How the Cavs lost (and won) the Finals

by Kyle Welch

There was only one way it could ever end. From the moment the playoffs began, the stakes were as high as could be: this wasn’t going to be as meaningless as something like ending world poverty or brain surgery, this was sports.1 And the possible outcomes were binary for the City of Cleveland: Either the Cavaliers would win the NBA Championship and bring the city an incalculable, indescribable amount of joy and collective pride that only sports championships can bring now that no one in America cares about astronauts; or, the Cavaliers would lose, be it in the first round, the second round, the Eastern Conference Finals, or the NBA Finals, and the city would grieve and the 144th chapter on Cleveland sports suffering would be complete.

There were no potential in-between outcomes — no “Aw, shucks”-ing or “How about that?”s or “We’ll get ‘em next year”s or “At least we tried our best”s or “That’s a shame”-ing. By the end of June 2015, the Cleveland championship total dating back to 1964 would be either 0 or 1. A big, fat, round, empty Zero yawning in our faces as the world pointed and laughed; or a tall, slender, respectable, daring, bold, fearless One that poked onlookers in the chest and said, “Hey, what are you looking at, buddy. Excuse me, that’s my Ferrari you’re leaning on.” There were to be no satisfactory yet incomplete three-fourths and certainly no measly and laughable .37s. Zero or one. Sports have always been defined by the thrills of victory and agonies of defeat. But the 2014-15 Cavaliers were doomed to end in only thrill or agony.

This was both the gift and curse of LeBron James. The Akron native’s return to Cleveland to build something substantial and chase a ring gave the Cavaliers and the City of Cleveland immediate relevance and competitive respectability. But while it lifted the spirits of the region to new heights, it also brought the immense weight of expectations. Such is the power of the best basketball player in the world.

And that’s where we were heading into Game 6 in Cleveland: LeBron James exerting an “unfathomable” effort to keep the team alive with a championship just beyond the range of his outstretched fingertips, with the specter of of disappointment hovering just overhead.

But something weird happened during the Cavs playoff run. After Kevin Love suffered an injury that sidelined him for the remainder of the season and Kyrie Irving staved off a similar fate before his left kneecap finished the job, the Cavs discovered a new identity: one based on effort and determination. And though it would be insufficient to overcome the daunting odds stacked against them, if did something else: it turned the Cavs’ sink-or-swim proposition on its head.

Instead of either resounding success or complete failure, the Cavs gritted their way to something unheard of in the 24-hour CNN “Like This!” First Take fire-emoji world: duality. Suddenly, something could be two things at once! What a novel concept! Two arguments could have equal merit! The new Jurassic Park movie could both succeed and suck — it could suck-ceed! Matthew Dellavedova could be one part messiah and one part goat! The order of the universe as we knew it ceased to exist! And I have the evidence to prove it. Maybe the Cavs could both win and lose? Consider the following paradoxes.

The Cavaliers in the NBA Finals were the best supporting cast LeBron James has ever had and the worst supporting cast LeBron James has ever had as a Cavalier.

Without Love and Irving, there’s no argument to be made that the surviving Cavaliers that made it to the Finals were the best characters with which he ever went to the Finals. (That distinction belongs to either the 2011 or 2012 Miami Heat.) But even with co-stars perishing right and left, it was probably the best Cavalier cast James ever had in the picture with him.

Timofey Mozgov grew into the best center to ever play alongside James. Throughout the playoffs, opponents had a field goal percentage of only 38.8 percent at the rim on shots defended by Mozgov, partially because he blocked 2.2 field goal attempts per game. Warriors players shot 8.5 percent below their averages when defended by Mozgov. The Gov-father averaged 14 points and 7 rebounds in the Finals, and had a career high of 28 points in Game 4. Tristan Thompson played with more energy than a nuclear reactor, averaging over five offensive rebounds in the Finals and driving the Warriors mad on the glass.

Meanwhile, the Cavaliers backcourt had a disastrous series offensively. Although Dellavedova and Iman Shumpert were great defensively (and Shumpert was clearly playing through immense pain), the two of them and J.R. Smith were calamitous on offense. They were a collective 29-of-102 on three-point field goal attempts (28.4 percent!) in the series, and combined for 26 assists in the entire series! That’s less than five assists per game as a group. It’s possibly the worst offensive performance by a backcourt in playoff series history. The team’s shot chart over the last four games of the Finals (below) was bloodier than a season of Game of Thrones, when one or two hot shooting games could have swung the series.2

The rest of the supporting cast was unable to contribute significant meaningful minutes, busy fighting rigor mortis on the bench.

The Golden State Warriors were extremely good and the Golden State Warriors were extremely lucky.

“Cleveland sure was lucky this season.” – No One, Ever

There’s no question that the Warriors were the best team in the NBA all season. They won 67 games, Stephen Curry shoots like he’s playing with cheat codes and is probably already the best shooter in NBA history, former Cavalier and basically impossible-to-dislike guy/head coach Steve Kerr is probably the “world’s most overeducated basketball mind.” The Warriors were unnaturally good at both offense and defense, had a deep and immaculately constructed roster, and had all-time great margin-of-victory numbers to prove both.

But that doesn’t change that the Golden State Warriors were not only lucky but historically lucky. The Cavs were 33-6 in games in which Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, Kevin Love, and Timofey Mozgov played together (with a net rating of 17.6 as a lineup in the regular season that pro-rated to 64-win team using their win-loss record in such games). Then the Cavs lost Love and Irving in the playoffs, who accounted for a monstrous 36.1 percent of the team’s scoring in the opening playoff series against the Boston Celtics. The Cavs were probably the best team in the NBA at full strength A.B. (After Bowling), and the Warriors found them emaciated and vulnerable.

The best teams in the NBA in 2014-15 were, in some order, the Golden State Warriors, the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Los Angeles Clippers, and the San Antonio Spurs (and probably in that order), and the Warriors dodged two of those teams out West (who played an amazing seven-game series against each other) and faced a cheap imitation of the Cavs. Kevin Love, seldom missed before the Warriors series, would have changed the entire dynamic of the Warriors small ball advantage, and Kyrie Irving would have challenged the Warriors defensively in terrifying ways. The Warriors were one of the best teams in league history and probably the best basketball team in 15 years. But they still benefited from extraordinary luck and incredible good fortune. It would be nice for the Cavs to have something resembling good fortune someday.3

David Blatt’s decision to barely play Mozgov in Game 5 was intelligently stupid.

After scoring a career high 28 points and earning 10 rebounds in over 33 minutes of playing time in Game 4 in Cleveland, coach David Blatt only played nine minutes in Game 5 at Golden State. Was this a huge lapse in judgment? Many media folks grabbed marshmallows to warm as they roasted Blatt for his supposed miscalculation.

It was easy to ridicule Blatt for not playing Mozgov much in Game 5. After all, Mozgov was the Cavs’ second best player in the series behind James, and was stellar all playoffs. Mozgov was coming off the best game of his career, had developed some excellent chemistry with LeBron James, was earning rebounds, protecting the rim, moving well without the ball, and setting good screens. Mozgov was putting his offensive skills to get use by moving well without the ball and looking to maneuver into advantageous positions.

So clearly he should have played more in Game 5, no?

Well, the chief thing the Warriors did in Game 4 that changed that game (and the entire series) was by making a conscious decision to go small. Coach Steve Kerr removed center and Mozgov-clone Andrew Bogut from the lineup to replace him with Andre Iguodala. The Warriors never played with two bigs again for the rest of the series except for brief stretches when Festus Ezeli was on the floor.

This meant that when Mozgov and Thompson played together, Mozgov either had to chase Draymond Green around, or hang away from Andre Iguodala to guard the paint, hoping he would miss jump shots. Andre Iguodala (a 31.7 percent career three-point shooter) made 14-of-35 threes (40.0 percent). The exact same plan that helped the Warriors beat the Memphis Grizzlies in the second round (they put Bogut on Memphis’s Tony Allen to keep him in the game) didn’t work for the Cavs because Iguodala busted it to hell.

Playing Thompson in Game 5 allowed the Cavs to combat the Warriors smaller lineup with much more defensive versatility while sacrificing Mozgov’s offensive skill and rim protection. Thompson defends perimeter players and switches pick-and-rolls about as well as any big man in the NBA. This made Golden State work harder to get open, and the Cavs were winning with 7:49 left in the game. The Cavs lost, sure, but they lost by 21 at home in Game 4.

I don’t want a coach who is going to keep using failed strategies without trying anything new. In hindsight, should Mozgov have played more in Game 5? Probably. But the Cavs played with a lot of energy in Game 5 and let it slip away at the end when Stephen Curry went bananas. While it may have looked “dumb” to some and was counter-intuitive, it was fairly well reasoned and nearly worked.

The Cavaliers were nowhere close to beating the Warriors yet missed by the thinnest of margins; and everyone was right, but everyone was wrong.

Any close follower of the NBA knew that once went Kevin Love was bushwhacked in the Celtics series, that the Cavaliers had a sell by date after which things would get rotten. It turns out that it was whenever the Warriors came to unplug the fridge.

It was an amazing season by any definition.

The first two games were both overtime toss-ups in Oakland. The Cavaliers won Game 2, and easily could have won Game 1 had Kyrie Irving had his kneecap not selfishly taken Irving out for a bit of fame.4 But they also easily could have been down 0-2. The Cavs won Game 3 in Cleveland, then things unraveled after that, dropping the next three by margins of 21, 13, and eight points.

It’s easy to look at the last three games and think the Cavs never stood a chance. And maybe they never did. But Games 4-6 were all close at the start of or at some point in the fourth quarter. The margins were much, much smaller than people will remember. The Cavs didn’t have a great shooting game in the entire series, and they have perimeter players certainly capable of catching fire. A few scattered three-pointers or one hot shooter could have swung one game, transformed the series, or allowed LeBron some much needed rest; and weird things are apt to happen in game sevens.

Meanwhile, every player on the Warriors had a phenomenal series other than Klay Thompson (who played beneath his lofty standards, in large part due to the defense the Cavs played on him) and Andrew Bogut (who Kerr sat in favor of small ball). But every role player on the Warriors shot well and played fantastic: Iguodala, Leandro Barbosa, Shaun Livingston, David Lee, and even Mareese Speights and Festus Ezeli for brief stretches. The Cavs had one great Dellavedova game.

It looked inevitable in the end, but it was really the thinnest of margins by which the Cavs saw it spin beyond control, and that’s largely because of James.

One of the funny subplots of playoff series (and particularly championships) is every analyst and commentator not-so-secretly rooting for their prediction to pan out. Everywhere we looked during the Finals, was a lot of congratulatory back-patting among folks who picked the Warriors. Everything that went right for the Warriors (most of which they earned, mind you) was looked at as verification of everything they did right and a critique of some flaw the Cavs possessed. I find the amount of heedless confirmation bias comical. When everyone was picking the NBA Finals, no one predicted that the Cavs would receive a total of 43 minutes of Kyrie Irving, and no one would have guessed that LeBron James would have a 35-13-8, and that the Cavs would lose. I’m not looking for repentance, here. I just want one national media person to admit the obvious: “I had no idea whatsoever what was going to happen.” I know I didn’t.

The Cavs season was an enormous success and a failure. The Cavs both won and lost the NBA Finals.

It would be foolish to say that the Cavs didn’t succeed this season when they were runner-up to an all-time great NBA team, and only by the thinnest of margins. The Cavaliers went from 33 to 53 wins and nearly stole a championship missing two of their best three players. That’s a stunning coup of a season.

But whenever a team has the best player in the league and fail to come away with a championship, it’s a missed opportunity. LeBron James is entering the twilight of his career — even he is mortal after all — in a league that’s rapidly changing around him. It’s always possible the Cavs will be even unluckier next year. Another rash of injuries could derail the dream of a title, and every year the Cavs can’t win a title without LeBron back in Cleveland, the heavier the anxiety and angst become.

The team played its ass off throughout the playoffs, and while they ultimately lost the Finals to a great team, hopefully they won some more hearts and fans along the way, in addition to the pride and commitment of some of the guys inside the locker room.

It was an amazing season by any definition, but it will still be yet another chapter in the annals of Cleveland Suffering … The One that Got Away. In Cleveland, we’ve become accustomed to the failure of ours sports teams; but seldom has failure tasted as savory as it did with the 2014-15 Cavaliers — and that’s pretty sweet.

  1. Obviously I’m kidding. Please don’t email me for making light of the importance of brain surgery. I’m juxtaposing the actually consequential with the idea of mourning over something as trivial as the end of a team sport’s season and … never mind. If you don’t get it, I’ve no help for you.
  2. Courtesy NBA.com. Obviously, a huge amount of credit goes to the Warriors defense, which defended the perimeter far better than any other team the Cavaliers faced in the playoffs.
  3. You know, other than the three-ish Draft Lottery wins and the NBA’s best player opting to return after four years of wild prosperity elsewhere.
  4. Maybe Kyrie’s kneecap owed a bookie some money.

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