LeBron James, David Griffin and the letter that sparked the 3-1 comeback
The following is excerpted from Return of the King: Lebron James, The Cleveland Cavaliers and The Greatest Comeback in NBA History by Brian Windhorst and Dave McMenamin. Copyright © 2017 by Brian Windhorst and Dave McMenamin. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.
"You’re a bitch.”
The words from Draymond Green froze LeBron James. Green had said far worse to James over the course of the Finals, and James had used worse language himself to Green and his teammates. But as the Chicago Bulls’ Joakim Noah had learned by surprise a year earlier, that was a trigger word for James in the heat of a game.
“I’m a father of three and a man,” James said back to Green in the midst of live play, the ball in Andre Iguodala’s hands just a few feet away.
“You’re still a bitch,” Green spat back.
Within seconds, Green and James were tangled with each other. Danny Crawford, one of the NBA’s most veteran and respected officials, stepped in and called a foul on each man, hoping to defuse the situation.
“I’m all cool with competition. I’m all fine with that, but some of the words that came out of his mouth were overboard,” James said. “I felt like at that point in time it was a little bit outside of basketball.”
There were three minutes left in Game 4 and it was essentially decided. The Warriors had stormed back, Steph Curry looking like his MVP self and nailing eight three-pointers on his way to 38 points as he repeatedly silenced the Cleveland crowd. The Warriors were up 10 and about to go up 3–1 in the series heading home, their second consecutive title over the Cavs in a death grip.
But something had just happened that would change the course of the series, something that would become one of the more controversial plays in NBA history. It happened so fast that Crawford had missed it, even though it was right in front of him. James was more obsessed with Green’s choice of words. Green thought he was acting in self-defense.
James and Green had started out shoving as Green set a pick for Curry. Green pushed James and then James pushed back, Green falling over in an effort to get officials to call a foul. The act miffed James, although he was often guilty of such flopping antics himself. Then he stepped over the top of Green.
This is where opinions diverge. James said he was trying to get back into the play and that was the fastest route. Green and his teammates believed James was stepping over him in a demeaning way. Though Warriors players were more coarse in their description, they felt James was almost being primal in dragging his lower body over Green’s head. Green’s response was also as old as time—he swung his arm up and hit James between the legs.
The entire ordeal took only a second in real time. But Green had been disciplined by the league earlier in the playoffs for kicking Thunder center Steven Adams in the groin on a play the Thunder howled as suspension-worthy while Green insisted it was only the result of body momentum. He’d also tripped a Thunder player and appeared to intentionally strike Adams with a blow to his injured hand. The result was a list of warning penalties by the league.
James was in the middle of an uneven performance. As usual, his statistics were sensational—25 points, 13 rebounds, nine assists, two steals, and three blocks. But he committed seven turnovers, which was crushing against the Warriors’ high-speed attack. Worse, he and Irving were in their isolation mode again. Irving had 34 points, which was good, but when they played independent of each other instead of together it worked to the Warriors’ advantage, because the Cavs became easier to defend as a whole. James and Irving took 33 of the team’s 38 shots in the second half and the Warriors outscored them by 16 points. Love came back from the concussion and Lue brought him off the bench. But he wasn’t able to be a difference-maker.
James was frustrated at the officials. He was convinced the Warriors were getting away with roughhousing him. He played 46 minutes and only ended up drawing two shooting fouls. And of course, there was the scoreboard, which read 108–97 at the end.
The Cavs locker room was silent. James sat at his locker, his knees in ice, and quietly picked at a plate of chicken and rice. He was on the verge of falling to 2–5 in his career in the Finals, a number that he knew could be used to horsewhip his legacy for the rest of his life. He was playing at a high level, just as he’d done the previous two Finals that he also lost. As he picked at his meal, a reporter walked up to him with a cell phone. On it was the footage of his run-in with Green. In slow motion, Green’s swing into his groin was plain to see. James watched it once, twice, and then a third time before handing the phone back.
“Yeah,” he said, “but they won’t do anything.”
In an office next door, the parties weren’t so calm. David Griffin and Ty Lue were in a debate about whether to make the officiating an issue in the postgame press conference. Commenting on officiating during the playoffs is as old as the postseason itself and there’s a reason teams do it. Though it almost always triggers a fine from the league—two of the Cavs’ opponents had already been slapped with one in the playoffs—it also sometimes works. Griffin and Lue, down 3–1, decided there was nothing left to lose.
“LeBron never gets calls,” Lue said. “I mean, he attacks. He’s one of the guys that attacks the paint every single play. And he doesn’t get a fair whistle all the time because of his strength and because of his power and guys bounce off of him. But those are still fouls, and we weren’t able to get them.”
“It’s been like that all year,” James said. “I’m getting hit, but the refs are not seeing it that way.”
Pressed further, he cut off the topic: “I’m going to save my 25K, okay?”
James, who is immensely wealthy, is sometimes funny about money. He owns a fleet of cars from classics to Ferraris to high-end luxury cars to a specially outfitted van. He flies liberally on private jets. But after getting to know Warren Buffett in 2006—he even spent a day with him at Buffett’s headquarters in Omaha—he took Buffett’s advice to save seriously. He went through a phase where he didn’t even want to pay a copay to see a doctor who was outside the network of the Cavs’ insurance plan. He didn’t like to have the feeling he was wasting money.
The next day, Lue got hit with a $25,000 fine. James did not.
Lue had another message beyond the officiating. The situation was dire. No team had ever come back from being down 3–1 in the Finals. It had happened 33 times in history and only three teams had ever even forced a Game 7, and that hadn’t happened for half a century. The Warriors hadn’t lost three games in a row in nearly three years. Two of the final three games would be in Oakland, where the Warriors were 50–3 that season and 98–6 over the previous two seasons.
“If you don’t think we can win, don’t get on the plane,” Lue told his team before they left for the night. “We’ve got to come back anyway, so we might as well come back and play Game 6.”
Late in the night, after James had gone home and stewed about the outcome of the game with his wife, he pulled out his phone and opened the Cavs’ group text and composed a message.
“No matter how we got to this point, we’re here now,” James wrote. “We have to go to Golden State for Game 5 and we have to come home anyway. So why not come home and play a Game 6. Let it go, play hard, be focused, follow my lead, and I’ll make sure you get home for a Game 6.”
The next morning, just a few hours later, James was the first person in to work at the team practice facility. The outlook was indeed bleak, but he was not giving up.
James wasn’t the only one with such a feeling. The more Griffin thought about it, the more he grew amused. It got to the point where he was laughing to himself. Of course the team was down 3–1, he thought, they had to be down. His team never did anything the easy way. It was always about coming to the brink of disaster. This wasn’t a crisis, Griffin decided, not at all. This was his team playing their game.
Maybe Griffin was punch-drunk from stress and pressure. He’d built a wildly expensive roster and if it failed again he’d get a big dose of blame. He was the one who had fired David Blatt, who had put together a game plan that had pushed the Warriors in the Finals the year before with way less firepower than they had now.
But Griffin didn’t see it that way at all. In his twenty-plus seasons working in the NBA, he’d rarely felt a clarity like this. And he felt he had to share it. With his emotions flowing, he composed an email that he didn’t just send to the team and coaches, he sent it to the entire company—the sales department, the marketing department, the vice presidents, the secretaries, the security guards.
“Griff called me and said, ‘I’m going to send an email to the entire company, how do I do it?’ And I said, ‘Why, what the hell are you doing?’” said Tad Carper, the Cavs senior vice president of communications. “At that point his intensity level was like somebody who’d had this awakening.”
Griffin sent the email. It read:
If you are like me, and sadly for all of you, many of you are more like me than you’d care to admit, you felt a little like a bomb went off late into last night and maybe even this morning. Needless to say, we are all disappointed that we didn’t hold serve at home. However, I have a few thoughts to share with you that I think might make the wait for our Game 5 victory in Oakland and our ultimate triumph in an epic Game 7 a little more reality than dream.
Consider the two seasons we have spent together and think about all these things that make us HISTORICALLY SPECIAL.
We enter LAST SEASON the prohibitive Vegas favorite to win the NBA Title.
Our starting center tears his Achilles, 26 games into the season.
Our MVP focal point misses 2 weeks with a back injury.
We become the first team in NBA history to enter as NBA Title favorites to start a season with a losing record thru 39 games (actually went 19–20).
We trade one player for 3, get our MVP back and go an NBA best 32–7 over the next 39 games. During this stretch we ranked 1st in the NBA in winning percentage (.821), first in scoring differential (10.6) and first in three-pointers made per game (11.8).
We sweep our first round opponent and in Game 4, lose our starting power forward for the remainder of the playoffs and most of the next 6 months.
We win the next round against Chicago despite starting down 2–1 while our starting point guard is battling knee issues. He only plays 12 minutes in the Game 6 win.
We win one game because our assistant coaches save our head coach from calling a time out we didn’t actually have. That would have resulted in a technical foul and the ball to Chicago in a tie game. Never seen that before either.
We then sweep a 60-win team and the No. 1 seed in the East while Kyrie misses games 2–3 with the knee issue. WE MOVE ON TO THE NBA FINALS.
LeBron and James Jones appear in their 5th straight NBA Finals.
We drop G1 and lose Kyrie for the remainder of the playoffs. We are now down two All-Stars. So what do we do...
We win the next 2 games to take a 2–1 lead over this same Warriors team.
Our new starting point guard, Delly, has to be taken to the hospital on a stretcher after the G3 win because we can’t hydrate him fast enough to combat his muscles that are shutting down from exhaustion.
The Warriors discover their best line-up as a desperation move to save their finals, because we had beaten the piss out of them physically.
Wounded and battered, we eventually succumb but everyone is ready to run it back healthy.
Everyone returns, we keep the band intact, a group that went 34–3 in the last 37 games that LeBron, Kevin and Kyrie all play in.
Ownership spends the 2nd most money in NBA history to achieve this.
We start training camp without Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert. All of whom are rehabbing from surgery.
We lead the NBA’s Eastern Conference literally wire to wire.
We are the #1 seed in the EAST.
We sweep the first and second rounds of the NBA Playoffs.
We are the first team in EASTERN CONFERENCE HISTORY to start the Playoffs 10–0.
Coach Lue becomes the first Head Coach in NBA history to start his career 10–0 in the post season, passing Pat Riley who was 9–0.
We win our 17th straight Eastern Conference game in the Conference Finals, becoming the first team in CONFERENCE HISTORY to do that.
We finish off Toronto in 6 games, winning Game 5 by a FRANCHISE POST SEASON RECORD 38 points.
LeBron and James Jones make their 6th straight NBA Finals appearances. AN NBA RECORD for anyone not a Bill Russell Celtic.
Along the way, we set NBA PLAYOFF records for most consecutive games with 12 or more three-pointers (8). NBA RECORD 77 three-pointers in 4 game sweep of Atlanta. We are the FIRST TEAM IN NBA HISTORY to make 15 three-pointers in 4 straight games. AND, we set the ALL-TIME NBA RECORD for threes in a game with 25 in Game 2 vs. the Hawks.
We enter the NBA FINALS with the LARGEST SCORING DIFFERENTIAL in EASTERN CONFERENCE HISTORY (+177pts).
We win Game 3 by 30 points over a 73-win team. Becoming the first team in NBA FINALS HISTORY to win by 30 after losing by 30 the game prior.
So, what does all this mean? It means more than you have ever dared to imagine, but no more than we have always done. NO TEAM IN NBA HISTORY has ever come back from down 3–1 in the NBA Finals. Rather than asking you the cliché: “Why not us?” I would like to offer the following:
WE HAVE SEEN NBA HISTORY IN THE MAKING EVERYDAY HERE. It’s not “why not us?” It’s “What the [expletive] else would we do?” We love it harder. We love it RECORD-SETTING. You know in your hearts and in your minds we have been the NBA DRAMA KINGS since we came together. I bet you can, and I’d love for you to add to this HISTORICAL DATABASE. What else speaks to you about the RECORD-SETTING insanity that has been YOUR CLEVELAND CAVALIERS!
Let me be the first to tell you, NBA HISTORY HAS BEEN WAITING ON US. No one has done this, because WE have never been here before. We will become the first, because that is all we have ever known how to do.
NBA HISTORY HAS CHOSEN US. Don’t run, don’t be afraid. Don’t be discouraged. WE WILL SEIZE OUR RIGHTFUL PLACE IN THAT HISTORY!
Griffin printed out copies and put one in every player’s locker to make sure they saw it when they arrived for practice.
“That was some letter,” owner Dan Gilbert said. “I was like ‘you believe we can win three in a row, two games at Golden State? They’ve lost like two home games in two years.’ He believed. That rallied us.”