Look! Over Here! Cleveland in the NBA Finals!
Oh right, them.
The other guys. The Cleveland Cavaliers.
How did we reach the point in the 2015-16 NBA season that the Finals return of the Cleveland Cavaliers, again four wins removed from delivering the city’s first championship in 52 long, barren years—which would be, without a doubt, a thrilling, gravity-altering, pigs-flying Page One cultural event, not just for northeast Ohio, but around the country—is somehow the bland, blah, less-exciting story line of these basketball playoffs?
Everyone does realize that Cleveland winning a title would be nut-bonkers, right? There is also this:
1. If Cleveland wins a championship, we’re all supposed to get two days off, plus $150 in spending money, no matter where you live in the U.S.Cleveland’s Earnest Byner showed his disappointment after fumbling in the closing minutes of the AFC Championship game against Denver on Jan. 17, 1988. Photo: Associated Press
2. If you live in the Cleveland area, or are a long-suffering Cleveland sports fan—you’ll need some emotional receipts, like you crawl under a coffee table when anyone ever brings up The Fumble in the 1987-88 AFC Championship game versus the Broncos—you get the month off, plus a frozen margarita machine, and a rescue dog of your choice.
And yet, since these playoffs began, Cleveland’s run to the Finals has been relegated to the B story line. The A story line, are those record breaking Golden State Warriors, triumphant monday night in a sizzling, seven-game Western Conference semifinal over Oklahoma City. The Warriors are as much of a pop culture phenomenon as they are a sports team; they’ve captured the imagination of people who’d rather count the hair on a goat than watch a basketball game. That Golden State/OKC series had amazing, seesaw drama. Golden State/OKC had glamour. You’ll be talking about Golden State/OKC five decades from now, sitting in your lakefront condo on Mars, drinking life-extension grass juice, complaining about the life-extension grass juice prices at the Mars gourmet market.
The Cavs, meanwhile, played their Eastern Conference final against the Toronto Raptors. Just reading that sentence made you take a 10-minute nap. Fine, I know, I know: this was a major moment for Canada’s basketball franchise, and they gave the Cavs a scare when they knotted the series at two games to two. Yay! But come on. You and I both know you’re not ordering the commemorative DVD of the Cavaliers-Raptors series. It just ended on Friday and you can barely remember how many games it took the Cavs to win it. Well, they won it in five. I mean, six. Sorry. You see what I mean.
None of this is intended to minimize Cleveland’s accomplishment. It isn’t easy to make it back to the NBA Finals, not even in the Eastern Conference, where half of the basketball teams appear staffed by players who learned basketball online three weeks ago. You still have to win. You still have to get there. Once more, it’s Cleveland at the Eastern summit.
The catalyst of this Cavs ascension is, of course, Akron’s own LeBron James, now 31 and in his 13th professional season. This is James’s second go-around after breaking through with his home state franchise in 2003 as a straight-from-high-school rookie. In between was a four-year run to the Finals with Miami, and a pair of championships. Oh right: there was also a bit of a tempest about James leaving Cleveland for Florida. Jerseys burned, his name prohibited from public discussion statewide, a poison pen letter from the owner, etc., whatever! It’s all forgiven, now that James has returned home, with a single, poetic, crowd-and-media pleasing intention: bringing a sports title to a city denied for a half-century.
If only it were so easy. Last year James managed to get Cleveland to the Finals, doing so with an injured and depleted team, and there was a moment in which he appeared to be personally willing the Cavs to the championship. It looked like someone lifting up an 18-wheeler by himself. The problem was that Cleveland was facing Golden State, which after a wobbly beginning recovered to win in six games.
These Cavs remain a funky bunch, inorganically built, hard to read, occasionally maddening. James has a pair of star associates who were out injured during last year’s Finals—point guard Kyrie Irving and forward Kevin Love—but they have a hard time locating the on-court telepathy that makes a trio of gifted players a genuine Big Three. Love is habitually singled out for appearing lost. Irving has a casual to diffident interest in defense. And yet the three can be so sublime offensively that when the Cavs really get it going—and you throw in the 3-point chuck artist J.R. Smith—Cleveland can seem even more formidable than James’s peak Heat outfit. And then there are moments in which they look like they could lose to The Wall Street Journal Sports department’s intramural team.LeBron James and Kevin Love celebrate during the Eastern Conference Finals. Photo: Mark Blinch/Getty Images
(OK fine, the Cavs would never lose to The Wall Street Journal Sports department’s intramural team. Not even if my skyhook was cooking.)
Cleveland jettisoned its coach midway through the year, replacing David Blatt, 30-11 at the time, with assistant Tyronn Lue, who went 27-14, but seems to have found a better equilibrium with his team. Before dropping those two road games to the Raptors, Cleveland started these playoffs 10-0. When they’re rolling they appear loose, gelling, and supportive of each other. This isn’t complicated: Winning makes the love flow.
In the end, Cleveland’s fate will invariably come down to James, as it’s meant to be. This will be James’s sixth straight Finals appearance, and seventh overall. I know there are only two rings at this point, but to find a comparable run of consecutive Finals appearances, you have to go back to Bill Russell’s Celtics, and any time you have to go back to Russell’s Celtics, you are amid greatness. I’m an unabashed James fan. I think he’s among the best ever, consistently a handful at both ends of the court, and unselfish with the ball. I also think he has been poked and prodded unlike any American athlete of the past decade and a half—psychoanalyzed from afar, scrutinized as much for his body language and tough-love commentary on his teammates as for his game on the floor. He is in an odd place: not close to his sunset, but no longer considered the league’s unquestioned monarch, and it’s obvious he’s struggling with the surrender of the throne. He needn’t worry. James has done virtually everything. All that’s left is this, a championship in Cleveland.
With all due respect to those remarkable Warriors, that’s not a B story line. That would be everything.
Write to Jason Gay at Jason.Gay@wsj.com