OAKLAND, Calif. – They're witnessing LeBron James pushing them harder and harder, these Cleveland Cavaliers chasing history with the shell of a crumpled contender and the completeness of a generation's greatest player. They hear James everywhere now – on the bus, in the locker room, on the court – and the message is unmistakable: Give me a chance.
Mostly, the Cavaliers watch James destroy these Warriors – the best team, best talent, in the best conference – armed with the remnants of a draft lottery roster. In the end, these Cavaliers understand the truth of the matter: Keep it close, and let James deliver on his destiny. Keep it close, and let James drag these Cavaliers one step closer to that improbable Cleveland championship.
They're without Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, two All-Stars, two maximum-contract players, and the Cavaliers keep coming. They've surrounded James with something comparable to basketball scrap metal, and James has twisted and turned and molded it into something dangerous.
"We've got a bunch of grown-ass men in that locker room," Cleveland general manager David Griffin said.
"When you have LeBron James, you have a [bleeping] chance," Cleveland assistant coach Jim Boylan said.
James had 39 points, 16 rebounds and 11 assists on Sunday night, had the Warriors in a vise. This time, James had the kind of overtime performance that had eluded him in Game 1. Once again, James had missed a chance for victory in the final seconds of regulation. Only this time, James had refused to settle for a jumper and drove the ball to the rim. It rolled away, but James wouldn't let these Cavaliers lose. They wouldn't let him lose, too.
[ThePostGame: Matthew Dellavedova misses team bus, ends up taking Uber]
Together, they're making a run on these Warriors. Together, they're trying to manufacture one of the great upsets in NBA Finals history. Together, they kept coming and coming against Golden State.
When this 95-93 Game 2 victory was complete, James stood in the middle of Steph Curry's field and spiked the ball. All things considered, this was one of the most impressive victories of James' career. All things considered, this performance lifted his legend.
Curry has been flummoxed, the NBA's MVP missing 18 of 23 shots – including 13 of 15 three-pointers. Most troubling, he had let Matthew Dellavedova, an undrafted guard out of nearby St. Mary's College, embarrass him. Out goes Irving, the No. 1 overall pick from Duke, the All-Star Game MVP and here comes this Aussie bowling ball, throwing himself into Curry and these Warriors, throwing himself into a Finals that ought to have no business with him as a headliner.
"It had everything to do with Delly," James insisted.
This was James' way of selling Dellavedova on believing in himself, in the improbability of that kid playing 40-plus minutes a night in the NBA Finals. The Cavaliers turned Game 2 into a scrum, turned the floor uncomfortably small on these Warriors. They're defending Golden State as tenaciously, as tactically sound, as anyone in the NBA this season.
"There's the guy right there," Griffin said in the corridor outside the Cavaliers office, talking loudly so associate head coach Ty Lue, the defensive coordinator, could hear him. Lue had his travel bag over his shoulder, and a smile on his face.
"The progress we've made this season, it's remarkable," Griffin told Yahoo Sports. "Our margin for error is so small, and we've come light years on defense, because we're paying closer attention to it. Our group, the short-handed one, identifies with that. They understand that they're going to make their bones on defense, on getting stops."
This was a nightmare for Curry, who was lost in a shooting abyss. So much of the reason for the Warriors losing had been centered on his inability to make shots, on his rushes and poor decisions. Around the Warriors, some are uneasy with how poorly he has played in Games 1 and 2, how out of sorts these Cavaliers have him.
As Curry struggles to get a hold on this series, James has had his way with the Warriors. Golden State wanted him to be a scorer in Game 1, and succeeded – but Game 2 was different. Over and over, he found the Cavaliers for open shots and they killed Golden State. James did everything, and did it with a methodical purpose. Fifty minutes in Game 2, and James fought fatigue with ferocity. His body, his spirit, have been challenged with this roster like never before, and it was clear to see the toll it's taking on him.
"Am I built for it?" James asked, repeating the question out loud for himself. "Of course I'm built for it."
Privately, the Warriors were concerned with how they let James become more than a scorer, become a facilitator too on Sunday. They wanted the rest of these Cavaliers to become spectators, but that didn't happen in Game 2. James is building belief, and now these Cavaliers return to Quicken Loans Arena for what ought to be a hellacious environment for Games 3 and 4. As a city, as a sports town, Cleveland loves to be counted out. Somehow, it has the best of both worlds: It has LeBron James and it's the underdog. Somehow, it's perfect for Cleveland. Between James and Griffin, the two architects of these Cavaliers called for surround sound to dislodge these Warriors, to make them feel the anticipation and angst of Northeast Ohio.
"It'll be loud," Griffin told Yahoo Sports. "And it better be. These fans here are unbelievable. This is a tough place for us to play, but I want ours to be the best environment we've ever had."
The longer the Cavaliers hang in this series, the more doubt that creeps into the Warriors. Cleveland survived the idiocy of J.R. Smith on Sunday night, survived the 34 points of Klay Thompson and survived ultimately the loss of Irving with a 1-1 split. All hell's breaking loose in this series, and already you can see LeBron James framing a hometown championship, framing himself, for history.
"We're undermanned," James said. "We're without two All-Stars, and I don't know any other team in this league that would be able to do that … [to] compete the way we compete and be a force."
What James means is this too: There isn't another player in the league – maybe in the NBA's history – who could reassemble this roster into such a problem for the Golden State Warriors. Through it all, LeBron James has convinced these Cavaliers that ordinary players can be extraordinary with him.
Just listen to him, just watch him, just give him a chance to hang around and hang around and close these games. The MVP is wobbly, but deep down they both know the truth: Curry has the trophy, but LeBron James has the title. He's the greatest in the game, perhaps ever, and these Warriors need to find a way to exploit the talent gap between these two teams.
This is the chance for James to separate himself with a third championship, a chance to make everything right again in Cleveland. The Cavaliers' Big Three has been reduced to LeBron James, reduced to the prodigiousness of his talent and the limitations of the roster's reality. So, the Cleveland Cavaliers have surrounded him with something comparable to basketball scrap metal, and James has twisted and turned and molded it into something dangerous, into a problem for everyone.
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