INDEPENDENCE: Coach Tyronn Lue still marvels over the fans who approached him in Las Vegas and Los Angeles last summer after the Cavaliers ended Cleveland’s 52-year championship drought.
Some were natives of Northeast Ohio, some from Columbus. A couple of them cried, Lue said.
“All kind of people you didn’t know or expect living in L.A. or living in Vegas,” Lue said.
For Cavs players, the impact was different. While guard Kyrie Irving acknowledged the burden has been lifted, their goal is far from accomplished.
“Winning it was an incredible feat for us, but we understand that’s not where we want the storybook to kind of end,” Irving said after practice Monday at Cleveland Clinic Courts.
The Cavs leave Tuesday for the Bay Area, set to square off against the Golden State Warriors for the third consecutive NBA Finals, which open Thursday night at Oracle Arena. The heavily favored Warriors are 12-0 this postseason, the Cavs 12-1.
“Even to make it this far is an accomplishment for us, but we understand we’re not satisfied with it,” Irving said. “Our feeling going in is probably a little bit different. The cloud wavering over our head, a lot of things that we wanted to accomplish personally and as a team, it all just went away once we won a championship. Coming into these Finals, we’re a lot more focused and also we’re just dialed in.”
Lue said he couldn’t feel the weight being lifted because he’s not from here, but his players did, perhaps none more than LeBron James, Tristan Thompson and Irving.
James departed for Miami in the summer of 2010 to win championships, earning two in his four years with the Heat, and came home in 2014 to deliver them. Irving and Thompson, drafted in 2011, suffered through three years of misery while James was gone. Irving also suffered a fractured left kneecap in Game 1 of the 2015 Finals against the Warriors, which likely doomed the Cavs’ chances with Kevin Love already out with a shoulder injury.
All of that heightened the impact of the Cavs rallying from 3-1 down to the Warriors in the 2016 Finals after watching the Warriors celebrate the 2015 title in Quicken Loans Arena.
When the Cavs accepted the Eastern Conference championship trophy in Boston on May 25, Irving looked especially hyped when the Warriors were mentioned. The Cavs have three All-Stars in the starting lineup, the Warriors four, and television ratings on ABC are expected to set records.
“My adrenaline was still going from after the game,” Irving said. “We also understand that this is just as an exciting matchup for everyone else as it is for us. You got to take it as that. You got to relish in the competition and the players that we’re going against.
“This is what everyone wants to see and this what we all want to be a part of. I’ve been waiting. We had the regular season, we had the playoffs, been tested — both teams — and now we just meet at the top of the mountain. It’s just a duel for one successor, one failure and I can live with those odds.”
Irving may have downplayed it as adrenaline. But his celebration demeanor was in keeping with his reaction when his turnaround jumper over Klay Thompson with 3.4 seconds left gave the Cavs a one-point victory over the Warriors at the Q on Christmas Day. After that shot, Irving sneered.
Irving made the game-winning shot in Game 7 a year ago, a 25-foot step-back jumper over two-time league MVP Stephen Curry with 53 seconds remaining. It will forever live in Cavs’ lore with “The Block” by James, a chase-down on Andre Iguodala, and “The Stop,” Kevin Love’s defense on Curry’s off-balance, desperation 26-footer that hit the rim.
Irving said “it’s been awhile” since he watched “The Shot,” but appreciates what it meant.
“It’s a great part of basketball history,” Irving said. “It’s a great part of our organizational history. Me as a player, and as well as a moment that I share with my teammates. But the way we capitalized on Game 7, that was awesome. And now here we are in a fresh Finals.”
Cavs General Manager David Griffin said recently he believes the team has been thinking about the Warriors for a while. Irving thinks that came in response to Warriors’ owner Joe Lacob saying on May 22 that he wanted to face the Cavs again because of “some unfinished business from last season.”
“In terms of what we all feel, there’s definitely a sense of intensity,” Irving said of the Cavs’ mood. “It’s in the air. Just by the way things went, it’s natural. We all accept it. I especially accept it. I can’t wait for the challenge.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.