LeBron James And His ‘Grit Squad’ Win Ugly And Find Their Title Identity In Game 2

Timofey Mozgov, Tristan Thompson, LeBron James, Matthew Dellavedova
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OAKLAND — When LeBron James returned home and Kevin Love followed him just a few weeks later, the Cleveland Cavaliers were poised for beauty. Led by the league’s latest and greatest Big Three and an overseas coach lauded for his unique strategic prowess, Cleveland would set scoreboards ablaze en route to title contention.

But basketball isn’t played on paper. Human bodies are fragile.

The Cavaliers romped through the Eastern Conference playoffs with the league’s best offensive rating, but anyone watching knew just how untenable their performance on that end could prove to be versus the right opponent. Sans Love and with a limited or altogether absent Kyrie Irving, David Blatt’s team devolved into the most stagnant brand of proficient offense played in years.

That success was bound to end against the Golden State Warriors. They have too many stellar individual defenders and play too versatile a scheme to consistently fail facing a style harkening the “glory days” of the 1990s. Golden State wasn’t the league’s top defense during the regular season by accident.

Fortunately for Cleveland, though, the loss of two defensively-challenged superstars came with a tradeoff: a new ability to win ugly. And if there’s any way to beat Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and company four times in seven games, it’s likely not in the eye-pleasing manner so many envisioned the Cavaliers playing back in October anyway.

One week into June, however, you certainly won’t hear them complaining. Flying in the face of all odds and expectations, James and company are still right where they’re supposed to be.

Spurred by two go-ahead free throws from Matthew Dellavedova in the final seconds of overtime and a dominant all-around defensive effort, the Cavaliers beat the Warriors 95-93 in Game 2 of the NBA Finals. James scored 39 points, grabbed 16 rebounds, and dished 11 assists while making just 11 of his 34 shots, a dismal shooting night that was still superior to that of his MVP counterpart’s. Curry connected on five of 23 from the field Sunday evening, a paltry conversion rate of 21.7 percent good for the worst performance of his career.

Stephen Curry
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Though national headlines might say otherwise, this game wasn’t about the shot-making woes of either megastar. James and Curry, obviously, will bounce back sooner than later; they’re too talented and driven for any other outcome.

But in a game where neither player could buy a bucket, James’ individual influence still loomed larger than any other – and it wasn’t even close. The difference was that this time, his band of misfit, castoff teammates made sure it wouldn’t go to waste in another heartbreaking loss.

It was Dellavedova who made the defining play of Game 2, drawing a foul after grabbing James Jones’ missed three-pointer as Cleveland trailed 93-92 with 10 seconds remaining on the overtime clock. The undrafted sophomore guard from Australia calmly sank both free throws despite the roars of a frenzied Oracle Arena crowd, setting the stage for a potential Golden State game-winner.

But it never came. Curry’s difficult jumper following his team’s last timeout was off the mark, and Iman Shumpert stole a pass intended for a streaking Thompson to end the game after LeBron split a pair of free throws.

Game over. Series tied 1-1.

Dellavedova made an impact long before the game’s waning moments, though. He scored his first points of the series on a wrong-footed floater early in the fourth quarter that broke a tie, then made the same shot on the ensuing possession to signal the Cavaliers’ forthcoming run. By the time the 24-year-old drained a 3-pointer off a pass from James with 5 minutes left in regulation, Cleveland led Golden State, 79-68.

Yet a lead is never safe against the Warriors. Steve Kerr’s vaunted small lineup evened the score at 87 on Curry’s layup as the fourth quarter clock read :07, his final basket of the game that came just over 2 minutes after a splashed 3-pointer with James in his face. Why was the world’s preeminent playmaker suddenly playing like it? Golden State was able to free him the vice grip of Dellavedova.


“It had everything to do with Delly,” James said of Curry’s off night. “He just kept a body on Steph. He made Steph work. He was spectacular, man, defensively.”

If Dellavedova was spectacular, his fellow role players were something less – but that doesn’t mean they weren’t extremely important to the Cavaliers on Sunday.

Timofey Mozgov owned the paint with 17 points and 11 rebounds before sitting as a small-ball battle broke out late. Jones was game-high +22 and helped his team recover from an early deficit with timely second-quarter shot-making. J.R. Smith scored 13 points, Shumpert swiped three steals and nailed a three-pointer in the extra session, and Tristan Thompson corralled 14 rebounds and held his own defensively all game long while switched onto Golden State smalls. Blatt dusted off the seldom-used Mike Miller for 6 second-half minutes to spell Jones as Cleveland’s resident floor-spacer, too.

This was a team win for the Cavaliers. Make no mistake, though; they wouldn’t have it if not for the all-encompassing effect of James. On a night when he missed 19 of his last 23 shots, the world’s best player somehow cemented that well-earned reputation even further.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find a guy anywhere, anytime – I can think of a name or two, but that’s the whole history of basketball – that can give you the kind of all-around performance and all-around leadership that LeBron does for his group,” Blatt said after the game. “He really willed his guys to win that game.  That’s what a champion does, and obviously he’s a champion.”

LeBron James
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The numbers have never accurately reflected the true scope of James’ influence. Like there’s no way to account for the impact of a player who guards five positions while simultaneously serving as his team’s floor general and primary scorer, there’s no way to properly assess what an all-time great at the height of his leadership and intellectual sensibilities means to Cleveland mentally, either.

When James said last week that “this is probably the best” basketball he’s ever played, it seemed preposterous. Not only has he lost a half step at 30 years old, but he also entered the Finals shooting 26.8 percent from outside the paint in the postseason. That talk was mere lip service, a way for LeBron to quiet criticism of his inefficiency and give himself confidence as his sixth NBA Finals approached.

After watching James grind for 83 points (39.7 percent FGs), 24 rebounds, and 17 assists over two games against the league’s best defense in a wildly hostile environment, it’s suddenly easy to believe that he really has never been better. And if that’s the case, all he might need from those ragtag teammates to end his city’s 50-year championship drought is consistently dogged defense and opportunistic scoring – attributes that LeBron admits aren’t quite pretty.

“It’s the grit squad that we have. It’s not cute at all. If you’re looking for us to play sexy, cute basketball, then that’s not us,” he said. “That’s not us right now. Everything is tough. You know, we’re going to come in with an aggressive mindset defensively and offensively. And for us to win a Finals game shooting 32 percent from the field, it’s just a testament of how gritty we can be. It has to be that for the rest of the series, no matter how many games it takes.”

James thought he’d be playing a different way when he made the decision to return to Northeast Ohio last summer. But after Game 2, it’s become increasingly evident that the misfortune necessitating that change could ultimately be for the best.

This team originally had no plans of winning ugly. Now that it’s happening, though, perhaps the Cavaliers have found the only identity that would ever propel them to victory on the game’s biggest stage. And with just three more wins, they’ll have the game’s biggest prize to show for it, too.

(Via nba.com)