CLEVELAND—Another NBA postseason is officially in the books, so let the tallying begin. My playoff journey encompassed 58 days, 21 games, five arenas, and three time zones, and along the way I witnessed three game-winners, three LeBron James triple-doubles, three Montell Jordan halftime shows, two conference championship celebrations, the end of the Spurs' repeat hopes, the final game of the Tom Thibodeau era in Chicago, the unraveling of James Harden, and the heartbreaking end to Kyrie Irving's season, while also surviving one tornado warning, one emergency plane landing, and one Ohio cab driver who is adamant that the Sports Illustrated's jinx is solely responsible for every loss suffered by her beloved Cleveland sports teams over the last 50 years.
Not to be lost in the chaos: I was lucky enough to see the Golden State Warriors win their first title since 1975, capping a dream season that is arguably the most impressive of the post-Michael Jordan era.
Last year, I documented the Spurs' drive for five with 40 photos from the final 40 days of their title push. Consider this the sequel: one writer's photographic journey through the sights, sounds and minutiae of the 2015 playoffs.
Let's begin where nearly every playoff game begins: the free t-shirt. The slogan-crafters really outdid themselves this year, as "Strength in numbers" versus "All in" wound up being a pretty good way to boil down the Warriors/Cavaliers matchup in the Finals.
Pictured below are shirts handed out by the Clippers, Cavaliers, Bulls, Warriors and Rockets.
There's little doubt in my mind that I'll wind up looking back on the 2015 playoffs as the greatest individual run of James's career. The list of contrasts between the Heat's four title runs and the Cavaliers' push this year were seemingly endless. The Heat's well-oiled machine, with tight-lipped Erik Spoelstra as the face, gave way to a less predictable Cavaliers experience highlighted by canceled arm sling giveaways and David Blatt's often uncomfortable exchanges with the media. The biggest difference, though, is self-evident: James is back to being the star. The spotlight was entirely his in a way it never was in Miami, even before injuries to Kevin Love and Irving. As the playoffs progressed, his solo pedestal kept rising higher and higher.
James is everywhere in Cleveland, from a gigantic mural on the side of a building next to the arena to a monster bobblehead in a downtown hobby store. The limited edition bobblehead, one of 100, will set you back $1,000, according to the shop owner.
After watching Chris Paul hit a series-clinching game-winner over Tim Duncan in the first round—shaking decades of Clippers' demons, at least for a week or two—I assumed that I wouldn't see a comparable shot the rest of the way. Then, just days later, Derrick Rose and James traded game-winners in Games 3 and 4 at Chicago's United Center.
Here's the view from the spot where Rose launched his banked-in, buzzer-beating three-pointer—minus the 20,000 screaming fans and after the arena's lights were turned out.
Those two games boil down the postseason rollercoaster better than any in recent memory: Rose's improbable shot made everything seem possible for Bulls fans, only to cede the stage to James, whose game-winner immediately squashed Chicago's hopes and whose memorable post-game press conference included a detailed explanation of how he overruled Blatt on the final play.
Those two games marked my first at the United Center. What an introduction. For an '80s baby raised on Michael Jordan, the building's many tributes to No. 23—in the rafters, next to the locker room, on the press room's walls—brought the childhood memories rushing back.
Music and hoops always commingle during the playoffs, and this year was no exception, with "Lil B" making headline after headline, Rihanna seated courtside on numerous occasions, and legends like Carlos Santana and Metallica performing the National Anthem. Here, Kanye West entertains the United Center crowd by rapping "All Day" during a break in play.
Still, Montell Jordan's ubiquity takes the cake. On more than one occasion over the last two months, while working a treadmill at 2 a.m. or sitting alone at an airplane gate at 5 a.m., I caught myself deliriously wondering whether I was an NBA writer or just a Montell Jordan groupie. The "This Is How We Do It" singer was everywhere this postseason, and I somehow managed to catch his halftime shows in L.A., Chicago, and Oakland, as he expertly flipped the lyrics of his 1995 hit to fit the home team at each venue. This MJ displayed a combination of longevity and ring-chasing that the NBA hasn't seen since Karl Malone.
Anyway, James sent the Bulls packing in Game 6, a defeat that brought the Thibodeau era full circle. The well-respected coach could never get over the LeBron hump, and there was no doubt that this would be his last chance. As the Cavaliers looked ahead to the East finals, the Jordan statue outside the United Center looked sad and lonely, rather than triumphant and immortal, on the rainy May night.
I headed to the Bay Area next, where I was struck by the Warriors' calm confidence as they prepared for the West finals against the Rockets. Golden State's nondescript practice facility sits on the top floor of a parking garage in downtown Oakland. That's right, the World Champions share office space with hotel valets. The first thing that pops when you enter the Warriors' gym is the yellow 1975 title banner. For some recent Warriors teams, that banner probably seemed archaic and impossible. These Warriors now get their own.
The Oracle Arena crowd is everything you've heard about, everything Lee Jenkins wrote about, and more. A sea of yellow took in Game 1, and Golden State held serve at home.
My trip through Texas barely qualified as a two-step: I took in Game 3 of the Finals before returning to Cleveland to catch the second half of the Cavaliers' sweep over the Hawks. Golden State's Game 3 performance in Houston was a massacre, one I'll remember for how quickly it deflated the Rockets' rowdy fan base. These two pictures sum things up nicely: the first was shot just after Game 3 tipped, and the second was shot midway through the fourth quarter, as Stephen Curry was putting the finishing touches on a 40-point night. He cleared them out.
This stretch marked the busiest of my postseason run, as I caught three games in three time zones in four nights. The back-to-back in Houston and Cleveland was well worth it, as James delivered an outrageous triple double (37 points, 18 rebounds, 13 assists) in Game 3 against Atlanta, in what wound up being a taste of things to come in the Finals.
It was easy to lose sight, given all the miles and all the hoops, that there's a lot more going on in the world outside of NBA arenas. That thought hit me pretty hard as I walked around Cleveland between Games 3 and 4 of the East finals, stumbling upon this alley with "Brelo is a murderer" and "No justice, just us" spray-painted on the side of an abandoned building. James was asked for his comment on the Michael Brelo acquittal, which prompted protests after the Cleveland police officer fired a total of 49 shots in the 2012 killing of two African-Americans. He said, "Violence is not the answer."
By this point, a Warriors/Cavaliers Finals matchup was a matter of when, not if. Cleveland wasted no time completing the sweep, while Golden State took Game 4 off in Houston before claiming the gentleman's sweep back at Oracle one night later. The two celebrations mirrored each other, and both fan bases swelled with hope.
But first: the wait. Because of the one-sided nature of the conference finals, I returned to L.A. for a week-long break before the Finals. It was just enough time to unpack my bags, untangle my accumulating credentials and get excited for the mouth-watering Finals match-up.
Nothing beats the Finals logo. It's everywhere, from signs to billboards to interview backdrops to you name it. Here, the logo loomed on the JumboTron as the two teams prepared for their first official Finals practice.
Both Oakland and Cleveland rallied hard around their NBA teams. Messages of support, player billboards and the like were everywhere in both cities. By far the most enterprising, and viral, expression of support was this bootleg Riley Curry t-shirt being sold on an Oakland street corner a few blocks away from Oracle. The NBA store can only dream about having this corner's market responsiveness.
Let the games begin. The Finals tipped off with the most unnecessary suggestion on the jumbotron. Oracle was plenty loud throughout the Warriors' nail-bating overtime win.
During an off day in San Francisco, I stumbled across these two eye-catching murals. This graffiti ode to the MLB Giants and the NFL 49ers graced an alley in the Mission, while a giant painted tribute to the pursuit of knowledge was spotted a bit further north.
Even on a cloudy day, the top of the Coit Tower offers a great view of the Bay Bridge, the centerpiece of the Warriors' logo.
Tailgating isn't generally associated with basketball, but Oracle Arena is surrounded by acres of asphalt and the Northern California sun has been shining in June. Hundreds of fans, including this group, set up tailgates before Games 1, 2 and 5 to gear up for the Warriors' first Finals games in decades.
The series, split at one game apiece thanks to James's heavy lifting in Game 2, shifted to Cleveland for Games 3 and 4. The Cavaliers would be forced to make due without Irving, who was lost in Game 1, but James was handling anything and everything, making a strong case for Finals MVP in defeat (Andre Iguodala edged him out for the award).
Voinovich Bicentennial Park, adjacent to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, offered a nice view of the Cleveland skyline that graces the Cavaliers' court, even if the immaculately-maintained park was virtually empty all three times I passed through.
I can't imagine a less welcoming entrance to the Cleveland Visitor's Center than the giant heads of Timofey Mozgov and Kendrick Perkins. So perfect. How did they ever find a photo of a smiling Perkins?
Game 3 in Cleveland opened with a goosebump-inducing moment, as Nike unveiled giant banners that read, "There's always this year" as the Quicken Loans Arena's humongous JumboTron showed inspirational highlights. Cleveland's underdog hopes suddenly felt very real during the montage, and even more so after the Cavaliers went up 2-1.
I've seen plenty of JumboTron proposals in my day—#SheSaidYes—but I've never seen one in which the proposer co-opted his favorite team's slogan as part of the proposal. Yes, you read that correctly: "Tracey, will you go ALL IN and marry me? Love, Mike." Good thing he's a Cavaliers fan, as Bill Paxton's character on "Big Love" is probably the only person who could find a way to work "strength in numbers" into a marriage proposal.
If you look closely, you can tell that these photos were snapped at the exact high point of Matthew Dellavedova's career. Delly-sanity was totally out of control before Game 4, but the Warriors helped free up Stephen Curry by going small, and they never looked back.
The 2-2-1-1-1 Finals format sent us back-and-forth between Oakland and Cleveland at a rapid pace. Here's the satisfied scene outside Oracle Arena following Golden State's Game 5 victory, which saw a 17-point fourth-quarter outburst from Curry and brought the Warriors within one win of a championship.
One last cross-country flight to Cleveland set the stage for Game 6, which set up a lot like Game 5 in San Antonio last year. James's team seemed out of answers and overwhelmed by a more potent, diverse opponent, and the title was right there for the taking.
Take it the Warriors did, fighting through an ugly first half to string together a series of fourth-quarter three-pointers that held the Cavaliers at bay. The final win of the season saw major contributions from Curry, Iguodala, Draymond Green (who notched a triple double) and even solid role play from the likes of Festus Ezeli. Golden State compiled wins in bulk all season with an offense that can beat you from every position and a reliable defense that doesn't beat itself, and that formula proved to be enough to overcome James.
Cleveland fans, who held out hope until late in Game 6 that James would deliver, left the building empty-handed. One of the fans left this sign, too, which brought back memories of Curry's building-clearing performance in Houston.
Hundreds of Warriors fans made the trek to Cleveland, and their travel time and ticket investments paid off with a solid championship-sealing victory and a euphoric championship celebration.
It wouldn't be a celebration without an unimpressed Riley Curry cameo. Surely, it doesn't get much better than holding Riley in one hand while grasping at Larry with the other. Some reporters felt that young children at the post-game podium can be a distraction, but no one is complaining when the whole family takes part in the championship moments.