James, born and raised in Akron, Ohio, and drafted by his native Cavaliers, felt the city’s wrath when he dumped Cleveland for Miami, and he was embraced as a prodigal son when he came home before last season. Of all the reasons that James returned, though, none was as bold as bringing a championship to Cleveland.
“Our city hasn’t had that feeling,” he wrote back then, “in a long, long, long time.”
That long, long, long wait is now over.
It demanded a series of stunning performances from James, a crazy shot from Kyrie Irving and the unlikeliest comeback in the history of professional basketball, but the Cavaliers beat the Golden State Warriors, 93-89, in an instantly classic Game 7 of the NBA Finals on Sunday for their first title in franchise history.
It seemed impossible that Game 7 would live up to its dramatic hype. The sport’s biggest stars, James and Stephen Curry, were battling for NBA supremacy and for basketball stakes that come along once in a generation. Either way, the game was going to crown the best team ever, or secure the wildest rally ever.
But then Game 7 exceeded nearly everyone’s expectations. There were 20 lead changes. There was masterful shot-making. There were so many nerves that both cities might want to spend the next week taking very deep breaths.
Mostly, though, there was James’s brilliance. The most valuable player of the Finals finished the series atop every conceivable statistical category, and on Sunday, he poured in a triple-double of 27 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists. But his defining play may have been none of the above: a phenomenal chase-down block.
When it was over—and it was clear that Cleveland had really won—James collapsed on the court and openly wept. Later, with a net around his neck, a cigar in his mouth and a bottle of rosé Champagne in his hands, there was only one thing on his mind.
“I’m ready to get back to Cleveland,” James said.
But it wasn’t only James who brought the Warriors crashing back to earth. The shot of the season, what Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue called one of the biggest shots in NBA history, came from Irving’s hands.
With the score frozen at 89-89 for nearly four minutes, Lue called a timeout and drew up a play to get the ball to Irving, not James. He said he wanted Irving to isolate Curry, and that’s exactly what he did. With the game tied in the last minute of the fourth quarter, Irving dared to launch a step-back, fadeaway 3-pointer that, when it fell through the net, gave Cleveland the last lead of the NBA season for the first time.
“The curse is over,” said NBA commissioner Adam Silver.
The end of Cleveland’s championshipless streak in major sports, which had dated all the way back to 1964, couldn’t have been any more satisfying. It wasn’t only that the Cavaliers avenged their loss in last year’s Finals to the Warriors. Or even that they became the only NBA team to crawl out of a 3-1 hole in the Finals. What made the upset so remarkable was the team in the losing locker room.
The Warriors won more games in a season than any team in NBA history. If they had one-upped their remarkable season in the only way possible, by repeating as champions after an epic Finals, they would have staked their claim to another title: the greatest basketball team of all time.
One more win for the team that won 73 games in the regular season would have sent Golden State barging into the rarefied air occupied by the 1986 Boston Celtics, the 1987 Los Angeles Lakers and the 1996 Chicago Bulls—widely known as the NBA’s most iconic teams. It would have capped a season in which the Warriors made the sublime their routine. There were times when they appeared invincible with a style of basketball that was breathtaking. It also seemed unbeatable.
The Warriors were ready to roll into the record books when they took a 2-0 lead in the Finals and especially when they came home for Game 5 up 3-1. Their place in the NBA canon was safe when they led by as many as eight points in the second half Sunday.
They still could have won when Curry, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala had three cracks at wide-open 3-pointers to snap that 89-89 tie. Iguodala was the most valuable player of last year’s Finals in part because he made those shots. Green’s 32 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists included six 3-pointers. Curry, the NBA’s unanimous MVP this year, is the best shooter alive.
But the Warriors, the team that was built around the 3-point line, missed all three, and they didn’t score in the last 4 minutes and 39 seconds of the game. Then they stared on as Irving drilled his own shot at immortality. The collapse relegated Golden State to a different sort of company: The Warriors now will be mentioned in the same breath as hockey’s 1996 Detroit Red Wings, baseball’s 2001 Seattle Mariners and football’s 2007 New England Patriots—teams that set regular-season records but didn’t win titles.
For the past two years, as they captivated the basketball world, the Warriors played with an infectious joy. But if last season was magical, this year was methodical, especially in the playoffs, when they lost as many games in 24 games as they did in the regular season’s 82. First they dealt with injuries, then with the threat of elimination, and finally with the scariest basketball force of all: LeBron James.
James shaped his legacy with a series of defiant performances in the Finals. He kept the Cavaliers alive in Games 5 and 6 by scoring 41 points in each. Once again, he carried them Sunday, controlling the game like no one else in the NBA is capable. What he did over the past week was so unfathomable that Irving had to reach all the way back to the 18th century for a comparison.
“I watched Beethoven tonight,” Irving said.
By raining on the Warriors’ parade, and their own drought, the Cavaliers completed an improbable comeback that was years in the making. It began when James ditched the Cavaliers in 2010, which left the team in such miserable straits that it had the first overall pick in the next year’s draft, which turned out to be Irving. The road to their first title also included the audacious decision from general manager David Griffin to fire coach David Blatt in the middle of this season with the team in first place and replace him with Lue, his top assistant.
By then, though, the Cavaliers had accepted their attitude of championship or bust. They had no choice—because they also had James.
James, who is now 31 years old with three NBA titles to his name, shook up the basketball universe when he relocated to Cleveland in 2014. Four years earlier, he had spurned his home state in a disastrous television special, which skewed his public image for years, even though he won titles with the Miami Heat in 2012 and 2013. This time, he was more careful with his words, scratching out an essay that may go down as one of the more consequential writings of contemporary American literature.
“I’m not promising a championship,” James wrote in his announcement. “We’re not ready right now. No way. Of course, I want to win next year, but I’m realistic. It will be a long process, much longer than it was in 2010.”
James was still eerily zen before Game 7. There were no title guarantees or predictions of any sort. He may have been the only calm NBA fan on the planet. “You go out there,” he said, “and see what happens.”
What happened was a mythic Game 7 in which James proved his prediction wrong: It took exactly the same amount of time for him to deliver an NBA championship to Cleveland as it did in Miami. Even the best regular-season team in basketball was no match for the best player on earth.