When LeBron James announced his return to Cleveland, he refused to promise Cavs fans a championship. “We’re not ready right now,” LeBron wrote. “It will be a long process.”
Still, I doubt he thought it’d be this hard. Cavs fans certainly didn’t. Here we had the modern-day MJ at the peak of his powers, a top-flight point guard in Kyrie Irving, and, after a blockbuster deal with Minnesota, a double-double machine in Kevin Love. How could this team be stopped? When it came to championships, “not one, not two, not three …” seemed to be a reasonable expectation.
Unlike LeBron’s first stint in Cleveland, the bench was decent — I will ride for 2014–15 Shawn Marion until the day I die — and the hire of David Blatt drew rave reviews from the basketball intelligentsia. Given the putrid state of the East, a cakewalk to the Finals felt inevitable. And who was going to beat the Cavs then? The Spurs were on their last legs, the Thunder had yet to recover from the James Harden trade, and the Clippers were still under the curse of V. Stiviano.
On the one hand, titles are never easy to come by. As LeBron famously wrote, “Nothing is given. Everything is earned.” On the other hand, SUPERRRRRTEAM.
About that superteam, though: It didn’t jell. The Cavs started 19–20, Love looked lost, Blatt was on the hot seat almost immediately, and LeBron took two weeks off to nurse nagging knee and back injuries. And, oh yeah, he may or may not have told Dwyane Wade that he wanted out of Cleveland. It was disorienting to see such a talented team struggle so much, but hey, Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Talent ultimately prevailed, and the Cavs rolled to an Eastern Conference title. But there was a worrisome development afoot in Oakland: the emergence of an actual superteam. The Warriors had come out of nowhere to win a whopping 67 games, and were strongly favored to beat the Cavs in the Finals. Of course, Irving and Love were injured, so Cavs fans were armed with ready-made excuses in the face of defeat. Plus, it was only LeBron’s first year back in Cleveland. The Cavs’ championship window seemed wide open.
This season followed a similar pattern: the Cavs started slow, LeBron-related drama festered, and the Warriors somehow got better, dominating the league en route to a record 73 wins. The Dubs’ seeming invincibility was on full display in their 132–98 shellacking of the Cavs in January, which triggered Blatt’s unceremonious dismissal a week later. Suddenly, the Cavs’ title window appeared to be closing — Golden State boasted the lethal combination of superior talent and youth.
But now we’ve got a Game 7, and none of that matters.
Seventy-three wins, Steph Curry’s back-to-back MVP awards, the Church of #Klaytheism, the Blatt firing, subtweet drama, Kevin Love trade rumors, the Cavs’ shrinking championship window — it’s all irrelevant. And [knocks on wood for several hours] Cavs fans have every reason to feel confident.
For one thing, the MVP has been MIA. Despite dropping 30 points in Game 6, Curry’s best shot came when he chucked his mouthguard at a fan in frustration after fouling out. Andre Iguodala — last year’s chief LeBron-stopper — looks like he belongs in a nursing home. Andrew Bogut is out. Harrison Barnes is giving new meaning to the Lineup of Death — it’s not a good one — and Draymond Green is playing without his signature defensive move, lest he incur another suspension.
The Oracle Arena crowd will be lit for Game 7, but LeBron has shown he can handle the abuse. His entire career has been building to this moment, and things finally seem to be breaking the Cavs’ way. Clevelanders should never feel too optimistic, of course, but after games 5 and 6, it’s hard not to. Two years after coming home, LeBron is finally on the verge of delivering Cleveland the championship he couldn’t promise. I’ve never been more scared in my life.