Sunday, June 7, 2015

J-Speaks: Four Year March to The Finals

It has been a long journey to the point where the Western Conference champion Golden State Warriors and the Eastern Conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers are. Four wins away from being NBA champions. For the Cavs, it would be not just their first title in team history, but the first pro sports title for the city of Cleveland since 1964 when the Cleveland Browns won it all. For the Warriors it would be their first title since 1975 season. It is hard to fathom both teams are at this point considering where these two franchises were four seasons ago.
In the summer of 2010, two-time MVP at the time LeBron James was a free agent and had a major decision to make on to either stay with the Cavs or move on elsewhere.
On July 8, 2010 in a live EPSN special The Decision, James said he was going to join the Miami Heat to team up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
In the years that followed the Heat would reach The Finals all four seasons James, Wade and Bosh would lead the Heat to The Finals all four seasons they were together winning it all in 2012 over the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games and in 2013 over the San Antonio Spurs in an epic seven games.
In that same time span the Cavaliers went from a championship contender to a lottery team winning just 19, 21, 24 and 33 games in that four-year span.
The fortunes of the Cavs and James all changed back on June 25, 2014, when he opted out of his contract with the Heat and became a free agent again on July 1, 2014.
Ten days later in a revealing essay in Sports Illustrated, the Akron, OH native that he was intent on rejoining the team that drafted him No. 1 overall in 2003. On July 12, 2014, James signed a two-year contract worth $42.1 million with the option to become a free agent in 2015.
One month later, the Cavs acquired All-Star forward Kevin Love from the Minnesota Timberwolves forming a new big three along with All-Star guard Kyrie Irving. The T’Wolves received Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett, the last two No. 1 overall picks in the draft the last two summers.
Along with the NBA’s newest star trio, the Cavs also added a new head coach in David Blatt.
Even with the NBA’s newest “Big 3,” the Cavs got off to a tough start going 19-20 to begin things.
It was clear that something had to be done and the Cavs did acquiring guards J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert from the Knicks and center Timofey Mozgov from the Denver Nuggets.
The contributions of the new additions and the return of James from a two week absence because of lower back and left knee strain, the Cavs finished the season going 43-9.
In the playoffs, the Cavs went 12-2 in defeating the Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks. They did not have some hurdles to get over.
The team lost Love to a dislocated shoulder in Game 4 of the opening round versus the Celtics and has not played since. Irving in the middle of the East Semifinals versus the Bulls sustained a knee injury that has hampered his play. After averaging 23.3 points in Round 1 versus the Celtics, Irving averaged just 17.5 and 13.0 points in the next two rounds. On top of that, he missed Games 2 and 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals versus the Hawks. He was able to return in Game 4 scoring 16 points and five assists in 22 minutes as the Cavs won 118-88 and capturing the series 4-0.
Without Love and Irving not being 100 percent, it has put more pressure on James to lead the Cavs to where they stand now.
He showed his greatness in Game 4 of the Semis when he hit a fall away jumper from the left baseline in front of the Bulls’ bench that gave the Cavs an 86-84 win and tied the series 2-2. James finished with 25 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists. James followed that up in Game 5 with 38 points, 12 rebounds, six assists and three blocks in leading the Cavs to a 106-101 to take a 3-2 lead. The 11-time All-Star went 14 for 24 from the field and 9 for 12 from the free throw line.
In an epic Game 3 versus the Hawks in the East Finals, James after missing his first 10 shots from the floor had his 12th career postseason triple-double with 37 points 18 rebounds and 13 assists in leading the Cavs to a 114-111 overtime win to give the Cavs a 3-0 lead. He also passed Hall of Famer Karl Malone into sixth place on the NBA’s all-time postseason scoring list.
Besides James, the Cavs have gotten big time contributions from the likes of Smith, backup guard Matthew Dellavedova and forward Tristan Thompson.
In Game 6 of the Semis, Dellavedova off the bench led the Cavs with 19 points going 7 for 11 from the floor as the Cavs closed out the Bulls 94-73.
When Smith was acquired from the Knicks, the question was would the Cavs get a player who just a couple of years ago was Sixth Man of the Year or would they get the player who has moments in his career where he cared more about getting his own.
The Cavs have seen a J.R. Smith who has been focused and consistent on both ends of the court.
He really showed well in the East Finals scoring 28 points off the bench in Game 1, going 10 for 16 from the field, including hitting 8 for 12 from three-point range in helping the Cavs capture a 97-89 victory.
After a tough Game 2, Smith came back the next two games with double-doubles of 17 points and 10 boards in Game 3 and 18 points and 10 boards in the Game 4 clincher
The real difference maker for the Cavs in their playoff run has been Thompson, who since having one double-digit rebounding game in the first round, has had seven since. He has garnered seven double-doubles since the opening round. He really made his presence felt in the Eastern Conference Finals where he averaged 11.8 points and 11.0 rebounds per game.
For the Golden State Warriors, their march to The Finals began back in 2009 with the selection of 2015 MVP Stephen Curry at the No. 7 spot. Two years later, the Warriors selected his eventual backcourt mate Klay Thompson at No. 11. One year later, the Warriors selected with the No. 7 overall pick in now starting small forward Harrison Barnes and at No. 30 selected backup center Festus Ezeli. In the second round, the Warriors selected current starting power forward Draymond Green, who was in the running for Defensive Player of the Year as well as Most Improved Player.
After the 2010-11 season, the Warriors hired 17-year NBA veteran and former color analyst for ESPN/ABC Mark Jackson as their new head coach.
After winning just 23 games in 2011-12, the Warriors went 47-35 the next season making the postseason for just the second time in the last 19 seasons.
As the No. 6 Seed, the Warriors upset the No. 3 Seed Denver Nuggets 4-2. They lost in the Semis to the Spurs in six games.
This was also the season that the Warriors established their ability to be a team that connects from long range. Curry set that style in stone when he set the then single season record for three-pointers made in the league with 272. He and Thompson combined to make 483 three-point field goals that season, breaking the record of 435 triples set by the tandem of Nick Anderson and Dennis Scott of the Orlando Magic back in 1995-96. It was also during this season that they were dubbed the “Splash Brothers” by team employee Brian Witt.
The next season, the Warriors took another step in their maturation going 51-31, earning just their fourth 50-plus win season in team history and finishing 20 games over .500 for the first time in 22 seasons. The team unfortunately lost in seven games to their Pacific Division and arch rival the Los Angeles Clippers.
Just three days after the conclusion of their season, Jackson was given the axe and the search was on for a new head coach. He compiled a record of 121-109 in three seasons. Only Alvin Attles (557), Hall of Famer Don Nelson (422) and Eddie Gottlieb (263) have more wins in Warriors history than Jackson.
It did not take the organization long to find their next lead man on the sidelines. On May 14, 2014 the Warriors hired five-time NBA champion with the Chicago Bulls and San Antonio Spurs, former president and general manager of the Phoenix Suns from 2007-2010 and a color analyst for NBA on TNT Steve Kerr.
To many this was a big gamble, especially for a team that seemed to be on the cusp of being a serious contender in the West.
Well this gamble paid off in a big way as the Warriors won a franchise record 67 games, the best record in the league. They won their first Pacific Division title since 1976.
Curry made his second straight All-Star appearance and he was joined by Thompson, who made his first.
In the playoffs, the Warriors garnered a 12-2 mark in the first three rounds making quick work of the New Orleans Pelicans, Memphis Grizzlies and Houston Rockets.
There were times during their playoff run that the Warriors did have to show some stellar resolve.
They overcame a 20-point deficit in the fourth quarter of Game 3 in the opening round at the Pelicans for a 123-119 overtime win.
Curry led the way with 40 points and nine assists hitting seven three-pointers, including one in the final seconds of regulation to tie the game at 108-108. Thompson had 28 points hitting six three-point field goals in 12 attempts. Green had 12 points, 17 rebounds, five assists and three steals.
After capturing Game 1 of the Semis versus the Grizzlies 101-86, the lost their only home game of the 2015 postseason in Game 2 97-90 and then lost Game 3 at Memphis 99-89.
The Warriors proceeded to win the last three games of the series all by double digits, allowing just 85.7 points to the Grizzlies defeating them in six games.
After taking two close victories versus the Rockets in the Conference Finals, the Warriors just blew the right out of the Toyota Center in Game 3 115-80.
The Rockets did come back in a major way staving off elimination by defeating the Warriors in Game 4 128-115, thanks to the 45 points, nine rebounds and five assists from James Harden.
The Warriors closed the deal in Game 5 in front of their fans back at Oracle Arena defeating the Rockets 104-90 to reach the NBA Finals for the first time in four decades.
Curry had 26 points, eight boards, six assists and five steals. Barnes had 24 points and seven rebounds. Thompson had 20 points and Ezeli had 12 points and nine boards off the bench.
The Warriors who were one of the best defensive teams in the league all season long held the Rockets to just 35.1 percent from the field. Out-rebounded the Rockets 59-39; forced 20 turnovers, recording 10 steals and held Harden to just 14 points on 2 for 11 from the field and an NBA playoff record 12 turnovers.
It has been a stellar season for both of these teams. They have taken their fans and fans of basketball on a ride for one of them will end with either the Cavs winning their first title ever and the first pro sports title for the city since 1964 or the Warriors winning their first title since 1975.
The first game of the 2015 NBA Finals lived up to expectations as James had a Finals career high 44 points to go along eight boards and six assists, but it was not enough as a balanced Warriors attack overcame an early 14-point deficit to earn a 108-100 victory in overtime this past Thursday night.
Curry led the team again with 26 points and eight assists. Thompson had 21 points and six boards. Iguodala off the bench had 15 points. Green had 12 points and Barnes had 11 points.
The Cavs not only lost the Game 1, but they lost Irving who re-injured his left knee, which shelved him Games 2 and 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals. It was later revealed that he tore his left knee cap and had successful surgery the other day.
The question now for the Cavs how much of a load will be on the shoulders of James offensively now without Love or Irving flanking him? On top of that will the rest of the remaining supporting cast of the Eastern Conference rise to the moment?
If this series goes like Game 1 has, this will not be a cakewalk for the Warriors.
Prediction, Warriors in six games.
Information and statistics are courtesy of;;; Sporting News 2006-07 Official NBA Guide.  

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