OAKLAND, Calif.—As Matthew Dellavedova navigated the bowels of Oracle Arena late Sunday night, flanked by a trio of public relations officials, a few steps ahead of a throng of reporters hustling to get into an interview room before him, it sparked memories of his days in anonymity. Like last July, at the NBA’s Summer League, when Dellavedova, an ever so brief teammate of Andrew Wiggins, roamed the concourse freely. Like during the regular season, when Dellavedova blended in with masses snacking in media dining. Like…Thursday, when Dellavedova missed the team bus after Game 1 and was forced to take an Uber back to the hotel.
Of all the unlikely storylines in this postseason, Dellavedova’s emergence is one notch below Cavaliers assistant coach Tyronn Lue coming out of retirement. Say Shawn Marion steps into a starring role and, hey, Marion has 109 playoff games under his belt. Say Brendan Haywood played well and you can point to his years with Washington as evidence that he could. Say Dellavedova slid into Kyrie Irving’s starting spot, hounded Stephen Curry for 42 minutes and coolly sank the game winning free throws with 10 seconds left in overtime and, well, citing his production at St. Mary’s just isn’t going to cut it.
Yet there was Dellavedova, all 6’4”, 200 pounds of him, stuffed in Curry’s jersey, holding the MVP to 19 points on 5-of-23 shooting from the field. And when James Jones’s three-pointer missed in overtime, there was Dellavedova ripping down the offensive rebound, drawing a foul and giving Cleveland the lead in a stunning 95–93 overtime win in Game 2 of the NBA Finals.
For all of LeBron James’s mastery—and 39 points, 16 rebounds and 11 assists on Sunday that added another page to arguably the greatest postseason of his career—he needed this. The Irving injury hit the team hard, both on the floor, where the Cavaliers already faced life without one All-Star, and off it, where the team suddenly was without one of its leaders. All weekend James was in his teammates' ears. “Just letting them understand and telling them about the moment that we're in,” James said. He was superb in Game 1, but without Irving, the possibility of getting back into the series seemed like a long shot.
There is no bigger long shot than Dellavedova, the former St Mary’s star who finished his career as the Gaels' career leader in scoring—only to not get a whiff of interest on draft night. Former Cavs GM Chris Grant scouted him, liked him, and in the summer of 2013 locked Dellavedova up with a two-year, $1.3 million contract. And while Dellavedova is despised in Chicago—Bulls fans won’t soon forget his scissor lock on Taj Gibson that got the starting power forward tossed from Game 4 of the conference semifinals—and loathed in Atlanta—particularly in the Korver and Horford households—he is beloved in Cleveland. After a strong performance in the East finals, the Cavs team store sold out of his jerseys. A local rapper immortalized him in a lyric.
“He's unique in his own way,” James said. “Obviously he's a guy that's been counted out his whole life. Probably people have been telling him he's too small, he's not fast enough, can't shoot it enough, can't handle it good enough. And he's beat the odds so many times.”
He did it again on Sunday, thrust into a starting role and asked to slow down arguably the best shooter in NBA history. He was ready. His preparation didn’t change, save for a little extra hydration. Against Curry, the strategy was simple: Make him work. And with Dellavedova draped over him, Curry submitted his worst shooting night (21.7%) of the postseason.
“It had everything to do with Delly,” James said. “He just kept a body on Steph. He made Steph work. He was spectacular defensively.”
Added David Blatt, “He's a courageous kid that plays right. There was a lot of nonsense swirling around about his style of play. I think anyone that really looks at him objectively and fairly recognizes someone that just plays hard, heartfelt, and tough basketball."
It was an improbable outcome sparked by an improbable hero in a series that the Cavaliers, improbably, are right back in. The series shifts to Cleveland on Tuesday, to Quicken Loans Arena, where LeBron James, a Cheshire cat grin on his face, predicted would be the loudest it has ever been. Conventional wisdom still says Golden State is the favorite, that the depth and talent of the Warriors will eventually overcome the grit-and-grind Cavaliers. The greatness of James can only take a team so far…right?
Perhaps. But what if J.R. Smith has an effort closer to Game 1 of the conference finals (28 points) than the mistake-filled performances he's turned in the first two games of this series? What if Shumpert, Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov are energized by the home crowd? What if Dellavedova plays like, well, Dellavedova? He won’t have to look far for motivation. Asked about Dellavedova on Sunday, Curry said he “played hard and stuck to the game plan.” Draymond Green, questioned about Dellavedova’s defense, said he had a nice rebound at the end of the game. Accolades aren’t coming from his opponents.
Dellavedova doesn’t care. Cleveland, either. The Cavs have embraced the underdog role. They like being counted out. A team that wins shooting 32.2% from the field generally doesn’t feel good about it. For Cleveland, that number is part of what now defines them.
“It's the grit squad that we have,” James said. “It's not cute at all. If you're looking for us to play sexy, cute basketball, then that's not us. That's not us right now. Everything is tough.”