OAKLAND, Calif. — The story of the 2016 NBA Finals will forever revolve around LeBron James, a legend of the sport who put forth one of the greatest championship performances anyone has ever seen. He brought Cleveland that elusive title, ended at least some of the talk about his ability to come through in big moments, and offered a number of plays that should stay on official NBA highlight reels for decades to come.
[Follow Dunks Don't Lie on Tumblr: The best slams from all of basketball]
That focus is well deserved and impossible to argue against. However, it would be a shame if history elided the contributions of LeBron's teammates, a group that had faced considerable criticism early in the series and essentially since James announced his return to the franchise in the summer of 2014. While not without considerable faults, that same collection of players just supported LeBron enough to pull off the most unlikely comeback in NBA Finals history.
Any discussion of that supporting cast must begin with Kyrie Irving, a three-time All-Star who nonetheless became a subject of Twittersphere trade proposals after the Warriors targeted his iffy defense in two overwhelming series-opening wins. Irving turned around what could have been a nightmare series with a tide-shifting Game 3 and never looked back despite occasional statistical dips. Always a talented player known for his scoring volume and tough shot-making, Irving proved against the Warriors that his iso-heavy style can stay relevant in an era that prizes ball movement and efficiency. He would have been a deserving Finals MVP if not for LeBron's brilliance.
Kyrie's excellence culminated in the series' winning shot, a three-pointer over the outstretched arm of Stephen Curry that broke an 89-89 tie with 53 seconds remaining. Any title-deciding shot counts as clutch, but Irving's jumper was more incredible given its context — the score had been 89-89 since the 4:39 mark, and it was the only make of the final 17 field-goal attempts between both teams.
For Irving, the Cavs' victory after being down 3-1 was all the sweeter for its improbability.
"The odds – it was 92 percent to 8 percent," he said in the midst of the locker room celebration. "Vegas said it couldn’t be done. Everyone in the world said it couldn’t be done. I’m thankful. I’m truly humbled. That’s a great team in the other locker room."
While the Cavs' comeback in the series stands paramount, Irving's accomplishments in this series and season came after a lengthy rehabilitation following the broken knee cap he suffered in Oakland during Game 1 of last season's finals. A championship obviously serves as the greatest reward for all that hard work, but Irving says he began to develop the emotional mindset required to get to this point in the middle of the season, when he was far from his best.
"I understood that I didn't have time to be anything less than myself," he said in his postgame news conference. "I didn't have time to worry about what was going on with what everyone was saying about what we needed to be as a team. ... I looked for a lot of wisdom from our veterans, and it was just constant, constant, a feed of confidence from all those guys."
That self-belief was evident even when Irving struggled in the series. As our Kelly Dwyer noted in the immediate aftermath of Game 7, Kyrie played this game with a left foot injury and lacked much of his usual explosion. His perseverance and considerable talent carried him through those difficulties to 26 points on 10-of-23 shooting, one point off LeBron's team-high and the top field goal percentage for any Cavalier who took more than three attempts.
"My toes won't look great in my future," he said, "and I'm fine with that."
The Cavs can now enter that same future with confidence that they can challenge for championships with Kyrie as a second-in-command and franchise superstar-in-training. The same cannot easily be said of Kevin Love, the third member of Cleveland's supposed Big Three. Love was arguably the Cavaliers' worst rotation player in the series (and certainly relative to minutes played) and finished with all of nine points in Game 7, a figure that would look worse if it weren't his third-best output of the Finals. Love never looked anything like a star vs. the Warriors — they made him defend in space whenever possible and diminished his value enough that Richard Jefferson, who turns 36 years old on Tuesday, looked like a better option at both ends of the floor. Never the best fit with these Cavaliers, Love looked like a net-negative in the most important games of his career.
Regardless, Love ends the season on a high note, and not because a championship makes any personal struggles irrelevant. His 14 rebounds, three assists, and two steals were essential to the Game 7 win, and his plus-19 in 30 minutes topped all participants. Love's problems in this matchup will follow him for a while, but it's easy to understand why he was one of the most enthusiastic celebrators in the wake of the win.
"I never got really trapped by the dogma and living with the results of other people's thinking," Love said. "I just continue to fight through it, and knew that tonight I just had to have one great game."
If only for four quarters, Love made the little plays in the secondary role that he has struggled to adapt to since joining this team, grabbing rebounds and even putting in solid defensive work in scenarios that the Warriors sought out with impunity. It was Love, not a top defender like LeBron, who stayed with Stephen Curry through every behind-the-back dribble and feint as he attempted to answer Kyrie's game-winner.
Irving and Love were joined by several other notable non-LeBron contributors, many of whom had been disregarded or flat-out forgotten rather easily. Jefferson announced his retirement late Sunday night after becoming one of the more unlikely title contributors in recent memory. Tristan Thompson earned every bit of the $82 million contract that looked like an overpay when he finally signed it in October. J.R. Smith wasn't terrific, but he scored in double digits in the series' final five games (including the four wins) for crucial supplements to James and Irving. (His post-title news conference is also one of the most emotional and beautiful of all time.) Even Iman Shumpert finished a four-point play.
To be clear, these contributions would not have mattered if LeBron hadn't carried the team. All the hard picks and proper defensive rotations in the world don't mean much if the best player of his generation doesn't rise to a level we probably won't see again for some time. But it's not as if James won a title alone. He, his teammates and his coach understand that the journey was taken as a unit.
"When you win a championship together, it's like a blood transfusion," said head coach Tyronn Lue, a role player on the title-winning Los Angeles Lakers in 2000 and 2001. "No matter what, no matter where you go, 15 years from now it would be the same love like I have for Ron Harper and Robert Horry and Horace Grant, Brian Shaw. Fifteen years since we won a championship, and when I see those guys, it's like we've never missed a beat."
Like Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, LeBron will deservedly be the first and sometimes only name people associate with this title. Those who celebrated at Oracle Arena on Sunday night will remember many more.
- - - - - - -