ever seen,” Clarkson said of James.
LeBron James takes over Game 2 in Toronto with several fadeaway jumpers reminiscent of other greats.
As brilliant as James was, Love was right there behind him with 31 points and 11 rebounds. The pair’s 74 combined points overwhelmed the 45 combined points from Toronto’s All-Star duo of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry.
Up 2-0 with their stars playing well and role players figuring things out, the Cavs were finally given a chance to exhale after a pressure-packed week from Indianapolis, to Cleveland, to Toronto.
“We never lost sight of that end game,” Love told ESPN. “Obviously gaining momentum and winning Game 7 on our home floor was huge for us but we wanted to make a big stand here. Especially in Game 1, in the fashion that we won, we fought back and were resilient and took our first lead in overtime and were able to make big plays. I think [Game 2] was also big where in the third quarter we showed a lot of heart, a lot of spark where we really hadn’t the entire playoffs — really, the entire year — in the third quarter. That’s kind of been our Achilles’ heel for a long time. I think that was big for us and now we have two games at home where we’re very tough to beat.”
It was a hint of the old Cavs swagger. It was also oddly appropriate after everything the Cavs have been through since last year’s Finals loss to the Warriors: General Manager David Griffin being let go, the Kyrie Irving trade, the acquisition of former All-Stars in Isaiah Thomas, Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose, winning 18 out of 19 games with Thomas injured, losing 9 out of the 14 games heading into the All-Star break with Thomas on the roster, trading away Thomas, Wade and Rose, acquiring promising young talent in Clarkson, Hood and Nance and stringing together some impressive wins, then falling back into bad defensive habits with the playoffs fast approaching.
“It’s just this year,” James said when asked to explain how his team could go from that Game 6 blowout loss to Indiana to its Game 2 blowout win over the Raptors in a week. “That’s the year we’ve had.”
Right now, the Cavs looked poised to make a fourth straight Finals appearance, which would be the eighth straight for James, dating to his Miami Heat days.
Yes, they still need six more wins to make that happen, but if they keep playing the way they have been playing, it doesn’t seem like Toronto, or Boston, or Philadelphia would be equipped to stop them.
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“It took the whole [Indiana] series to remind us how we need to play,” Korver said. “We can’t play cute basketball. We can’t. It’s not our makeup. It’s not what got the Cavs the success they have had in the past few years. I think this year more than any other year we have had to grind it out and play physical and kind of play smash-mouth basketball.”
So far, they’ve been shoving the ball down Toronto’s throat.
“Going into this series we knew that we had to be good,” Lue said. “With Kyle Lowry and DeRozan and Dwane Casey who’s done a great job this year of changing the offense, being way better defensively, we knew it was going to be a tough matchup for us. But I do think that first round, Nate McMillan and his Pacers, they really did a good job of preparing us for this series.”
Thompson readily admits, “We’re going in the right direction,” but won’t punch Cleveland’s ticket to the Finals just yet.
“Every time y’all say that, ‘The old Cavs [are back],'” he told ESPN, “then we f— around and lay an egg.”
So, what should be said about Cleveland’s last three wins that have seemingly turned its season on its head once again?
“It’s a long journey and we know that the players that we got are for the long haul,” Thompson said. “And you got guys that can get in the bunker and fight. So as long as you got that and you believe in yourself, you don’t have nothing else to worry about.”
The Cavs haven’t stopped believin’.