LeBron is King, but his Cavs squad deserves more respect
James can’t be crowned alone
OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA — “Are you surprised to be here?”
As reporters filed onto the hardwood at Oracle Arena approximately 30 hours before tipoff of Game 1 of the 2018 NBA Finals, almost every player donning a Cleveland Cavaliers practice jersey fielded some form of the above question. Implication being: If your name isn’t LeBron James, who’s rightfully credited for carrying the Cavs back to basketball’s biggest stage, you should be surprised.
They’re a motley crew, but they’re here. The starting five includes the seasoned George Hill, who was selected 26th overall in the 2008 draft. There’s also of course the swaggy J.R. Smith, an NBA Sixth Man of the Year in 2013. Toronto’s very own Tristan Thompson, who’s perhaps too well-known for his relationship with Khloe Kardashian. And the five-time All-Star, yet injury-riddled Kevin Love. This group is flanked by Meridian, Mississippi, native Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson, the fiery 2014 second-round pick out of the University of Missouri, and Jeff Green, who went through open heart surgery in January 2012 while a member of the Boston Celtics.
They’ve all heard all the noise about the King’s so-called lack of help from them this postseason. But when the question was posed — “Are you surprised to be here?” — Hood took still took a long pause before arriving at a calculated answer.
“Because I’m playing with LeBron … no,” said Hood, whom Cleveland acquired as part of a blockbuster day of deals at February’s trade deadline. On that day, the Cavs also landed Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. from the Los Angeles Lakers, and Hill from the Sacramento Kings, while moving on from All-Star veterans Derrick Rose, Isaiah Thomas and Dwyane Wade, as well as role-players Jae Crowder, Channing Frye and Iman Shumpert. “LeBron,” Hood continued, “he runs the East. He’s going to get to the Finals.”
This has been the narrative. That James has gotten Cleveland to the final series of the 2018 season, and has done so essentially single-handedly. Just look at the numbers: James’ 612 playoff points — an average of 34 points per game, with seven 40-plus-point performances and two game-winning shots — are the most by any player in a single postseason before a Finals in NBA history. Aside from James, there’s just one other Cavs player — Love, the team’s only other All-Star — averaging double-digit points. Fellow Cavs Hill and Kyle Korver are just shy of the mark with averages of 9.7 and 9.8 points per game, respectively. And not until the Eastern Conference semifinals — eight games, and two series, into Cleveland’s postseason run — did one of James’ teammates score 20 or more points. It was J.R. Smith, with 20 in a 113-112 overtime Game 1 win over the Toronto Raptors on May 1.
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“Sometimes you catch yourself watching [LeBron] in the game … He’s making play after play after play, scoring buckets,” Clarkson said. “And you forget that he’s a human being. He gets tired like the rest of us. So we’re trying to do our jobs — and do it the best we can.”
James hasn’t been in this position for quite some time. The group of Cavs he leads into the 2018 Finals is a far cry from the championship-contending rosters of his days as part of the Miami Heat’s Big 3, with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, from 2010 to 2014. This team also pales compared with the one that overcame a 3-1 deficit against the Warriors in 2016 to bring the city of Cleveland its first championship in 52 years. And even last year’s squad, which fell in the Finals to Golden State, 4-1, had Kyrie Irving, who was traded to the Boston Celtics last offseason. There’s little doubt that is the least heralded supporting cast James has reached the Finals with since his first trip in 2007. So how did Cleveland even get there? That’s simple. On the back of their leader — though he doesn’t want all the credit.
“I know I get a lot of the headlines,” said James in a heartfelt interview during the Eastern Conference finals trophy presentation. “Win, lose or draw, whatever the case may be, but in order to be successful, it’s a team game … You get all the doubters and people who’ve never stepped into an arena, who’ve never played basketball, who’ve never put on a tank top and shorts, who’ve never played anything organized — [they] always wanna try to kill my teammates. And it’s unfair to them, but I’m always gonna stay true to the game of basketball because the game of basketball always stayed true to me. That’s why we’re going to another Finals, because of my teammates.”
“It’s dope to hear your leader commend you on how you’ve been doing,” said Clarkson of the moment. “People bash us all the time. It is what it is. But we’re out here competing, lacing them up every day just like everybody else. Shoot, if people got something to say, they can lace ‘em up with us, get on the court and see what’s happening with us.”
Even the Golden State Warriors — from their star player up to the team’s front office — have been called upon to weigh in about the prospect of the Cavs as a one-man team. “I hate when people say that,” said Stephen Curry before Game 7 of the Western Conference finals. Warriors general manager Bob Myers spoke about it, too. “Any team that’s here deserves to be here,” Myers said before Game 1 of the Finals. “I don’t view it as any type of one-man show. The Cavs are a very good team.” Yet the players surrounding the best hooper on the planet have also had to defend themselves. When the questions were hurled at Hill, he didn’t sugarcoat his feelings.
“He feels for us, night in and night out,” Hill said. “No one gives the supporting cast credit, because you may go 2-for-5 and only have four points. But no one sees you playing defense, no one sees guys coming in for six minutes, and playing a hard six minutes. No one sees the guy that may only play three minutes but had a big stop and dove on the floor and got a charge. All those possessions matter. All those little things matter. If he’s out there by himself, he wouldn’t be in the position he is … I’m sure he’s tired of people throwing shots at his teammates, just like I’m sure we’re tired of people throwing shots at us.”
After Hill and the Cavs wrapped up interviews, Cleveland took the court at Oracle for one of their final pre-Finals practices. Head coach Tyronn Lue brought his team into the middle of the floor, while James spent a few moments alone, getting up extra shots from the 3-point line. Soon he’d join the scrum, and each player and coach raised a hand. In unison, on the count of three, they all recited one word: “Together.”