CLEVELAND—The best basketball player in the world stood by his locker, wearing only a towel, with a bottle of champagne in one hand and childlike glee on his face. This was the same locker where LeBron James sat before games as a young player, back before the CHOSEN 1 tattoo on his back seemed like a statement of fact, and gave the media a few minutes, whether he felt like it or not. Four years ago, many people thought he would never sit there again as Cavalier. But here he was. He just carried the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals again in a 118–88 Game 4 win. Strange, then, that for most of the night, he did not get the biggest cheers. Those went to Matthew Dellavedova, the backup point guard.
The crowd roared when Dellavedova entered the game, and chanted of “Del-ly!” whenever he did something impressive. Ostensibly, the crowd was supporting Dellavedova because he tussled with the Hawks’ Al Horford in the previous game, and people were starting to call him a dirty player. But there was a deeper reason, too.
LeBron James is from Northeast Ohio.
Matthew Dellavedova is how Cleveland sees itself.
Dellavedova is from Australia, a product of a smaller school (St. Mary’s) who wasn’t even drafted. If he gets into mini-scuffles with bigger players, like Horford and Chicago’s Taj Gibson, then guess what? Cleveland loves him for it. Dellavedova is the little guy, underappreciated and overlooked, reaching for his piece of the pie. If Cleveland had its own currency, guys like Dellavedova would have their faces on it.
[daily_cut.NBA]There is this understandable urge to see this Cavaliers run the way Clevelanders see Dellavedova—as the scrappers rising to the top. And yet, as sushi and hummus sat mostly untouched in the locker room, who was kidding whom? This is all a product of the greatness of LeBron James. He said afterward that, “When I made my decision to come back here, I knew what I wanted to do.”
A year ago, Dan Gilbert was just another failing owner. Now he is talking about all the hard work his organization did to get here, when the reality is that if James grew up in Wilmington, N.C., Gilbert never would lured him back. Not in 1,000 years.
A year ago, David Blatt was a very good European coach, hoping to get his shot in the NBA. Even Kyrie Irving was just a rising NBA star who had never even made the playoffs. So was Kevin Love five months ago, J.R. Smith was considered a loser, and Iman Shumpert was just a pretty good player.
LeBron James is dragging them all to the NBA Finals, the way he dragged the 2007 Cavaliers to the Finals. He left for four years and they stunk for four years. He came back and they’re back. It really is as simple as that.
When James returned, so did the Rust Belt storylines, and he is happy to contribute:
“If you work hard for this city they work hard for you,” he said after the game. “They give everything back to you. We’re just trying to work hard for this city.”
In December 2010, he sat in the same room for a postgame press conference in his first game back in Cleveland with the Miami Heat. He had been booed relentlessly for abandoning Cleveland’s team. The city’s quest to end its championship drought was not his quest, not then. He says it is his now.
The last Cleveland title came in 1964, when the Browns won the NFL championship before there was such a thing as a Super Bowl. But it took a while for Cleveland to get its reputation for losing. Obviously, the first 10 or 15 years after that 1964 title did not constitute a particularly long drought.
The Cleveland-as-Losertown narrative really took off when two of the most talented athletes of the 1980s, John Elway and Michael Jordan, abused Cleveland teams in the biggest games, in the most painful possible way. When Jordan hit “The Shot” over Craig Ehlo, he did so in Cleveland. When Elway conducted “The Drive”—98 yards to force overtime in the AFC Championship Game—that was in Cleveland, too.
Cleveland’s role in these dramas was firmly established: The transcendent talents of sports would torture the city on the lake. So it seemed so perfect when the most gifted 18-year-old basketball player in history, the heir to Jordan, from nearby Akron, landed with the Cavaliers.
And yet, it was an odd marriage, even at the time. James wore Yankees hats and cheered for the Cowboys. It was so ingrained in the city that if Cleveland won anything, it would be grit over talent, determination over glitz. But James was talent, he was glitz, and he still is. James said it himself during these playoffs: He can’t see his team ever being the underdog.
Well, whenever Golden State finishes off the Rockets, the Cavaliers will be the underdogs, and deservedly so. It would be different if Love played, but he won’t, or if Irving were healthy, but he isn’t (at least, right now). The Warriors have a deeper team, a better roster, and superior chemistry with their coach.
This season could well end like all of James’s other seasons in Cleveland: With him carrying an unremarkable roster as far as it can go, then losing to a superior team. The next time somebody talks about James’s poor play in the ’07 Finals, remind them that he was 22 years old, and the Cavaliers’ other starters that year were Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Drew Gooden, Larry Hughes, and Sasha Pavlovic.
Now? His team is better, sure. But consider: The Cavaliers just beat Atlanta by 30. In November, they played Atlanta here, and it was like a completely different team. Dion Waiters played 27 minutes. Joe Harris played 21. Shawn Marion played 24. Anderson Varejao played 21. Love played 30. None of those guys did anything meaningful here Tuesday. And still, the Cavaliers won that November game by 36.
It was one game, and the roster changes have made the Cavs a more cohesive team. But let’s not go too far with that. For the 12th straight year, the Cavaliers will go as far as LeBron James takes them—and yes, that includes the four years when he played for the Heat. He has dragged the 2015 Cavaliers as far as they should reasonably go. If they win one more round, fans will revel in the upset, and players will talk about their teamwork and resolve, but there will be one root cause: This time, LeBron James chose them.
GALLERY: LeBron James's best career playoff performances
LeBron James' Best Playoff Performances
May 24, 2015 — Eastern Conference Finals, Game 3
LeBron James missed his first 10 shots but finished with 37 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists in Cleveland's overtime victory over Atlanta. James, who favored his right leg for most of the fourth quarter and OT, hit a three-pointer with 36.4 seconds left to put the Cavs ahead by one, and the superstar dropped a runner with 12.8 left to make it 114-111.
May 12, 2014 — Eastern Conference Semifinals, Game 4
LeBron James matched his career playoff high and set a Miami franchise record with 49 points as the Heat held off the Nets 102-96 to take a 3-1 series lead. LeBron made 16-of-24 from the field and 14-of-19 from the free throw line in 43 minutes. He previously scored 49 points for Cleveland in a 2009 postseason game against Orlando.
June 18, 2013 — NBA Finals, Game 6
With the Heat facing elimination, LeBron James shook off a slow first half to score 16 fourth-quarter points, including a key three-pointer with 20 seconds remaining in regulation. He finished with his second triple-double of the 2013 Finals, tallying 32 points (on 11-for-26 shooting), 11 assists and 10 rebounds in the Heat's 103-100 OT victory over the Spurs.
May 22, 2013 — Eastern Conference Finals, Game 1
LeBron James capped off a triple-double (30 points, 10 assists, 10 rebounds) with a buzzer-beating, game-winning layup in overtime of Miami's 103-102 win over Indiana. James was the first player in NBA playoff history to record a triple-double and buzzer-beating game-winner in the same game.
June 19, 2012 — NBA Finals, Game 4
LeBron James was heavily criticized for his play in Miami's Finals loss to Dallas in 2011, but it was hard to quibble with his performance a year later against Oklahoma City. Exhibit A was Game 4. Just minutes after leaving the game with leg cramps, James returned to nail a go-ahead three-pointer with 2:50 left as the Heat defeated the Thunder 104-98. LeBron finished with 26 points, nine rebounds and 12 assists for the Heat, who took a 3-1 series lead en route to winning James' first championship two nights later.
June 7, 2012 — Eastern Conference Finals, Game 6
With the Heat facing elimination, LeBron James erupted for 45 points, 15 rebounds and five assists in a 98-79 victory. James joined Wilt Chamberlain as the only players to post a 45-15-5 line in a playoff game, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Even more impressive, he made 19-of-26 shots from the field, including 12 in a row after missing his first attempt.
May 20, 2012 — Eastern Conference Semifinals, Game 4
Miami trailed 2-1 in the series and got off to an awful start in Game 4. But LeBron James responded with an all-around gem that included 40 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists as he teamed up with Dwyane Wade to spark a 101-93 victory, with the two stars scoring 38 consecutive Miami points at one stage. The Heat won the next two games, too, to close out the upstart Pacers.
April 25, 2010 — Eastern Conference First Round, Game 4
Fresh off 40- and 39-point performances against Chicago, LeBron James kept up his torrid pace by going for 37 points while adding 12 rebounds and 11 assists for his fifth career triple-double. Perhaps most notable: LeBron, not known for his deep shooting, nailed six three-pointers in Cleveland's 121-98 rout.
May 28, 2009 — Eastern Conference Finals, Game 5
LeBron James had a series of spectacular performances in this series, the last being a 37-point, 14-rebound, 12-assist outing that kept Cleveland alive (the Cavaliers, though, would be eliminated in Game 6 at Orlando as LeBron struggled). LeBron scored 17 points in the fourth quarter, which started with the Cavs trailing by a point and ended with their pulling away for a 112-102 victory.
May 22, 2009 — Eastern Conference Finals, Game 2
This game will be remembered for having the signature shot of LeBron James' career: a buzzer-beating, game-winning three-pointer to punctuate his 35-point effort and even the series at 1-1 as the Cavs defeated the Magic 96-95.
May 20, 2009 — Eastern Conference Finals, Game 1
Before his Game 2 buzzer-beater, LeBron James opened the series by setting a franchise record with 49 points (on 20-of-30 shooting from the field). But Orlando rallied from a 15-point halftime deficit to win 107-106.
May 9, 2009 — Eastern Conference Semifinals, Game 3
Hawks forward Josh Smith described LeBron James as being "out of his mind." That was a fitting summation of LeBron's performance: 47 points and 15-of-25 shooting from the field, along with 12 rebounds, eight assists and only one turnover in Cleveland's 97-92 win enroute to sweeping Atlanta.
May 18, 2008 — Eastern Conference Semifinals, Game 7
LeBron James scored 45 points and Paul Pierce countered with 41 in a memorable Game 7 duel. Pierce's Celtics edged James' Cavaliers 97-82.
May 31, 2007 — Eastern Conference Finals, Game 5
LeBron James famously scored Cleveland's last 25 points (and 48 overall) in a 109-107 double-overtime victory over Detroit. The Cavaliers also won Game 6 to reach the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history and become the third team to overcome a 2-0 deficit in the conference finals.
May 3, 2006 — Eastern Conference First Round, Game 5
LeBron James' game-winning, last-second layup lifted the Cavaliers to a 121-120 overtime victory over the Wizards, gave them a 3-2 series lead and capped a performance in which he finished with 45 points, seven rebounds and six assists.