LeBron James will now officially have to wait until the second year of his Cleveland comeback to bring the Cavaliers their first-ever NBA championship. That’s not his fault.
For each of the six games of the 2015 NBA Finals, James essentially became a real-life basketball version of the broken-legged “Madden” Greg Jennings, putting his team on his back in some type of way and ultimately throwing down one of the most impressive individual Finals performances of all-time with near triple-double averages.
However, his effort wasn’t enough against this year’s Golden State Warriors, who closed out Cleveland in Game 6 on Tuesday night, 105-97, to end their own championship drought of 40 years and cap off a historic regular season with a championship, asserting their status as one of the great all-time teams.
In the elimination game, James once again tried to both catalyze and carry the Cavs’ entire offense, and once again, he got very little help.
Outside of Timofey Mozgov, who got big minutes in David Blatt’s effort to outsize the Warriors’ small-ball attack, the rest of the Cavaliers were terrible, combining to shoot 14-41. Take out Tristan Thompson’s 7-12 mark, and the group of Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith, Matthew Dellavedova and James Jones shot just 7-29. Take out Smith’s borderline-meaningless three-point barrage in the last 1:14 of the game, and they shot 4-24. Some of the criticism around the Cavs’ offensive attack has been how difficult it is for ancillary guys to get involved in such a LeBron-heavy offense. At some point, though, role players have gotta play their role to lift the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
The Mozgov move was a perfect example of that, as it paid big dividends even as the Warriors continually tried to exploit him in pick-and-roll whenever the Cavaliers hid him on Iguodala or Draymond Green. Still, Mozzy managed to not only hold his own on defense but counteract the Warriors’ tactics when he was on the offensive end, where he played part-time catalyst and de-facto second fiddle to James. The big man helped Cleveland climb back into the game during the second quarter, getting deep post-touches to aid ball movement and get to the foul line to slow down the game. On the other end, he was equally crucial in keeping the Warriors away from the rim. Not surprisingly, the Warriors had just 17 points in the second quarter, and the Cavaliers were within two points at halftime.
Again, it was the rest of the Cavs who couldn’t step up around James, especially Shumpert and Smith, the shooters who failed to shoot effectively during the most important half-dozen games of their careers. They also contributed to the team’s issues at the foul line, with five of the team’s 12 missed free throws on 39 attempts in the game––a factor that could’ve been huge in keeping it closer late in the game.
Outside of those two, though, it’s hard to throw a ton of heavy blame around the Cleveland roster, especially when dealing with so many injuries against the talent and depth of Golden State.
The Cavaliers have basically been playing the same eight––seven post-Irving-injury––since the second round against the Bulls, and they all looked totally gassed during most of the second half of Game 6. Their jump-shots were short, and their defense was shoddy. Even Thompson, who looked like he’d been playing with a pogo stick for most of the postseason, seemed sluggish on defense and oddly absent on the offensive glass.
As Stephen Curry sliced up Cleveland’s defense––which had been picture-perfect in defending him earlier in the series––with pinpoint passing out of the pick-and-roll during the fourth quarter, the Cavs’ body language didn’t so much look despairing as much as despondent, as if fundamentally out of energy. No one could really blame them, and certainly no one could say they lost to an inferior team.
Having one man try to slay one of the deepest, running-est contenders in recent memory was a difficult gambit for Cleveland, but the way LeBron was able to manipulate the pace and style of the games during the series’ first few games was masterful. They even built a 2-1 series lead. It was effective, and it damn near worked.
The problem was making it effective enough to hold up for an entire series. At some point, James needed more help than he got, especially from his shooters, who failed to effectively space out the Warriors’ defense in a way that made things easy on the Cavs’ offense. Cleveland wore down, and as they did, Golden State simply continued to run.
Overall, the Cavaliers’ run was resilient and impressive, however, and as long as they’ve got James, they’ll have a solid foundation and certainly have an intriguing future with this roster after the Finals.