It’s hard to picture LeBron James as an underdog. Packing 250 pounds of pure muscle into a 6-foot-8 frame, it’s a mental struggle to parcel him into the same category as Oliver Twist or Daniel LaRusso (also known as the Karate Kid, for those who don’t know his actual name). But despite the immensity of his size and skill, he — and his beloved Cleveland Cavaliers — were heavy underdogs when it came to the 2016 NBA Finals.
James and his cohort earned this status by the nearly insurmountable prowess of their opponent — a Golden State team that this season rewrote history books on its way to the best-ever regular season record and boasts two of the best three-point shooters in the history of planet Earth. Think of it this way: no matter how many two-pointers LeBron makes — as vicious as his dunks may be — the consistency with which the Warriors drop threes means that the Cavs have to score far more baskets to make up that perpetual slack. And the Warriors get so hot that once they’re “on”, their adversaries quickly find themselves looking into a daunting deficit that grows with every possession.
And underdogs they truly proved to be. The Cavs lost three of the first four games of the series — and badly. Throughout those three quick losses, Cleveland was outscored 263-322, a nearly 20-point average margin of defeat. But then it fought its way back from a 3-1 hole and forced a game seven. And if it wins, it will be the first team ever in NBA history to come back from such a deficit in the Finals and win. And if that’s not a story of an underdog, I don’t know what is.
But before this comeback, I was rooting for the Warriors. I loved their seamless, flowing style of play and deep bench. But now, I’m unsure. Now my midwestern roots pull me toward the much more local Cavs and the ever-polarizing James. And this newfound fandom was forged not by just the fact that they came back, but how they did it.
It was Kyrie Irving that first got me, really. LeBron is Lebron and will do LeBron no matter what. He’s one of the best players ever and can be counted on to lead his team in nearly every statistic nearly every night. But he can’t win on his own — especially not against these Warriors. And that’s where Kyrie came in to become the noble prince in the King’s court.
It was his 41-point performance that first had me questioning my Bay Area loyalty. He was on a tear — a man possessed by an urgency and desire that was previously unseen. He charged into the lane and finished with a flawless fusion of power and finesse. He thoroughly outshined the league’s first ever unanimous MVP, easily evading Curry on seemingly every possession. It was a performance that seemed to finally solidify Kyrie’s status as one of the best guards in the league.
I was in awe. It was glorious to watch, really. Something seemed to stir within Kyrie — it was one of those games where you saw a player enter another zone. That zone where they just float above everyone else. He was traveling at constant hyperspeed, the contortions of his body majestic as he navigated through forests to the basket.
Thanks to those 41 points contributed by both LeBron and Kyrie, the Cavaliers won game five. And then, again led by their dynamic duo, they took game six as well. But this time, as they again obliterated the defending champs, it was Tristan Thompson who forced my allegiances to secretly migrate.
His domination in the paint was unparalleled. He matched LeBron with 43 minutes played and contributed 15 points and, more importantly, 16 rebounds on his way to a game-high +32-point differential. It seemed he was the only player in the paint, for he neutralized every post player that the Warriors inserted. And Golden State, for the most part, seemed apathetic. There was no fire. No anger. No frustration. While the Cavs clawed their way back into the series, it looked as though the Warriors wouldn’t even muster the strength to do so in game six to take home the title.
So I’m rooting for the Cavs in game seven. Because I sincerely believe they deserve to win. Because while the Warriors appeared to be complacent in their recent losses, Kyrie, LeBron and Thompson have proven that they will push and push until they’re successful. And, to be honest, I’d love to see the Cavs make history with the biggest underdog comeback in NBA Finals history against the MVP and his defending-champions team. Revenge is the sweetest medicine, after all.
Contact Sophie Goethals at [email protected]