Sports fandom is a fickle beast. It’s hard to say it much better than that.
For nearly 31 years, no major professional Cleveland sports team made the championship round of its league. The Browns won the 1964 NFL Championship. The Indians next made the 1995 World Series. It was a dark, dark time period for all those who live and breathe sports in the area.
But then those lovable 95 Indians – that amazing beautiful, passionate team in a strike-shortened season – ran into the juggernaut of the Atlanta Braves starting rotation. The Tribe made it back in 97, but fell victim to an unfortunate series of bounces in a Game 7 in Miami. And that was that. The jig was up.
A young 22-year-old LeBron James led a ragtag Cleveland Cavaliers team to the 2007 NBA Finals. The blossoming superstar had just had a playoff performance for the ages against the Pistons. But, the Cavs were promptly swept by the more veteran Spurs. The incredibly talented regular season Cavs failed to return to the Finals in the next three seasons.
So, after The Decision, The Lottery Ping-Pong Balls, The Return, The Injuries and The Comeback, maybe this is God just playing some mind games with Northeast Ohio yet again. Maybe this is karma for all of the 3-1 jokes. We enjoyed our time with those jokes. We certainly did. It was a half-century in the making. But, another Cleveland sports reckoning is upon us right now.
The Cavs may not be swept in the 2017 NBA Finals. We’ll learn more in Friday’s Game 4. But, the Cavs are ever so unlikely to come back this time around. The Golden State Warriors with Kevin Durant are too foolproof, too invincible, too streaky, too tough, and just too damn talented to beat four times straight.
Kyrie Irving and LeBron James, now 32, damn near played perfect games on Wednesday. But in the final three minutes, the team just ran out of gas. Nothing gave me a more disheartening feeling than Steve Kerr’s sly smile as Durant nailed a two-pointer to bring the Warriors within two with 1:15 left. Kerr knew what the Warriors had left in the tank. He knew it was all but over right then and there.
LeBron James has averaged 32 points, 10.3 assists and 12.3 rebounds in the three games of this series. He has done so with a 63.9 percent true shooting mark, compared to 61.9 percent in the 2016-17 regular season and 58.4 percent for his regular season career. For yet another NBA Finals series, he’s been on another level of excellence.
Over the 16 games of these last three NBA Finals matchups, LeBron James has now played 691:41 out of the possible 778 minutes (89 percent). While LeBron is on the court, the Cavaliers are a fairly reasonable -25. That’s about as good as any team could possibly play the Warriors consistently! But, in the just 86:19 that LeBron has rested at all in 16 games, the Cavs are -85.
Not only does LeBron James have to play perfectly. But, unarguably a Top 5 greatest player in NBA history, he also has to never take a moment of rest. Otherwise, the Golden State Warriors with now four likely Hall of Famers in their respective primes will just go on yet another of their infamous runs. These current Cavs and likely any future version of this roster just can’t compete with the Warriors depth.
It’s disheartening. In sports and in all facets of history, the victors get to decide the narrative. Steph Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson will likely improve to 2-1 in NBA Finals series, in comparison to LeBron’s 3-5 record. Kevin Durant, who doesn’t turn 29 until September, will re-capture the narrative as the game’s best current performer. He’s been sensational in this series and takes the Warriors to unprecedented heights. This has happened three years and major injuries removed from his well-deserved 2013-14 MVP campaign.
The Warriors don’t need all of their major four superstars to be perfect. Draymond Green has faced foul trouble all series. Stephen Curry’s shooting hasn’t been as spectacularly efficient as it usually is. And yet, the threat of all four of them makes it near impossible to defend this team for 48 minutes. Thompson, Durant and Curry have combined for 174 points with a 71.7 true shooting percentage in the last two games. They’re near unstoppable when playing well, let alone perfect.
Is it more frustrating to be so close, yet so far in the series when it matters most? Would you rather experience the 2016 World Series and 2017 NBA Finals, or be mired in decades of irrelevance yet again? To me, the answer depends on having that 2016 NBA Finals to forever cherish. Cleveland won once. That won’t ever be taken away. These close heartbreaks and defeats are treacherous. Cleveland has been better than all but one contender. And it’s a tough pill to swallow.