On the night of June 19th, 2016, one of the greatest basketball games of all time unfolded before our very eyes. On that night, the reigning defending champion Golden State Warriors looked to secure immortality in NBA history as the greatest team to play the game while the Cleveland Cavaliers, counted out by many after going down 3-1, battled to complete a historic comeback and bring a long-awaited championship back to their beloved city. And on that night, we were all witnesses.
On that night, we saw the heart of a champion in the 2nd round pick hailing from Saginaw Michigan. He knew that he had cost his team a chance at the title with his suspension and came prepared to deliver the championship he felt he owed. And from the opening tipoff, he looked dead set on paying this debt. Often called the heart and soul of this historically great Golden State team, he carried his teammates on his back, leading the team by pouring in 32 points, while playing big in their deadly small lineup, scrapping on the backboards to haul in 15 rebounds. He finished just one assist shy of a triple double that would have made him only the fourth player to ever achieve such a feat on the NBA’s biggest stage in a decisive Game 7. For long stretches of the game, he appeared unstoppable as he rained in shots from the perimeter and bullied his way inside to finish strong in the paint. On any other night, he may have been remembered as the hero that singlehandedly saved a historic season from falling by the wayside. But not on that night.
On that night, we watched as two of the greatest shooters in league history, one the NBA’s first unanimous league MVP and the other the Association’s most explosive scorer, tried to sink the dagger into the hearts of the Cavaliers. Time and time again the three-point shots went up, shots that had buried opposing defenses on the Warriors run to a 73-9 regular season record. 18 of those tries missed their mark, with some bouncing hopelessly off the backboard while others flirted with the rim before spiraling out. But six of those shots found the bottom of the net. One of those makes came almost halfway through the fourth quarter. With his team down three and a title on the line, the reigning back-to-back MVP brought the ball up the court. Just a few feet past the half court line, he managed to shake his larger defender with a flurry of dribble moves, rose up, and fired. For most players, that shot was impossible. But not for him. The ball dove right through the net, tying the game. After the Cavaliers’ attempt to answer back rattled off the rim starting a Warriors fast break, the ball found its way into the hands of the other member of the deadly duo standing in the corner. After sizing up his defender, he too rose up and fired over him with one foot on the three-point line. Again, the ball sailed cleanly through the net, putting the Warriors up two points, 85-83. The Cavaliers immediately called timeout, and Golden State was now just six minutes away from winning back-to-back NBA titles. On any other night, this fourth quarter sequence orchestrated by these two assassins may have gone down as the defining moment of these NBA Finals. But not on that night.
On that night, we saw the cunning and savvy of a Cleveland Cavaliers rookie head coach who had taken over the team only midway through the season. The team he inherited was a struggling one, troubled by issues of chemistry and cohesion. He gave them a new up-tempo style of play with a new swagger to match and had his team in peak form to enter the playoffs. Under his leadership, the Cavaliers rolled through the Eastern Conference to once again face the Golden State Warriors. In the first two games on Golden State’s home floor, his team looked hopelessly overmatched, and he returned to Cleveland after losing those games by a combined 52 points, an NBA Finals record for futility. With the possibility of a sweep creeping into the minds of many, he could have stubbornly stuck to the game plan that took his team to the Finals. Instead, he changed the complexion of the whole series by instilling in his team a more physical and rugged brand of basketball. In the first game back in Cleveland, his team secured a statement win, defeating the defending champions by 30 points. And while his team attempted to impose their will the same way the next game, the MVP reigned supreme and the Cavaliers faced a 3-1 deficit, a hole that no team had ever managed to dig its way out of in the Finals. Despite this, he kept his team motivated and energized, and he and his team managed to claw their way back from down two games to force a deciding Game 7. And in this all-important game, he made all the right moves, calling timeouts to halt the onslaught of the Warriors’ deadly offense, making adjustments to fix bad strings of possessions, and exploiting mismatches on the court the opposing coach failed to address. On any other night, he may have received most of the credit for the Cavaliers’ incredible run to the first championship in franchise history. But not on that night.
On that night, we stood in awe as the Cavaliers’ talented young point guard continued his meteoric ascension. Last year, he was forced to watch his team lose the Finals from a hospital bed, but this year, he was ready to make his impact felt. After starring with a 41-point performance in a Game 5 with his team facing elimination, he needed to have just one more signature game to seal the title in Game 7. He answered the bell with a performance for the ages. Once the final horn sounded, he had once again recorded an incredible point total, many of which came in spectacular fashion. Whether he was breaking down his defenders with his mesmerizing handle and hitting difficult jump shots or slashing into the teeth of the defense and converting an array of seemingly impossible acrobatic layups while getting fouled, he provided instant offense whenever his team needed it most. And at no time did they need his heroics more than the fourth quarter with less than a minute separating the Cavaliers from the NBA title with the score tied at 89. Once he came out of his team’s final timeout, it was time for the young star to cement his place in NBA history. After taking the ball up to the three-point line, he performed a few crisp dribble moves before rising up to shoot a fadeaway three-pointer in the face of the MVP. Everyone in the stadium seemed completely fixated on the ball as he put it up on its path towards the basket. By the time it came back down to the hardwood, it had shattered the hopes of the Golden State Warriors and positioned Cleveland on the cusp of a title. His cold-blooded shot capped a spectacular 36-point performance and proved to be the dagger of the game. On any other night, he may have been awarded the Bill Russell Finals MVP Award for his heroic efforts throughout the series and his epic title-sealing shot. But not on that night.
On that night of June 19th, we all bore witness to the indisputable greatness of one of the greatest players to ever step on a basketball court: LeBron James. Before the conclusion of this series, some used to debate if LeBron deserved a place on the NBA’s Mount Rushmore. Now, it shouldn’t even be a question. When his Cavaliers lost Game 4 of the Finals and went down 3-1, once again facing elimination at the hands of the Golden State Warriors, the world seemed to turn on LeBron James. Many questioned his apparent lack of aggression in the first four games, imploring him to singlehandedly dominate the Warriors the way he had in their last Finals matchup just a year before. Others believed that LeBron’s legacy was in jeopardy, as he would inevitably fall to a poor 2-5 record in the NBA Finals. Some even questioned LeBron’s toughness following an exchange with Draymond Green late in Game 4 that led to Green’s suspension for a closeout Game 5. Klay Thompson claimed LeBron “must’ve got his feelings hurt.” His teammate Marreese Speights did him one better and tweeted out an emoji of a baby bottle. In the days leading up to Game 5, it seemed that the basketball world had given up on Lebron James. There was no way he can win Game 5 in Oracle, since the Cavaliers had not won a game there since Game 2 of last year’s Finals. There was no way he could win Game 6 with Draymond returning from his suspension to lead his team to a closeout victory in Cleveland, where they had clinched the championship the previous year. There was no way he could beat the seemingly invincible Warriors in Game 7 in Oracle again after battling back from a two game deficit. But then, we watched Game 5. LeBron James, who was one of the league’s worst three-point shooters in the regular season, drained four of his eight three-point tries. LeBron James, who had averaged 24.75 points over the first four games, erupted in an explosive 41-point performance while also grabbing a staggering 16 rebounds and dishing 7 assists to lead his team to victory and stave off elimination. And LeBron James, who was supposedly destined for NBA Finals futility, was just getting started. In Game 6, LeBron again put up 41 points while also recording 8 rebounds and 11 assists, once again leading his Cavaliers to victory and forcing a Game 7. There is no bigger stage in the NBA than Game 7 of the Finals. With just 48 minutes between the two opposing teams and a championship, every second counts. On this biggest of stages, with a championship for his hometown and potentially his legacy on the line, LeBron James excelled on every level. With less than two minutes to play and the score tied at 89, the Warriors were out an a fastbreak after a missed layup from Kyrie Irving. Andre Iguodala raced down the court and attempted to score a layup on the other end to the put the Warriors up, and, in what will be remembered as one of the iconic plays of an inconic game, LeBron flew in from behind to emphatically annihilate his attempt against the backboard. The Warriors didn’t score another point for the rest of the game. And, with ten seconds left in the fourth quarter, LeBron hit a freethrow to put the Warriors on ice, and it was celebration time in Cleveland. He finished the game with 27 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists and was voted the unanimous Finals MVP. LeBron’s stat line in this pivotal game also made him only the third player in NBA history to notch a triple double in a Game 7 of the Finals, alongside Laker legends Jerry West and James Worthy. At the series end, LeBron led all Finals players in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks. No player had ever accomplished such a feat in any playoff series, let alone in the Finals. Perhaps even more impressively, LeBron averaged 35 points, almost 12 rebounds, and nearly 10 assists in three straight elimination games, leading his Cavaliers to become the first team to win an NBA Championship after being down 3-1. It’s also worth mentioning that he accomplished these historic feats against the 2015-2016 Golden State Warriors, who broke the 95-96 Chicago Bulls’ regular season wins record and were crowned by some as the greatest team in NBA history. We know now that this coronation was premature. Having fulfilled his promise to the Land by breaking its over 50 year championship drought, it is safe to say that the crown will rest comfortably upon the King’s head until another challenger comes to claim it. But until that time comes, long live the King.
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