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LeBron James' first Cavs title: A timeline of his second Cleveland stint
1:32 | NBA
LeBron James' first Cavs title: A timeline of his second Cleveland stint
Friday June 17th, 2016

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LeBron James just won one for the Land. It’s real.

The Cavaliers rallied back from down 3–1, galvanized by a dominant James in three straight elimination games. He followed up consecutive 41-point games with a triple double and an ethereal showing in Game 7 against the Warriors in Oakland. 

The league’s most gifted player put it all together (again) and reminded everyone just how great he is. Six years, six Finals trips, three rings. These Finals were perhaps the greatest showing of James’s historic career. 

How did we get here? It was far from simple. So, we’re here to jog your memory.

LeBron, and the Cavaliers, are champs. Story time!

• The Promise Keeper: Lee Jenkins’s cover story on LeBron delivering a title

The Decision II

On July 11, 2014, LeBron decided to come home. He announced in an essay on SI.com that he would leave Miami and return to Cleveland, where he spent the first seven years of his career, to try and win a title as a Cavalier. After two titles with the Heat but following a Finals loss to the Spurs, the Akron, Ohio, native headed home. The Cavs had just hired new head coach David Blatt, who James then met for the first time on the set of the movie Trainwreck.

Portentous? Maybe.

Regardless, it was championship or bust from the start.

Get SI’s Cleveland Cavaliers NBA Championship package

A new big three

On August 23, the Cavs dealt No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins to the Timberwolves in a splashy trade that brought back All-Star forward Kevin Love. The trade had been the league’s worst-kept secret, and some suspected LeBron had a hand in it as he prepared for the team to contend immediately. Love was coming off a career year in which he averaged 26.1 points, 12.5 rebounds and 4.4 assists. Cleveland already had budding star Kyrie Irving in place. This was the new core LeBron would ride with.

An inauspicious start, and a shakeup

Things didn’t go quite as planned from the outset, as the Cavs opened 5–5. Near the midway point of the season, they were just 19–17. It all built to a boil on Jan. 7, 2015, the night of Cleveland’s seventh loss in nine games. James had been resting with mysterious injuries for a week and was away from the team. The Cavs decided to shake things up, dealing former lottery pick Dion Waiters to the Thunder in a three-team deal that brought in mercurial guard J.R. Smith and defensive specialist Iman Shumpert from the Knicks. A day later, the Cavs swung a second trade that brought in center Timofey Mozgov from the Nuggets. 

With their depth improved and James returning a week later, the Cavaliers ripped off a 12-game winning streak. They cruised into the playoffs, with Blatt winning Coach of the Month for March and the team finishing 53–29, in second place in the East.

LeBron sinks the Bulls (again)

Things got complicated for the Cavs in the second round of the playoffs. They swept the Celtics in the first round but lost Kevin Love to a shoulder injury that would end his playoffs. Kyrie Irving also battled injuries of his own. The Bulls, whom LeBron had continually tortured in his years with the Heat, posed a challenge, taking a 2–1 lead in Chicago after Derrick Rose’s Game 3 buzzer beater.

Two nights later, James answered with a game winner to even the series. The win ignited the Cavs, who won Games 5 and 6 to advance to the East finals. However, the Game 4 victory came with some extra baggage: James revealed to reporters after the game that Blatt’s original play had him inbounding the basketball, and he had effectively called his own shot, disregarding the coach.

After the game, replay revealed that seconds before James’s late-game heroics, Blatt attempted to call a timeout the team didn’t have left. Before he could get the referee’s attention, he was pulled back by assistant coach Tyronn Lue. The Cavaliers won the series, but serious questioning of Blatt’s decision-making came with it.

Cavs vs. Warriors I

After sweeping the Hawks in the East finals, the Cavaliers made it to the Finals, LeBron’s fifth trip in five seasons. The Cavaliers were without Love and Irving (whose injuries had compounded) and ran into a buzzsaw in the Golden State Warriors, whose shift to a smaller lineup and overall depth were too much for Cleveland. The Cavs fell 105–97 in Game 6 to cede the title. They’d leaned heavily on James, their only real creator on offense, and the Warriors countered with unselfish basketball and sublime defense from Andre Iguodala, who would win Finals MVP largely for slowing down LeBron over the course of the series.

In Game 5, James was spotted behind his team’s bench, shaking his head at Blatt and forcing him to draw up a new play in the third quarter. Speculation as to Blatt’s job status remained, as did the Cavs’ expectations entering the next season.

Good job, David Blatt

The Cavs opened the 2015–16 season 8–3, with only minor changes to the roster and a healthy Irving and Love. Reports regarding some perpetual distrust between James and Blatt appeared less noteworthy as James offered a vote of confidence on Nov. 19. 

"He does his job as great as any coach can do in this league," James said of Blatt prior to the team’s ninth win of the year.

"It's pretty easy to team up with a guy like that and it's also, it's refreshing to come every day and to know that you're about the same things with your best guy," Blatt told reporters of James that week. "Bron is that. He's a leader, he's a great player and he wants to win. You can't ask for more than that from any player, particularly your star player."

This was probably where things seemed to peak. Blatt won coach of the month and the Cavs largely cruised. But the title-or-bust expectations weren’t going anywhere.

Goodbye, David Blatt

The Cavaliers were 28–10 despite some inconsistency heading into their second rematch with the Warriors since the Finals on Jan. 18. The Warriors beat the Cavs on Christmas Day and did so more handily on the second go-around. That’s where things started to fall apart, as the Warriors dominated all facets of the game and blew out their foes on national television. It was a cruel kind of litmus test that suggested Cleveland might be further away from contending than its record suggested. The Warriors were historically good, and the Cavs weren’t there yet.

It was perhaps Blatt’s final straw, with players somewhat distraught and the Cavaliers’ mojo blowing in the wind. The head coach was fired days later, with the Cavs 30–11 and in first place in the East. According to reports, James, oft-rumored to have a hand in Cleveland’s dealings, was not consulted on the decision to fire Blatt. 

General manager David Griffin held a long press conference discussing championship aspirations, stability, and a disconnect he’d perceived at times in his locker room. Blatt issued a statement, and he was out. Assistant coach Tyronn Lue was in

A weird March

The Cavs won 11 of their first 14 games under Lue before struggling a bit to close February, still in first place. In March, things got strange for James in particular.

Passive-aggressive tweets!

There were also weird Instagram posts, and people decided to care that James unfollowed the Cavs on Twitter. He said he’d love to play with BFFs Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony. He apologized to Tyronn Lue for being odd.

The Cavs went 11–5 in March, James averaging 25.6 points, 8.2 rebounds and 7.1 assists all the while.

And, here we are

Long story short, the Cavaliers torched their way through the Eastern Conference, blowing through the Pistons and Hawks and getting tested but not pushed by the Raptors. They met the Warriors, who had just rallied from down 3–1 against the Thunder and were riding a historic wave, after a record 73–win regular season. The trio of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green looked ready to claim a second straight title, especially after taking a 3–1 lead.

The stakes were high, the odds were long. This incident changed them, for better or worse.

The scuffle between James and Draymond Green led to Green’s suspension after he registered an after-the-fact flagrant foul point. With Green, the fire at the heart of Golden State’s defense and at times the cog that turns the offense out for Game 5, Kyrie Irving and LeBron James ran wild, scoring 41 points each in a huge road win.

In Game 6, the Cavs rallied again, this time at home. James scored 41 points once again to go with 11 assists, eight rebounds, three blocks and four steals — and just one turnover. Cleveland won comfortably.

Game 7 was everything the rest of the Finals hadn’t been, as the teams traded leads, neither quite pulling away, and the game deadlocked at 89 in its final minutes.

This unbelievable block by James kept the score at 89.

Kyrie Irving drained what would be the go-ahead bucket.

​James averaged 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 2.6 steals and 2.3 blocks in the seven-game series.

Six straight Finals trips, three titles in those six tries, and most importantly — to James, you’d have to believe — one for Cleveland.

See you next season.

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