A disappointing end to the Cavaliers’ regular season was not for naught.
Neither was posting a 12-1 record in cruising to the Eastern Conference title, setting up the third consecutive meeting with the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals, which open Thursday night at Oracle Arena.
The Cavs proved their mental toughness, their confidence in themselves and in each other, their hunger to excel in the direst of straits when they became the first team to rally from a 3-1 Finals deficit to win the championship a year ago.
But some questioned their mettle after they went 10-14 in March and April, including four consecutive losses to end the regular season that cost them the top seed in the East. Celtics coach Brad Stevens voiced what everyone in the NBA was probably thinking before Game 2 of the East finals May 19.
“Everybody in the world knows that they’re good,” Stevens said. “We kind of go through the typical season progression of how good they are and then in March and April we’ve got to answer all the questions about, ‘What’s wrong with Cleveland?’ and it’s like, ‘Oh, they’re going to be fine, trust us.’ Now they’re right who they are.”
But blowing a 26-point fourth-quarter lead and losing at Atlanta in overtime on April 9 served a purpose.
So did losing a 21-point third-quarter lead in Game 3 against the Celtics and falling by three points at home.
So did pulling off the biggest halftime comeback in NBA playoff history on April 20, when the Cavs rallied from 25 down at Indiana to win by five.
So did surviving even after LeBron James picked up his fourth foul with 6:46 left in the second quarter and the Cavs trailing the Celtics by 10 in Game 4. Led by 42 points from Kyrie Irving, the Cavs pulled out a 112-99 victory.
In those losses, the Cavs experienced once again what it feels like to underachieve, to give less effort than the challenge requires, to face their flaws head-on.
In the Pacers victory and in Game 4 against the Celtics, the Cavs reawakened what they channeled against Golden State in the 2016 Finals — the urgency, the intensity, the unity that some teams lack or find incapable of mustering.
“We have to be able to face adversity, look it in the face and say, ‘You’re not going to win today,’?” Irving said after the Game 4 victory over the Celtics. “I’m telling my guys on the court the whole entire game, ‘We’ve seen this before, we’ve been through this, we’ve experienced this, and we’re going to get through this,’ and from that point on, it clicked.”
Even before that game, 14-year veteran James Jones hoped the Cavs had learned something in the blown leads and in the rallies from seemingly insurmountable deficits.
“That’s all we can hope,” Jones said. “Sometimes people forget there’s some very good players and some very good teams out there on the floor with us. The difference between a 15-point lead and a four-point lead is some guys making big shots and a couple turnovers compounding a slump.”
Forgetting there are good players on the floor in the NBA Finals won’t be an issue. The Cavs-Warriors rematch features 11 who have been named All-Stars and three men who have won seven of the last eight MVP awards in James and the Warriors’ Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry.
The Cavs’ seemingly easy road to the Finals, besmirched because the Warriors won by an average of 16.3 points in becoming the first team in league history to enter 12-0, served another purpose.
Irving took his game to another level, Kevin Love found a rare aggressiveness.
James was his usual playoff self. His averages of 32.5 points, eight rebounds and seven assists in the postseason are not far off his near triple-double numbers of 29.7, 11.3 and 8.9 in the 2016 Finals.
And Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said he believes the Big Three can get even better.
“Momentum in this league is an unbelievable thing. Confidence and momentum,” Love said Saturday. “If you have that and you’re healthy individually and as a team, it can really help you. Nobody is immune to the NBA playoffs, but it definitely helps not only myself, but the rest of the team that we’re playing at a high level.”
Some couldn’t see what the Cavs could become because of the injuries that plagued their season. Others, including me, wondered if they had time to gel once all were finally healthy.
“We’ve put together a great team by [general manager] David Griffin, as well as us coming together in terms of the psychological standpoint of being a great team,” Irving said Monday. “That takes awhile.”
Psychologically, the Cavs have the confidence the NBA Finals require. James and Irving haven’t found a moment too big for them, while the Warriors’ Durant has something to prove in that regard. Curry, albeit battling a bad knee, and Klay Thompson faltered a year ago in Game 7.
The analytics, the team statistics, the player averages favor the Warriors, seeking their second title in three years. The mental toughness and calm in the face of adversity, factors sharpened over the last three months, favor the defending champion Cavaliers.
The lessons Jones hoped they learned, some coming on nights they would rather forget, make me believe the Cavs can again pull off what most consider impossible.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.