It could not have been a better ending, and it could not have been a more incredible path to get there. This is the stuff sports movies are made of, only no movie could possibly provide enough backstory, enough pathos to make the Cavaliers’ championship mean what it does; only real life can give proper context to one of the greatest sports moments you and I will ever see.
It goes back as long as you need it to, every layer of history building to an ending that seemed so unlikely if just because the world rarely works out the way it should. This incredible Finals series, that even with all its blowouts told a story of an unexpected challenger discovering they really could go toe-to-toe with the champ. This season, in which the Warriors lived up to every bit of hype, earning the wins record and being more or less anointed repeat-champs-in-waiting. This season, in which LeBron James emerged as essentially a head coach, in addition to his duties as functional GM and world’s greatest player. Tyronn Lue. David Blatt. Last season, when James somehow managed to win two Finals games with a supporting cast thinner than this one, while the Warriors took their first trophy in what seemed for all the world to be the start of a dynasty. The return to Cleveland. The trade for and disappearance of Kevin Love. The last three seasons, when the doubt began to creep back in: Would LeBron be remembered as a two-time NBA champion, or as the guy who fell short in so many Finals? The Decision. The early struggles with the Cavs. The pressure of being a franchise’s savior. The rise of a basketball phenom for whom everyone predicted historic greatness, and the even greater greatness displayed by fulfilling every prediction. I said it goes back as long as you need it to: in Cleveland this goes back 52 years.
“That don’t matter, that’s yesterday’s newspaper,” James said of leaving Cleveland in 2010, but he could easily have been speaking of everything that imbued this series and this title with significance. “I don’t think anybody’s reading yesterday’s newspaper. They’ll be reading tomorrow that I’m coming home. I’m coming home with what I said I was going to do.”
So how do you distill it? How do you find one image to file away, to be summoned as mental shorthand for everything this victory came to represent and all the lifetimes it required to gather so much meaning? How will you remember Game 7?
Will it be LeBron James’s chasedown block of Andre Iguodala, coming at a time when James (and everybody else on the court) looked totally gassed and incapable of finding that extra gear?
Watch that again. See where James is when Iguodala reaches half-court and he puts on the afterburners. Watch how perfectly he times his leap; he probably could have made that block with his elbow. Sports didn’t yet have a play that could be quickly and universally identified as only,“The Block.” Now I think it does.
Or will the moment be Kyrie Irving’s three with 53 seconds left?
This was the shot that won the game, and it came after three minutes and 46 seconds of scoreless action. After the body blows of the first six games and the slugfest that was Game 7 (20 lead changes and 11 ties), it wasn’t clear if anyone had anything left. But Irving, who spent all season being derided as not a good enough No. 2, and who responded with a marvelous run in the Finals, went 1-on-1 with Steph Curry in a tie game with under a minute left, and came out the winner.
Maybe your moment is on the ensuing possession, when Curry got his chance to iso with the game in his hands? He had the misfortune of running into Kevin Love.
Love smothered Curry, sticking with him through attempted drives, some fancy dribbling, a pump fake, a crossover, and never letting him get an open look. There was redemption all around in this series, but maybe none so acute as for Kevin Love—after all that, all the jokes, the legitimate questions of whether he should start, Love turned in an excellent defensive game and shut down the best shooter in the NBA on the possession that mattered the most.
Or maybe the moment is the dunk that wasn’t? Another point would have sealed it; as good as the universe was to us last night, it wasn’t quite good enough to cap off a championship with a thunderous James dunk on Draymond Green.
It would have brought everything full circle: Who knows if this series goes longer than five games if Green weren’t suspended for assaulting James’s testicles? The dunk wasn’t to be—I think I would’ve hulked up and flung my couch through a window if it had happened—but it showed Irving and James expending whatever last bit of energy they still possessed. James, his wrist injured, hit his second free throw, and that’s the moment you knew it was over, and that was satisfying in its own way...but I would have given an amount of my own money for James to have exploded Green right there.
Maybe the indelible moment came after the game. James crying on the court, and giving an interview that was rawer and more obviously heartfelt than anything he ever said in Miami. It’s tough and it’s dangerous to try and get into an athlete’s mind, especially when it’s that of LeBron James, who’s ever been conscious of tying up his brand with Cleveland’s own narrative. So maybe my defenses are down from the sensory trauma of Game 7, or maybe all these good vibes have me feeling aberrantly expansive, but I did and do believe that this meant something special to James. It sure as hell meant something singular and extraordinary to the rest of us.