OAKLAND, Calif. -- Where does one even begin with something like this, with history revealing itself in the moment and tension so thick it was tough to even draw a breath? You start with belief.
For the better part of a week, Cleveland general manager David Griffin told everyone on his staff that this was how it had to be, that if the Cavaliers were going to do this they had to do what had never been done. They had to be the first team to come back from a 3-1 finals deficit, against the best regular-season team of all time and win two elimination games in Oracle Arena. It was the only way.
"All we know how to do is make history," Griffin said after it was all over. "That's the only way our team could do it. I'm grateful to be right. We had to put ourselves in this position."
The Cavs believed that if they could just get one game back in Oracle there was no way they would lose at home in Game 6. Once that was accomplished, they would send this series back to Game 7 with the greatest player of his generation leading the charge. LeBron James believed it, too, believed it with every fiber of his being. He was so eerily calm on the Saturday before Game 7 that everyone who left that practice session was convinced he was going to pull it off.
No one else in this league has that kind of aura, no one else inspires this kind of belief. You can compare him to Michael Jordan if you want, or Magic or Bird or anyone else. After what he just did, all of that is on the table and once again open to interpretation. We talk about his legacy all the time because it's an ever-evolving thing. If that gets old or tired for some, perhaps they're not thinking hard enough about what we are all witnessing in the moment. He's a player for the ages and he's not even close to done yet.
James carried his team back from the brink with two brilliant performances, and then came Game 7 -- good God that Game 7. The moments will live on forever. From Kyrie Irving's step-back three in Steph Curry's face to LeBron's chasedown block to Kevin Love's scrambling defense on Curry in the final moments. The last four and a half minutes felt like forever with a tie game, the season, the championship and the weight of so much history bearing down on everyone.
Everything that brought us to those moments felt like its own chapter in a novel that may never be written. From LeBron's triple-double to Draymond Green's redemption game to Curry and Klay Thompson unable to get untracked. Those magical Warriors runs never came and the Cavs met each surge with one of their own. That was the story of this series. The Cavs took on everything the Warriors threw at them and countered with tactics and body shots of their own.
Game 7's are rarely this good. There were 20 lead changes and 11 ties and nothing ever felt answered until those last seconds ticked off the clock. That's when belief gave way to shock, and shock slowly dawned on everyone that the reality of the moment was at hand. The Cleveland Cavaliers were freaking NBA champions. More than half a century of Cleveland sports heartbreak melting away in the warm glow of the Larry O'Brien trophy. LeBron cradled it in his arms and that's when reality gave way to tears.
"I'm true to the game, and I know what I bring to the table," James said later. "I came back for a reason. I came back to bring a championship to our city. I knew what I was capable of doing. I knew what I learned in the last couple years that I was gone, and I knew if I had to -- when I came back, I knew I had the right ingredients and the right blueprint to help this franchise get back to a place that we've never been. That's what it was all about. Right now it's just excitement. It's not even relief."
For the better part of two years, LeBron had brought this team along to his level. He tried to apply the lessons he learned in Miami and the road was not always easy. There were trying times filled with messages, subtle and otherwise, about what his teammates needed to do to get to where they wanted to go. And because it involved LeBron, the spotlight was harsh and unforgiving. For two years we've wondered just who these Cavaliers were and we finally have been given our answer.
Throughout the playoffs he pushed and praised Irving, a brilliant virtuoso of a scorer who showed up huge in the finals. Irving outplayed the two-time MVP with his uncanny shotmaking and in the heat of competition, his flash becoming substance. These finals elevated Irving into a different caliber of player, a stone-cold shooter who only made the biggest shot of his life under intense pressure. That's what LeBron saw in him and what Irving saw in himself.
"I understood that I didn't have time to be anything less than myself," Irving said. "I didn't have time to worry about what was going on with what everyone was saying about what we needed to be as a team. What I needed to do, what the lineup should be, what kind of player I, myself, needed to be in order for our team to be successful. I talked to Bron, I talked to T. Lue, I looked for a lot of wisdom from our veterans, and it was just constant, constant, a feed of confidence from all those guys."
And then there was Love, marginalized and scorned for so long during his Cleveland tenure. His concussion kept him out of Game 3 and helped unlock a workable defensive scheme against Golden State's pick-and-roll. Love's play was uneven at best and frustrating at worst. But in Game 7, the dude came to play, grabbing 14 rebounds and finishing plus-19, better than anyone else on the court. These were the kind of blue-collar contributions he needed to deliver.
"At the end of the day, if we win, it doesn't matter," LeBron said on Saturday. "It doesn't matter. We take care of business tomorrow and we put ourselves in position to win. If we come out victorious, I don't think there's going to be guys talking about over the summer how bad or Kevin wasn't -- he didn't play well. He had three fouls in the first half in Game 6. You remember Kevin picked up that third foul that wasn't a foul? I don't think anybody's going to say that. They're going to say Kevin Love is a champion. That's all that matters."
And Ty Lue, the neophyte coach thrown into this cauldron when LeBron and everyone else had grown tired of David Blatt. Lue not only acquitted himself well, he outmaneuvered the reigning Coach of the Year. All throughout the process, LeBron praised Lue's game plans and they proved to be correct.
And what of J.R. Smith, the wayward vagabond who found a home in Cleveland? Brought in by Griffin at last year's trade deadline, LeBron said he'd handle the mercurial guard and provide structure, and he did. It was Smith, who erased a halftime deficit with a flurry of shots early in the third quarter, and it was Smith who cried real tears of redemption for a career that many thought impossible.
All things are possible with LeBron. He came back to Cleveland with designs of winning a championship, not just for the city that thirsted for one, but for himself and for the region that raised and nurtured him. He refused to play into our storybook storylines and wouldn't accept anything less than acceptance on his own terms. We can believe in LeBron. His is one of the most enduring athletic journeys of this or any other generation. He came from nothing and prospered, thrived even, under incredible public scrutiny.
"I don't really get involved into the whole pressure thing," he said way back when this series began. "I think I've exceeded expectations in my life as a professional. I'm a statistic that was supposed to go the other way, growing up in the inner city, having a single-parent household. It was just me and my mother. So, everything I've done has been a success. So, as far as the game of basketball, I just go out and play it and have fun and love it, and be true to the game and to my teammates and live with the results."
He can live with these results and you can be damn sure that Cleveland will revel in the outcome. What a journey. What a story. What a life.
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