Appreciating the Cavaliers and all of their madness
CLEVELAND — Amidst all the discussion of matchups and adjustments in the NBA Finals, in between all the legacy questions for everyone, I need to talk about the most basic lesson of Game 3: the Cavs might be the most aggressively bipolar team in NBA history.
We should appreciate this. Ever since LeBron came back, the past two seasons have been equal parts joyride and car crash in Cleveland, and it changes depending on the week. Remember when Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love were drunk and rapping in the back of a Brazilian taxi during the Cavs preseason last year? That's the joyride.
A few months later, there was LeBron's message to Love: "Stop trying to find a way to FIT-OUT and just FIT-IN. Be apart of something special! Just my thoughts." That was followed by Love saying, "We're not best friends," and LeBron lecturing the media about being "corny and wack" for reading into his message. Car crash.
It's been like this for almost two years in Cleveland, and we've seen it all in the past week. As recently as Tuesday, half the NBA internet was getting ready to trade Love and Irving, and the other half was reminding the world that LeBron can't complain about help, because he chose this roster.
Then Game 3 happened, and what could have been a funeral turned into an exorcism. Offense came back, and the Oracle demons were gone. It was so much fun. It was the loudest pro basketball game I've ever attended, and Friday should be even louder.
"The only change is just playing hard," Tyronn Lue said afterward. "Competing for 48 minutes. I thought our physicality and our attention to detail was really great. Kyrie setting the tone early offensively really gave us confidence early."
Yes, a critic might point out that "competing for 48 minutes" shouldn't have been that hard in the first two games of the NBA Finals. That misses the point, though—or at least underscores a point that's been obvious for 18 months. The Cavs as a super team have been flawed from the beginning. The pieces don't quite fit together, and LeBron doesn't totally trust them. There's pressure to win now, and then there's outside scrutiny that makes all these dynamics more complicated.
Some people may blame that last point for the drama, and outsiders are definitely part of it. Cleveland's baggage is in its own category, but we've all had a twisted relationship with LeBron's career since 2010. His failures are more interesting than almost anyone's success, and as such, his place in history has been a point of fixation among fans and writers alike. Overreacting to LeBron news has been a stock industry in sports media for a decade now.
However ... It's not like anyone in the media was inventing stories about Cavs' tension over the past six months. It wasn't the media who posted Batman Instagrams, subtweeted Kyrie, and unfollowed the team Twitter account a few weeks before the playoffs. Players in Cleveland were genuinely stressed out through a large chunk of this season. Even Lue, himself, had to address all this.
"It's hard enough to win without worrying about a damn Twitter," he told Zach Lowe in late March. "It's time for everyone to stop all the glaring and just compete."
Then, they spent April and May dominating the East, and all of this was forgotten. There was the Rise of Lil' Kev, there were dinner parties with family. Everything was perfect and everyone was happy, right up until the first two games of the Finals.
After Game 3 changed everything one more time, I just want to appreciate the whole experience. It's not 73 wins, but the Cavs are amazing for their own reasons.
When things start to go bad in Cleveland, it gets DARK. People get fired, or injured, or sent to Oklahoma. There are whispers about LeBron's frustration, louder questions about Kyrie, and nationwide debates about whether this will ever work. At its worst, the whole LeBron experiment begins to feel like a tortured failure in branding (#TheLand).
When it works, though ... J.R. Smith starts raining down threes, Kyrie Irving crosses people to death, and LeBron reminds everyone he's the best player we've seen in 20 years. Last year, there were Delly and Jordan photoshops, this year there may be a giant Richard Jefferson statue outside the Q before Game 4. The fans get euphoric, the players relax, and it all turns into a celebration. The Cavs at their best look like they're having more fun than any team in the league.
The Warriors are better, obviously. They are relentless in their faith in themselves, their offense, and the process. Can you blame them? Steph Curry has come through over and again, and when he doesn't, Klay does. In the meantime, Steve Kerr generally seems blissfully detached from whatever sports talk controversies arise in any given week—he's not answering questions about Twitter. Also, Andre Iguodala isn't launching a reality show kickstarter in the middle of the NBA Finals.
All of this is why the Warriors are probably going to win the title. They are healthy in their approach, and ruthless in their execution.
Meanwhile, LeBron came back to Ohio with title promises and two-minute long commercials turning him into some kind of Ohio religious figure. Kyrie is an awkward fit next to him, and always has been. Love may not play big minutes in the rest of the Finals, but Richard Jefferson definitely will, and so will J.R. Smith. The fans alternate between existential dread, and blind, hopeless faith, and all of it makes the Cavs experience great. None of this has ever been healthy—but win or lose in Game 4, it won't be boring, either.