The emotion exploded out of LeBron James as the final buzzer sounded in the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Game 2 win of the NBA Finals.
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He raised his arms, spiked the ball, roared ferociously and threw a haymaker into whatever air hadn’t already been sucked out of Oracle Arena.
It was a release after a gruelling 53 minutes of basketball warfare, 50 of which James spent extracting every last bit from his being. But it was also a statement that the Cavaliers are very much in this series and not some procedural formality standing in the way of the Golden State Warriors completing their perfect season.
Cleveland were the underdogs coming into the Finals, but as long as James stood, they had a chance.
Then Kyrie Irving fractured his kneecap in Game 1 to end his campaign, while the Cavaliers blew an opportunity to steal one on the road despite an imposing performance from James. Any chance they had to raise a banner and end the city’s 51-year championship drought appeared to slip away.
As it turned out, the most enduring aspect from the series opener wasn’t that Cleveland were lacking enough offensive help for James, but rather that defence has become their new identity.
The thinking heading into the series – rightfully so – was that James, as masterful as he is, can’t generate enough offence by himself to outpace the high-powered attack of Golden State. But the Cavaliers’ defence has been so impressive, their margin of error on the other end of the floor has increased just enough for James to carry the load with success.
— Cleveland Cavaliers (@cavs) June 9, 2015
Cleveland aren’t three wins away from a title because of beautifully-run pick-and-rolls and unstoppable scoring. They’re three wins away because of gritty defence and unrelenting rebounding.
This was never supposed to be the blueprint.
Irving and Kevin Love were expected to make the Cavaliers an offensive juggernaut, capable of outscoring anyone. After Love suffered his season-ending injury, Cleveland morphed into another team out of sheer necessity and it’s been taken to the extreme with Irving now gone as well.
Tristan Thompson has replaced Love’s scoring and ability to stretch the floor with persistent offensive rebounding and defensive mobility.
Matthew Dellavedova has replaced Irving’s elite ball-handling and shooting with swarming coverage of Stephen Curry and hustle.
There are no pleasing aesthetics here.
— NBA Australia (@NBA_AU) June 8, 2015
This isn’t James finding cutters in Miami’s motion offence or playing at a hyper-efficient level.
It’s not how Golden State have played all season, but Cleveland have dragged the Warriors down to their level. Golden State aren’t fencing anymore, they’re brawling.
“Defence wins championships” is the old adage. We knew the Warriors had the defence to win, but the Cavs are proving they do too.
The way Cleveland held down Eastern Conference opponents in the playoffs wasn’t a mirage because of the level of competition. It was very much real and has transferred to the Finals against the NBA’s best team this season.
It all still feels unsustainable, however.
Can you really tilt the floor so far to one side and expect a single player to be your entire offence and ride that to a title?
Conventional wisdom says ‘no’, but there’s nothing conventional about LeBron and these Cavaliers.
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