They still had a shot at it.
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LeBron James had just played volleyball with Andre Iguodala's soul, and Kyrie Irving had just dotted the eyes of the back-to-back and unanimous NBA Most Valuable Player, and Kevin Love had just made the play of his life, and still, the Golden State Warriors had a shot at it. Trailing by four with 6.5 seconds left, the Warriors' odds were long, but the math has tended for two years to tilt Golden State's way, and with two of the greatest shooters ever on the court and the intensity of the moment at a fever pitch, you'd forgive the Cavaliers and their fans if they didn't feel their lead was totally safe until the final buzzer.
And then, Stephen Curry's last 3-point try — just like nine of the 13 that had come before it — went awry, and Marreese Speights rebounded it and lumbered to the corner for a shot that wouldn't be worth four points even if it went in, and it was safe, it was real, it was unreal, and it was over. For the first time ever, the Cavaliers were NBA champions, and suddenly, all that weight that every Cleveland sports team and fan had borne for a half-century was a gift, because once it's lifted you can touch heaven.
The outpouring of emotion was raw, instantaneous and overwhelming.
There was LeBron James, who had just damn near broken his wrist trying to dunk on every ancestor and eventual descendent of Draymond Green before making the free throw that made it a four-point lead, falling to his knees and openly crying at the enormity of his accomplishment — of ripping off perhaps the greatest three-game run in NBA Finals history, averaging 36.3 points, 11.7 rebounds, 9.7 assists, three steals and three blocks in 44 minutes per game in Games 5 through 7; of leading Cleveland back from a 3-1 deficit that no team in NBA Finals history had ever survived; of doing what he'd set out to do.
"Those emotions came out of me, just leading 14 guys and understanding, like I said, what our city's been through over the last 50-plus years since Jim Brown," James said after leading the Cavaliers to Cleveland's first professional sports championship since the Cleveland Browns' 1964 NFL title.
As much as it was about achieving the goal he'd set for himself in the summer of 2014, though, that moment also captured James feeling the release of becoming inarguable, forever.
"Throughout my 13-year career, I've done nothing but be true to the game, give everything I've got to the game, put my heart, my blood, sweat, tears into the game, and people still want to doubt what I'm capable of doing," he said. "So that was a little icing on the cake for myself, to just let me know that everything I've done, it results in this. They say hard work pays off, and that's what happened tonight."
There was Irving, fresh off reminding everyone just how unbelievable an offensive talent he is while also playing the most committed and focused defense of his life on Curry, celebrating with assistant coach Phil Handy, a member of Tyronn Lue's staff who reportedly played an extremely influential role in helping the Cavs get refocused and back on track after falling down 2-0 in these Finals:
"I didn't really understand the emotions that really came with winning an NBA championship," said Irving, who at the start of last season had to ask veteran teammates what playoff games felt like, and who now knows what it feels like to average 27.1 points per game in the Finals and hitting the shot that won the O'Brien. "Now, I embraced my assistant coach, Phil Handy, after the game. We were on the floor. But I still haven't even released a lot of the emotions that I know are building up inside of me.
"Right after the game, I'm still in this competitive mode. Like, 'Is there another game that we have to play against this great team?' Like, 'I really just pray and hope not.' Then I'm hugging everybody. I'm glad it worked out the way it did, and I know that it will come to me the next day or a week or so or some time when I'm embracing my family or friends or my teammates."
There was LeBron embracing Love, burying the "fit-in/fit-out" hatchet with pure, unadulterated affection and adrenaline:
"I was right there for the embrace with our leader, 23, and everybody else was there to follow. So that was something that will always stick out in my mind," said Love, who managed just nine points on 3-for-9 shooting, but who worked his tail off on the boards on both ends en route to 14 rebounds, and who finally, <ahref="http://yhoo.it/28JlSdX">finally got the stop he's been craving on the Warriors' high pick-and-roll to seal the game. "I mean, that's always been our leader. He protects every single one of us, and we are just very, very thrilled for our team. But for him to come back here and go through what he did, it's just pretty remarkable, and we're very proud of him, and we love our leader."
There was Lue, elevated from lead assistant to the head of the bench to replace the fired David Blatt halfway through the season, full-body weeping into a towel on the bench after getting the Cavs over the hump and finishing the job this time:
"After the game, it was just — I never cry," Lue said. "I've always been tough and never cried. Just after the game — my brother is here, Greg, [he] just said, 'I've never seen you cry before.' Just a lot of emotions just built up. My grandfather couldn't be here. He passed away, and all the haters and all the doubters. It just all built up at one time. Then finally hearing that last horn go off, it was just unbelievable. It didn't feel right. It didn't feel right.
"My mom, she's a minister, and God is good," he said, laughing. "I mean, I don't know. What you want me to say?"
There was, of course, J.R. Smith, author of the most gripping and heartfelt postgame press conference in recent memory:
"I mean, my parents, my family, that's the biggest inspiration in my life," said Smith, tears streaming down his face. "I've been in a lot of dark spots in my life, and if it wasn't for them, I wouldn't be able to get out of it. But they are who they are. They fought with me. They yelled at me, they screamed at me, they loved me, they hugged me, they cried with me, and they always stuck by my side, no matter right or wrong."
And then, after the trophy ceremony that saw NBA Commissioner Adam Silver proclaim the curse is over" and "the 52-year drought has come to an end," there was champagne.
Oh, was there champagne — Moët Nectar Imperial Rosé City Bottles, to be precise:
And there was also LeBron and Kyrie not being, like, the BEST at hats:
And then, after the drenchings and the screaming and the exultation, there were quieter moments.
"say what you want. Just make sure to add I'm a champ," Iman Shumpert wrote in the caption of an Instagram post depicting him with his wife, Teyana Taylor, and their six-month old daughter, whom Shump delivered with his bare hands back in December. "Don't know how I could top my First Father's Day! 🏆"
There was veteran Dahntay Jones, picked up at the very end of the season and added to the very end of the bench, getting up close and personal with the Larry O'Brien Trophy with his sons:
There was Channing Frye, a midseason addition who set fire to the Eastern Conference from beyond the arc before falling out of view in the Finals, getting, um, even more up close and personal with the LOB:
"We've had a long-distance relationship for 11 years," he said, in between almost alarmingly tender kisses of the golden basketball. "You wanna snuggle? Let's watch 'The Notebook.'"
... which was only the second most oddly romantic relationship of the evening, thanks to Timofey Mozgov's on-court love affair with a burrito:
In the end, though, as ever, there was the King.
"I had a goal two years ago, when I came back, to bring a championship to this city," he told ABC's Doris Burke after the game. "I gave everything that I had. I brought my heart, my soul, my blood, my sweat, my tears to this game. And, against all odds, against all odds — I don't know why we had to take the hardest road. I don't know why the man above gives me the hardest road. But it's nothing — the man above don't put you in positions that you can't handle, and I just kept that same positive attitude. Like, instead of saying, 'Why me?' just saying, 'This is what he wanted me to do.'
"And ... CLEVELAND! THIS IS FOR YOU!"
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