Did LeBron James and the Cavaliers really just win the Finals? SI.com's Andrew Sharp looks back at 23 memories from a drama-filled series.
The dust has settled and the champagne has dried and J.R. Smith is still not wearing a shirt. The Cavaliers won the NBA Finals. LeBron brought a title back to Cleveland. He did it by beating the most dominant regular season team in NBA history, coming back from down 3–1, and unleashing two 41–point masterpieces followed by a Game 7 triple double. All of this really happened.
It'll take a few days before it feels real, but for now, I've spent the past 36 hours savoring one of the two most satisfying NBA endings of my entire life. To celebrate, or try to make sense of it, here are 23 memories of how that series happened and why it was great.
1. LeBron went back to Cleveland. This was the first step towards giving us one of the greatest Finals ever, but it's complicated. The return to Ohio was heartwarming as it happened, and then as the days unfolded into months and the ad campaigns began rolling out, it quickly began to feel calculating, too. LeBron went home because he was loyal, and he also recognized that the Cavs were perfectly positioned to launch another, younger superteam and build on his legacy. After the Love trade and the Cavs opening as massive title favorites, it wasn't quite as heartwarming.
None of this is a criticism, and in a lot of ways the foresight was shrewd and admirable. But what began as a dramatic crusade to bring a title to Ohio started to feel a little cheap and manufactured. This was carefully orchestrated narrative, like one big Nike commercial. Nothing was organic. And as last season played out in Cleveland, none of it ever seemed quite as enjoyable as it should've been.
2. The Warriors pushed this to another place. What I love most about the 2016 Finals is that the rise of Golden State made the drama real again. With Steph Curry tearing through the NBA and the Warriors making history out of nowhere the past two seasons, LeBron really was the underdog. The roster he built matched up terribly with the Warriors. For a minute there, it looked like he'd never win a title again. The Cavs were the new Buffalo Bills.
All the drama that had felt manufactured a year ago was so real by the time LeBron and the Cavs actually came through, and that's a credit to how good the Warriors were. Steph Curry really did appear out of thin air, and Golden State was great, and when the Cavs went down 3-1, it looked impossible. LeBron played the best basketball of his life to make this happen. He collapsed in exhaustion when it was over, because that's what it took. It's what made the ending so perfect—all of this emotion and elation was completely genuine by the end.
3. The trash talk pushed this to another place. If the end is what made this series meaningful, the trash talk is what made it FUN. Remember a week ago when we found that Draymond had called LeBron a "b----"? Then there was a debate over the record and apparently he called him a "f---boy"? Remember Klay Thompson's manhood comments? And, of course, LeBron finishing this series by destroying Steph's shots and laughing at him, attempting to posterize Draymond with a dunk that might have split the earth in half and generally going thermonuclear for the final three games. Also, celebrating the win wearing an Ultimate Warrior t-shirt.
Imagine how different a Cavs–Spurs series would've been. Or think about every other Finals that comes and goes without incident. This was the best–case scenario for basketball. The 2016 Finals had two of the best players in the world gunning for control of the NBA, and two teams that openly despised each other by the end, and it ended with a Game 7 that came down to the final minute. How did we ever get this lucky? Wasn't this supposed to be done in five?
4. The Draymond suspension is a perfect piece of NBA history. Things get weird in the playoffs. The whole world watches these games, analyzes every matchup to death, and then sometimes things happen that swing momentum in ways that nobody can quantify. They become part of the legend. It happened a week before the Finals, when Russell Westbrook made fun of Steph's defense. It happened when LeBron and Wade made fun of Dirk's cold in 2011. And obviously it happened with the Draymond suspension.
Had Draymond Green played Game 5 at Oracle, I'd be writing about the NBA draft instead of one of the greatest Finals ever. As an added bonus, there was controversy and conspiracy—I'm still not sure he really deserved to miss a Finals game for this aimless flail as LeBron stepped on his head—and that's part of the legend, too. It's history that will be part of arguments forever, which is to say, the Draymond suspension is the best kind of history.
5. It comes down to confidence. Aside from swinging the pendulum of momentum and karma and every other invisible force that may or may not contort our playoff realities, the Draymond fight and suspension really did change dynamics on the court. Once he left for a suite at the Oakland Coliseum, it freed up space for Kyrie Irving and LeBron to operate.
Scoring at the rim helped get Kyrie get comfortable in Game 5, and once a few shots started falling, he turned the second half into one, long torture session for Klay Thompson. Meanwhile, LeBron didn't have to worry about guarding Draymond Green, he got comfortable attacking the rim, and then he entered a zone of his own that he stayed in through Game 6. If there's a lesson to the Draymond suspension beyond conspiracy theories and karma, I'm pretty sure it comes down to the value of confidence. Once the Cavs were able to get comfortable and get into a rhythm, they realized the Warriors were beatable, and it changed everything. It's why the final three games of this series were unrecognizable compared to the first two.
6. All of this took on a life of its own. The Draymond suspension... Klay Thompson's comments... LeBron playing some of the best basketball of his life... Bogut going down... Steph struggling... Ayesha Curry lashing out at the NBA and making it worse... Andre Iguodala's back seizing up in Game 6. What I'll remember most about the 2016 Finals is a full week of whispering to friends, "There are a lot of pieces lining up here for the Cavs... They can't... Can they?"
The longer this went, the whispers got louder. There was the state of Carolina angle—the Panthers and Tar Heels both lost titles, so maybe that would happen to Charlotte's favorite son. Also, Warriors lost nine games all regular season, and four losses in the Finals would bring them to exactly nine losses in the playoffs, a conclusion that felt so cruel it was almost inevitable. And on Friday, I realized that LeBron had a chance to win a Game 7 of the Finals right as Skip Bayless retired from his perch atop Mount Troll at ESPN. It felt like there were forces in the universe at work, and I don't even care how crazy that sounds. It was all lining up.
Then it happened.
7. Tristan Thompson deserved every dollar. Less exciting than LeBron superpowers and forces of the universe, there is Tristan Thompson. He's destined to be overlooked next to those two, except for maybe the occasional NBA hispter who goes out of the way to oversell his importance. Now, let me be that hipster for the next two paragraphs.
How much??? 😳— DeMarcus Cousins (@boogiecousins) October 21, 2015
That was DeMarcus Cousins mocking the Tristan Thompson contract this fall, and boy, was he WRONG. He was not alone, either. That contract became a running joke all over the NBA, and Tristan Thompson just spent the past week making a lot of people look stupid. He's not a star, but he's exactly what the Cavs needed to level the playing field in this series. He can punish smaller forwards on the glass and hang with guards on the pick-and-roll as well as any big man in the NBA. He's a smallball cheat code.
What's more, in a league that's about to a) pay Goldman Sachs bonus numbers to everyone from Solomon Hill to Bismack Biyombo, and b) spend the next few years fighting smallball, getting Tristan Thompson at $16 million is looking like a pretty good deal. Every Finals winner has a role player who steps up, and Tristan Thompson was that guy for Cleveland.
8. It was a rough week for Harrison Barnes. This is the flipside of the Tristan Thompson story, and the perfect example of how the Golden State's role players betrayed them in this series. Even after a full nine months of "Harrison Barnes Max Contract" jokes, what went down in the Finals was rougher than anyone could have imagined. Barnes finished 5-of-32 over the final three games, and he was benched in the fourth quarter so that Steve Kerr could play Festus Ezeli in the fourth quarter of a Finals Game 7. ROUGH.
9. Those games in Cleveland were the loudest basketball games I've been to my entire life. Game 6 ended with the Jumbotron playing this Major League scene while the entire stadium stayed after the buzzer to go nuts, and I seriously considered staying in Cleveland until Sunday night. Then ...
10. This is what euphoria looks like.
"Fans have stolen a fire truck, a bud light truck, and there is a naked man riding a donkey through the city. Oh god bless Cleveland."— Chick McGee (@chickmcgee1) June 20, 2016
Chaos outside of the Cavs locker room. Charles Oakley yelling "touch me and see the fuck what happens" to a deployed team of security guards— Dieter Kurtenbach (@dkurtenbach) June 20, 2016
Nothing in the world makes me happier than imagining Charles Oakley, last seen threatening Charles Barkley and defending Cleveland's honor, strong–arming security guards and fighting his way into the Cavs locker room Sunday night. Best Ohio ambassador of all time.
11. Kyrie Irving deserves so much credit. The story of these Finals is LeBron, but Kyrie came up so much bigger than anyone thought possible. It happened again in Game 7. The obvious memory is the three that sealed it, but he was in that zone the entire second half. He had 17 of his 26 after halftime, and he turned the whole game around in the third quarter.
I didn't think he had this in him. Outside of Cleveland, did anyone? At 24 years old, he played the Dwayne Wade role with LeBron, outplayed the back-to-back NBA MVP in four the of the final five games, and hit the game-winning shot of the Finals. It puts him in an entirely different category going forward, and I don't know if anyone was prepared for him to ever get there. The stories will be about LeBron this week, but after the past week, we should probably get to used to talking about Kyrie, too.
12. Matthew Dellavedova won an NBA Championship. We did it.
13. JR Smith won an NBA Championship. WE DID IT.
14. Dan Gilbert won an NBA Championship. ...
15. Joe Lacob lost an NBA Championship. Whenever someone at the league gets around to putting a Crying Jordan exhibit in the Basketball Hall of Fame, the Lacob New York Times profile has to be front and center. Speaking of which ...
16. Steph Curry wasn't the same Steph Curry. One of the most obnoxious storylines of the Finals was the recurring conversation around Steph Curry, and the kneejerk arguments that would pop all over Twitter. After every bad Curry game, it was, "If LeBron did this, imagine the reaction..." And yet there we were, having a national conversation about why Curry wasn't dominating, while most of the country rooted against the Warriors. It wasn't that different from the LeBron experience.
Bottom line: Curry wasn't healthy. Whatever percentage you want to choose—65%, 75%, 83.4%—he missed two weeks with an MCL injury. Even though there were flashes where he looked like his old self, the night-to-night consistency wasn't there. Look at his turnovers, the drop-off in shooting, and even the defense. The Finals saw Steph struggle more than he has in the last 24 months combined.
Some people will say this proves this season's dominance was all a mirage, but he was more confident this year than any guard we've ever seen. Does anyone really think he choked? He made mental mistakes, too, but I think it all comes back to a body that suddenly betrayed him. The most accurate criticism after these Finals is that Curry is still injury prone, and when he's less than 100%, he struggles more than other superstars playing hurt. Staying healthy and playing hurt are their own skills among superstars—with LeBron as the indestructible gold standard—and after a full year of looking invincible, Steph will have more questions to answer next season.
17. And suddenly, the Warriors were beatable. Even after you remove God-level Steph Curry from the equation, Golden State is still excellent and explosive enough to scare the crap out of teams, but it's not the same death machine that tore through the NBA all year. Factor in Bogut's injury, Iguodala's issue, and role players who disappeared, and it was all part of what gave the Cavs an opening to pull off one of the craziest upsets of all time. And now we have to finish with LeBron.
18. The Cavs were healthy across the board. More importantly, compare the Warriors' marathon to how well the "Take three months off" strategy worked for the Cavaliers this year. And then look at the East right now. Can you even imagine what the Cavs season will be like next year?
LeBron may not even step foot in Ohio between New Years and St. Patrick's Day. Kyrie could spend the entire month of February at a timeshare in Aspen. Mo Williams will be running the two-man game with James Jones for at least five weeks. I can't wait. Next year's regular season in Cleveland will be the polar opposite of 73 wins in Golden State this year, and it will be tremendous.
19. The Block. "He looked like Batman coming out of nowhere," Kevin Durant explained when ESPN's Royce Young asked him about Game 7. "Seriously. They got the all black on and he came out of nowhere. Once the [Warriors] got the fast break I was like, 'They're about to go off, they're about to score six or seven straight', and then he came out of nowhere."
That chasedown block... What LeBron did to Andre Iguodala on Sunday night was the same kill shot that he's been delivering all over the NBA for more than a decade. He explodes from out of nowhere, like a free safety who's 10 or 15 yards behind the play, and then a split second later some small forward will disappear on the screen, and some hopeless lay-up is pinned against the backboard. It's become a LeBron trademark.
The chasedown block combines all the speed and power and precision that makes LeBron historically unfair. On those blocks, you remember that Michael Jordan is the wrong comparison. LeBron is Jim Brown mixed with Peyton Manning. He's Shaq with Magic's passing. He's Batman coming out of nowhere, and everyone from casual fans to Kevin Durant can lose their mind and remember how incredible this is.
20. LeBron spent his entire career measured against the greatest in history. By any objective measure, he grades out as well as any of them. He's the most well-rounded player of all time. He makes flawless decisions, he always finds the open man, plays great defense, he's probably the smartest player in the sport. He's also been putting up 28, 8, and 7 for the better part of his career. His playoff averages are outrageous. But there's an ineffable quality to the legacy conversations that goes beyond efficiency numbers. Part of being legendary means capturing imaginations, too. That's what these Finals were.
21. This entire series was a chasedown block. Everyone could always recognize LeBron's talent, but as recently as a week ago, nobody could have imagined anything like this. After a career full of routine brilliance, the past week was LeBron down 3–1, exploding onto the screen out of nowhere, and making the entire country say "Holy s---" at once.
22. He finished the last three games of the Finals averaging 36 points, 11.5 rebounds, 8.5 assists. Everything that any talk radio callers have ever wanted from LeBron, they got in this series. Game 5 he exploded for the kind of clutch scoring that had been missing in the past, and Game 6 he was even better. It was the inverse of the 2011 Finals for LeBron. Every question that emerged from his disappearance that series, he answered in this one. He hit big shots. He controlled both ends of the court. He took a flawed roster and beat the most successful regular season team the NBA's ever seen. He's the Finals MVP again, and it was unanimous.
Afterward, he explained why he'd stayed calm over the past week. "Listen," he remembered saying to himself. "The game always gives back to people that's true to the game."
23. LeBron did it. And Charles Oakley did it.
Never forget any of this.