The words rang true, even if they struck the wrong chord for some:
“We ran out of talent.”
That was LeBron James’ 39; simple summation of his last series against Golden State,in the 2015 NBA Finals, when his 35.8 points, 13.8 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game weren’t enough to withstand the Warriors’ greater wealth of resources.
The Cavaliers led 2-1 in the series before losing in six games, playing all six without Kevin Love and the final five without Kyrie Irving, while relying upon Tristan Thompson, Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith and Matthew Dellavedova for between 32 and 41 minutes per game apiece. The inadequacies of those teammates -- all more specialists than superstars -- had plenty to do with James’ inefficiency, as he shot just 39.8 percent from the field. He acknowledged, amid the physical and emotional exhaustion that accompanied the Game 6, that while he enjoyed the competition, he “didn’t enjoy dribbling the ball for countless seconds on the shot clock and the team looking at me to make a play.”
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James added this: “I lost in the Finals four times . I’m almost starting to be like, I’d rather not even make the playoffs than to lose in the Finals. It would hurt a lot (less) if I just didn’t make the playoffs, and I didn’t have a shot at it.” Later, though, he retracted: “If I’m lucky enough to get here again, it will be fun to do it.”
Well, he has been that lucky -- and good -- again, and so the Cavaliers have another shot at Golden State in the NBA Finals starting on Thursday, seemingly a better shot, since they’re much healthier than a year ago. They have hardly run out of talent; rather, they’ve run out and gotten more of it, with Dan Gilbert’s payroll bloating beyond any other in the sport. They’ve replaced Mike Miller and Shawn Marion (both banished to the bench in the 2015 playoffs) with stretch forward Channing Frye (58 percent from three-point range in playoffs) and solid pro Richard Jefferson (53 percent overall). And they appear much more connected with their coach, since the imperial David Blatt has been replaced by the more relatable Tyronn Lue.
So will this be more fun for James “to do it” this time?
Without bearing so much of the burden?
And will that be enough to earn Cleveland its first professional sports championship in 52 years?
Well, that depends on Irving and Love.
What are they exactly?
Or replaceable supplemental parts?
Those are fair questions to ask, in light of what you’ve heard, incessantly, from Cavaliers supporters and sympathizers for the past 12 months. You know how it goes: if only Kyrie and Kevin had been healthy. They’ve applied an asterisk to the Warriors’ 2016 achievement, because Golden State didn’t encounter Cleveland at full strength.
And there’s no question that those two players will make the Cavaliers more offensively dynamic and versatile against the Warriors: Irving is averaging 24.3 points, just behind James’ 24.6, in the current postseason, and Love is averaging 17.3 even as he’s struggled inside, making just 34 percent from two-point range.
But no one backing the Cavaliers seems to want to speak of the other side.
Cleveland frustrated Golden State for a while in last June’s series largely because it dug in defensively, with Dellavedova harassing Curry on the perimeter, while Thompson switched pick-and- rolls to near perfection. Cleveland allowed 100.3 points per 100 possessions in the 2015 playoffs, compared to 104.1 in the 2014-15 regular season. This season, Cleveland allowed 102.3 and that’s risen to 102.9 in the playoffs. Basically, the Cavaliers have won 12 of 14 playoffs by either making rim runs or bombing opponents out of the building from 25 feet -- the offensive rating is an obscenely good 116.2.
By comparison, the Warriors’ is 109.8, down from a league-best 112.5 in the regular season. But Golden State’s defense has stayed exactly the same: an exceptional 100.9.
Warriors in 7.
So it’s reasonable to expect the Cavaliers to regress somewhat on offense, even if Irving and Love improve upon their regular season accuracy against the Warriors -- they were a combined 13-of- 47 (28 percent) in four combined games.
Even so, how do they contain Golden State on the other end?
Irving is athletically capable of playing decent defense at the point of attack; in fact, he had one of his more determined performances in Game 1 of the 2015 Finals prior to his knee giving out. But he still tends to drift and, if he does, Steph Curry will exploit that. Love? Well, let’s just say that the Warriors will welcome his participation, every time Curry and Draymond Green start a pick-and- roll.
For all the jabs at James when he joined the Heat in 2010, no one could plausibly argue he chose poorly, as far as the two players to fill out his Big Three. Dwyane Wade was a proven champion. Chris Bosh wasn’t a good defender when he joined -- as he has acknowledged -- but had the right attitude and aptitude to adapt. And over time, Wade and Bosh sacrificed plenty to accommodate James’ game.
Meanwhile, James has had to take to Twitter to try to get Love to “fit in” rather than “fit out,” and has been openly frustrated with Irving’s propensity to dominate the ball. Those problems have patched somewhat in these playoffs, but Irving and Love still must prove they can be the partners that Wade and Bosh were.
Because, this time, if the Cavaliers run out of talent, even with everyone available, their advocates will have run out of excuses.