Many teams will credit God or their mom when winning their way into the NBA Playoffs Finals, but the Cleveland Cavaliers have something even bigger to credit. The power to finally come together as a team when they needed it most as they defeated the Toronto Raptors 113-87.
As they jumped around the locker room dousing each other with ice water and howling after earning their second straight trip to the NBA Finals, the Cavaliers were one.
No out-of-control egos. No division. No squabbling. These were basketball brothers bonded by a common goal, ready to take on the world.
For months, that wasn’t the case.
Underperforming despite a trio of superstars and one of the league’s deepest rosters, the Cavs were imploding before a late-night meeting in New York helped save their season.
In the hours after a disappointing 104-95 loss to Brooklyn on March 25, the Cavs gathered in their Manhattan hotel and cleared the air.
“Once we had that meeting, I just think the team understood what we needed from each other to win — if we wanted to win,” coach Tyronn Lue said Monday. “And I give them credit. They bought into it, and you’ve seen the results of it.”
With two series sweeps and a tougher-than-expected matchup with Toronto, the united Cavs have gone 12-2 in this postseason and are awaiting the Oklahoma City-Golden State winner in this year’s finals. It’s possible they will host Games 1 and 2, but if not for that after-hours talk they had in March, Cleveland’s title run may have ended weeks ago.
The troubling loss to the Nets — LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love went a combined 1 for 11 in the fourth quarter — was the low point in a season that included questions about whether Cleveland’s front office had made a mistake in re-signing Love to a maximum contract, Irving’s health, and whether James would bolt again as a free agent.
But as each player expressed his feelings during the meetings, tension gave way to togetherness.
“We had a chance to sit down and talk,” Lue said. “I just think the Big Three sitting down and getting on the same page of understanding what they need from each other on a nightly basis and understanding that they have to trust each other and also trust the team. We had that talk in front of everyone and everyone kind of gave their opinion and kind of talked about what they expected and what we needed to do better.
“From that day on, we kind of took off and we became a better team.”
Also a much closer one. Whether it’s their choreographed handshakes, team dinners or going to James’ house to watch games, the Cavs have become almost inseparable.
And beyond the heartfelt talk in New York, the additions of veterans Richard Jefferson (signed to a one-year deal last July) and Channing Frye (acquired in a February trade) were pivotal in helping Cleveland find harmony.
The longtime close friends have been selfless, willing to take subordinate roles while also mentoring the younger Cavs.
“Just having those guys in the locker room, talking to the younger guys about what it’s all about — winning,” Lue said. “They’ve been on losing teams where they haven’t made the playoffs, and you win 25 games. So they’ve seen both sides of it.”
The 35-year-old Jefferson has brought wisdom, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a wise guy as well.
Returning to the finals for the first time since he was a rookie 13 years ago, Jefferson joked that James’ sixth straight trip was nothing special.
“I don’t care about LeBron,” cracked Jefferson, who has been documenting much of the team’s off-court camaraderie on Snapchat. “Unless that man helps me get a championship, I don’t even know his last name.”
Kidding aside, Jefferson said the Cavs have a “unique” connection and chemistry.
“We have such a balanced group of guys, very different guys from a lot of different backgrounds,” he said. “But everybody has the same common goal.”
The Cavs are four wins from ending Cleveland’s 52-year pro sports championship drought, and the city is anxiously bracing for either an unmatched party or more heartache.
While Jefferson appreciates what a title would mean to fans, he’s more focused on a smaller group.
“I grew up in Arizona; I don’t know what the Cleveland history is,” he said. “It’s great to be a part of that. It’s great to do it for fans who want it as badly as we do. But when you’re locked in to the guy next to you and picking him up, that’s what we’re really doing it for. We’re doing it for our teammates.”