If anyone dared imagine what a Cleveland sports championship would look like before the dream became reality Sunday night, perhaps they foresaw the streets filled with revelers – thousands screaming in joy, some atop a fire truck.
Maybe they even predicted the city would run out of alcohol, as seems to have actually have happened in the hours after Game 7 ended.
But as significant as a Cleveland championship would be, as the city’s first major sports title since 1964 undoubtedly is at simple first blush, it’s hard to believe anyone imagined that the Cavaliers winning it all would shatter the NBA landscape like it has. This isn’t just any championship win. It’s far more than the achievement of a long sought after victory, like the Boston Red Sox winning it all in 2004 or Philadelphia’s four-sport drought ending in 2008. Because in the wake of these finals, so much we thought we knew about the league entering the series just three weeks ago has been destroyed, as if suddenly and violently spiked away by LeBron James himself.
First, of course, there is LeBron himself. The idea that he has been surpassed by Steph Curry as the world’s premier basketball player? That’s over. James is still the king of the NBA and it’s not by a narrow margin. While Golden State’s three-point machine struggled to find his shot all series, and really all postseason, LeBron dominated everyone who stepped on the court. He put up the numbers to prove it, too, leading the NBA finals in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks – the first player to do so in a playoff series in history. In fact, combine the efforts of Golden State’s Splash Brothers and they’re still not enough to best LeBron all by his royal self: James had more rebounds, assists, steals and blocks in the finals than Curry and Klay Thompson combined. Anyone still criticizing LeBron’s basketball career is either a troll an idiot or both.
Curry’s regular season from behind the three-point will deservedly be remembered for all-time, but it’s still LeBron’s time atop the sport of basketball. Alexander Ovechkin can score, but he’s not Sidney Crosby. Giancarlo Stanton can hit tape measure home runs, but he’s not Mike Trout. Steph Curry is an amazing shooter, but he’s not LeBron James. He’s nowhere near LeBron James. We’ve all been reminded.
Golden State’s claim as the “Greatest Team of All-Time” has also been summarily rejected, too. Neither are the Warriors on their way to becoming the next great NBA dynasty (whoops!). The 1995-96 Bulls had one fewer regular season win, but the 2015-16 Warriors ended their season with one fewer trophy. And even if the Warriors had managed to pull out Game 7 at home, it was going to be hard to make the case that they were superior to Michael Jordan’s best team thanks to their struggles against Oklahoma City and then Cleveland. Those ‘96 Bulls breezed through the playoffs at 15-3 and never lost at home. These Warriors lost at least three games in two different series and their invincibility at home. Back in early April the Warriors had won 54 games in a row at Oracle Arena. They’ve now lost five since then and two in a row. The market for courtside seats will no longer be $58,000 a ticket.
But who would want to sit courtside anyway with the risk of being hit by a thrown mouthguard? Along with the hit to the unanimous MVP’s reputation as a player, the limitations in his game exposed for all the world to see when shots didn’t fall, Curry’s time as being nearly universally loved is at an end. He’s by no means a bad guy or a classic sports “villain”, but as the misses and losses piled up, we saw Curry pout and tantrum just as much as James ever did.
LeBron’s merciless domination of Curry even extended to the shoe industry. A championship would have softened the mocking of the Curry 2s, the new Under Armour sneakers widely mocked as “dad shoes”. Winning is cool. But good luck spinning ugly shoes as stylish because a guy who shot 31% in a Game 7 wears them. Meanwhile, LeBron lives out his lifetime deal with Nike in kicks that aren’t the basketball equivalent of leather sandals with white socks.
The Curry shoe jokes will continue on, but Kevin Love as punchline is over. He not only has a championship ring, but he contributed heavily in Game 7 to get it. His 14 rebounds led the Cavaliers. His plus/minus in the second half, when Cleveland turned a seven-point deficit into a six-point win, was a team-best plus-17. Never known for his defense, he even locked down Curry on a crucial late possession. LeBron doesn’t hug a team-mate he doesn’t respect like this.
Richard Jefferson proved he could still contribute to a championship team at age 35, 15 years after he entered the NBA and played against Steph Curry’s dad. Kyrie Irving silenced the critics who said he’s overrated or not a worthy sidekick to LeBron, dominating the third quarter in Game 7 and scoring the winning basket in the fourth. He averaged 30.8 points per game in the final five games and, at age 24, showed there’s no reason Cleveland’s championship window will close anytime soon. Then there’s Tyronn Lue, far from LeBron’s assistant, he devised a game plan that defeated a 73-9 team in the NBA finals. The only team in NBA history to come back from a 3-1 deficit in the Finals is coached by Lue.
“Everybody counted us out, and that’s when we strive the most,” James said in the moments after winning his third championship.
Every champion proclaims they were overlooked and underestimated. But James and these Cavaliers and the City of Cleveland have a legitimate claim. It’s not a cliche this time. Cleveland are champions. Everything we thought we knew was wrong.
This article was written by DJ Gallo, for theguardian.com on Monday 20th June 2016 13.57 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010