With all the media focus on manufacturing fissures in the team between Blatt and LeBron, the real story has been lost in the sandstorm of silliness. The story is one of a team, combining experienced veterans with young playoff neophytes, that has grown through adversity and trial by fire. The growth of the team is manifest in their ability to oust a far more experienced team in six games despite many injuries and even a two game suspension for one of the starters. That growth was further evident in their ability to dominate the Bulls in a clinching game on their home court while Kyrie Irving sat out with an injury for most of the game. The post game interview room where Tristan Thompson and Matthew Dellevadova flanked LeBron James was a visual image of the transformation of the Cleveland Cavaliers. The transformation was started when David Griffin had the vision to spend every chip he inherited from Chris Grant and created on his own to retool this Cleveland team with pieces that “fit” and that balanced the team. It has progressed with this difficult playoff run where the team has been reduced to a MASH unit starting with game 2 against Boston and continuing to worsen until game 6 against Chicago.
Every single thread of that “fit” is needed as the injuries mount and the competition stiffens. Kyrie Irving declared to all of us on multiple occasions that this team is the closest team he has ever played with. I kind of shrugged that off because I knew an irritant to Kyrie (Dion) was gone and that this team was winning and his other pro teams did not. Often that translates to a closer team that develops chemistry. Whether or not I was right to shrug it off earlier in the year is uncertain, but for me to ignore that now would be a sign of blindness. The Cavs are a team growing closer by the minute and their belief in each other is clear for all to see. The most obvious evidence was the way they embraced Dellavedova when he entered the locker room after the game 6 dismantling of Chicago. But to me the most telling sign is the way LeBron has changed his tune when he talks about the team. The passion in his voice as he explained the importance to the team of both Thompson and Dellavedova spoke volumes about where the team had been and where it was headed.
Even though LeBron has stopped a bit short of saying it with conviction thus far, clearly he now believes in this team and believes in their growth. He feels that the young players who had not been playoff tested are responding well and showing no signs of “wilting” in the moment. LeBron is not that hard to read in this regard. It was clear in the 2 final years during his first run with Cleveland that he did not have that confidence in the team or his teammates. He believed, and said as much later, that they HAD wilted in the playoff light. Without question they were a great regular season team, but not a great playoff team. For that matter, LeBron himself had a great deal of growing to do in that regard even though he had some spectacular playoff games in those earlier years.
This team is clearly different as the lights have turned on. Shumpert is playing some of the best basketball of his career despite a groin pull that has certainly not fully healed. Kyrie Irving is pretty severely hampered by a multitude of injuries and yet has contributed to the wins, sometimes in a big way. JR Smith, despite a suspension, has come up huge with three point shooting during quarters 3 and 4 of the final two games against Chicago. Without his shooting, the final spectacular shot that LeBron made in game 4 would never have happened. That game would have been over long before.
Timofey Mozgov has been a bit spotty in his play but made a huge contribution in game 4 as well to give us a chance to win and is blocking shots at a near record pace. Tristan Thompson has been nothing short of amazing after taking over the starting power forward position from the injured Kevin Love. His energy and offensive rebounds have made him a dominant force in these playoffs and no one can question his immense value to the team. Delly has shown that, under pressure, he can perform even better than he did during the regular season. His 3 point shooting has been solid, he is protecting the ball well, and continues to be an enormous pest on defense to anyone he guards. Aaron Brooks was basically made a nonfactor in the Chicago series, primarily a tribute to Delly’s tenacity. And who can deny the importance of the 3 point shooting of James Jones? Although his points have not been overwhelming, his timing of those points has been critical for the Cavs success. And Kevin Love, before his untimely departure, had just delivered a dagger 3 point shot to put away Boston in a game.
Finally, the team has battled defensively to produce the best field goal percentage against statistic of any team left in the playoffs. That is partly a reflection of the teams they have played, but it doesn’t erase the fact that the Cavalier defense has been solid throughout. Mozgov’s rim protection has been second to none in the playoffs, and the Cavs are swatting shots away like flies on a hot summer day. Cleveland has some elite defenders (LeBron/Shumpert) on the floor much of the time and other competent and pesky defenders (Thompson/Dellavedova/Smith) to complement.
The team’s toughness has been tested and Cleveland has passed the test at every turn. Thompson jumping up after a fall on his shoulder that would have sidelined most players and Shumpert playing like a monster after a cheap close line attempt by Mirotic. Kyrie playing basically on one leg since early in the Boston series and “playing on one leg” is now even an exaggeration of his health given the current state of his formerly “uninjured” leg. Shumpert has continued to be an elite or near elite defender despite a groin pull that primarily saps a player’s ability to laterally move and defend. Cleveland’s depleted bench basically outplayed the vaunted “depth” of the Chicago Bulls that so many pointed to as the difference in that series.
When the roster and each player in the rotation is judged thus far, there is not one who isn’t stepping up in these playoffs. One could point to Perkins, Miller, and Marion but they have played so little as a group that it is hard to even count them as a part of these playoffs. Their time may yet come but it is unfair to judge them at this point. It should be quite obvious to anyone who objectively measures these playoffs that the Cleveland Cavalier players AND coaches have stepped up big time when it has counted most leading to an 8-2 record in these playoffs. Yet, despite this record and despite the grit and determination shown by this team, they will be discounted by the pundits and picked to lose against the Hawks. Las Vegas will have no such bias and may look at the series differently, but that is what you will hear from the “experts” on TV and radio.
Disregarding the naysayers is very difficult for Cleveland fans. They have been kicked around so much it is kind of like the horrific “battered wife” syndrome that sadly occurs in society. But it is important for Cavs fans to look at the facts that their team is VERY hard to beat. They have the best player in every series (and would have the second best player in most except for injury) and a team that is stepping up to the challenge and not wilting under the playoff pressure. This team is NOW vastly better than the sum of it’s parts. It is developing the togetherness and toughness needed for a champion. Again, there is no guarantee that they win the Eastern Conference or the NBA Championship. But make no mistake about it, they are developing the identity of champions! Cleveland should celebrate that during this next series and hopefully beyond. In case you forget how Ohio teams can be so easily disregarded, think of the 2014/15 Ohio State Buckeye football team. They had repeated injuries to the most important position on the field and came out National Champions. They were discounted at every turn as inferior to the competition. They won. It can happen again. Hold on!!