Despite the preseason hype, the Cavs were as disjointed as a team could be. LeBron James was out nursing various injuries, but was also hardly the four-time MVP everyone remembered. Reports of distrust and disapproval of new coach David Blatt ran rampant. It was, in no uncertain terms, a mess.
That same team is now going to the NBA Finals. Amazingly, the journey they went through to get there seemed to start at this point, when things looked the bleakest.
From that moment, the Cavs began turning things around. After acquiring J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, Timofey Mozgov, Cleveland tore through the second half of the season, losing only nine games after starting 19-20. And, if the early slump was the only hurdle the Cavs ran into, this story of their march to the Finals wouldn’t be all that dramatic.
However, with the postseason came more difficulties to overcome. The team lost Kevin Love in the first round. Their star point guard, Kyrie Irving, battled various leg ailments and missed a few games in the Eastern Conference Finals. James was hurting, along with many of his teammates.
And yet, with the odds stacked against them due to all the aforementioned issues, the Cavs still couldn’t be stopped. Matched up against the top-seeded Atlanta Hawks in the conference finals, Cleveland turned the series into a laugher. Even when it appeared as though the Hawks might be capable of a rally, you never truly believed they had a chance.
It goes without saying the resilience the Cavs have dealt with throughout the year prepared them for this. In a sense, a team which dealt with an overnight increase in expectations, that was being run by a first-year coach no one seemed to trust right away, that was woefully underperforming as recently as January, you can really say a team like that has seen it all.
It was because of this, because of the midseason roster additions, because of the team at some point deciding enough was enough, it all went a long way towards toughening up the Cavs. It ensured that, if it appeared as though they ran into any sort of bad luck in the postseason, they wouldn’t roll over without a fight.
How else can you explain it? How else can you legitimately decipher just how exactly a team can lose Love and be without a healthy Irving and still outright dominate their way to the Finals? How else can you make sense of players like Matthew Dellavedova and Tristan Thompson becoming household names?
Once Love went down, once it was clear Irving wasn’t 100%, people seemed to start giving Cleveland a pass. It was as if they decided “you know, if they fall short of their goals, you really can’t be mad at them.” Excuses were there for the taking. The injuries would just be too much to overcome.
After tonight, it’s very clear that, though many people were willing to give the Cavs an excuse if they struggled, nobody within the team’s locker room was about to feel sorry for themselves. Cleveland began preaching “next man up” since the day they lost Love, and if there’s a better phrase to associate with this team, I haven’t found it.
It makes you wonder if this would’ve happened had the Cavs just waltzed their way through the season. Would they have been mentally ready for the rigors they dealt with in the postseason had they not gone through such a gauntlet to get there? Would they have folded the second Love went down if they hadn’t endured various hurdles throughout their journey to that point?
We obviously don’t know. At the end of the day, though, it’s tough to believe the durability the Cavs developed from all the trials and tribulations they dealt with throughout the year didn’t play a major role in their run through the playoffs.
During Cleveland’s early season slump, it was laughable to think they could not only make it to the Finals, but that they could do so by decimating the No.1 seeded Hawks. Now, you can’t help but think that, had the Cavs not endured hard times this year, they wouldn’t have been able to get as far as they have.
One more round remains. A tougher test than any they’ve faced to this point awaits. And, while whichever team represents the west in the Finals will surely be the favorite, we know for sure Cleveland has dealt with enough this year to ensure they’ll be more than prepared for the challenge ahead.