When I was in third grade, we lived in Silverton, Oregon, a Norman Rockwell little town in Oregon. The town had about 4,000 people. My family and I, and seemingly the rest of the 4,000 residents, all went to the high school football, wrestling and basketball games. The football team was OK, the wrestling team was great (high school wrestling was big in Oregon), and the basketball team was awful. However, one of my favorite memories is the night that the basketball team, which was 0 - 16 at the time, finally won a game. I still remember the opponent (Sandy), the score (48 -46), and the winning shot (a jumper from the free throw line by a kid with glasses). The team's first win was such a big deal that the local church rang its church bells into the evening.
Winning after losing is the best thing in the world.
In my first year coaching the Claremont McKenna JV basketball team, we lost a game in a pre-season tournament to our rival Pomona Pitzer. As a side note, Pomona's varsity team was coached by a guy you may have heard of, Gregg Popovich, as recounted here:
Anyway, we lost that game by 101 - 39. I don't remember much from that game, other than humiliation.
However, that led to one of my best memories. During the regular season, my JV team took the same Pomona team to overtime, in a home game at Ducey Gym. We played our games immediately before the varsity game, and the Claremont - Pomona varsity games were always played before packed houses. Since the JV game went to overtime, the gym was already packed for the end of regulation and overtime. The noise was deafening, especially for the two JV teams used to playing before family and friends.
With four seconds left in OT, we had the ball out of bounds at our offensive end of the court, score tied. Without taking a time out, I called for in-bounds play "four". My guys ran it to perfection, and freshman forward Andy Sallee from Sonoma, California, made a free throw line jumper to win it - against a rival who had beaten us by 62 points the previous time we played. I knelt on the gym floor for a full five seconds, eyes closed, just to savor and preserve the memory. Writing this down brings it all back today.
Winning after losing is the best thing in the world.
Time marched on, as time is wont to do. Fellow Spurs fans remember the pain of Game Six in Miami in the 2013 Finals, followed by the hard-fought Game Seven - that Spurs team would not collapse after the heart-breaking game two nights earlier. Unfortunately, Game Seven ended in defeat, leading to a long painful summer.
The following year the Spurs cruised in the Finals, against the same Heat team. Many believe that the Spurs 2014 Finals performance was the best team game ever played. In my post-Finals fake blog, entitled "Redemption", I wrote:
"After winning the NBA Championship Sunday night, several Spurs went out of their way to say that this wonderful season, and the way they dominated the Finals, made last year's loss OK. Essentially, last year's defeat gave them a common pain. That common paid bound the Spurs together in a common goal. They decided to do everything they could to make this season's ending different. Perhaps included in that was the desire to play so well that the Spurs would not lose on the sort of freak plays that led to the Game Six loss last year - which means not allowing close games.
Sometimes teams win because of a fortuitous series of breaks mixed in with good plays. Other times, teams dominate their opponents. While the first type of win is great, the sense of satisfaction from the second type of win is priceless. The Spurs after Game Five surely had the second feeling. They could say "We are the best" and "We gave it all we had" - and no one who watched this Series could dispute it.
The Spurs, without preening or pounding their chests, looked genuinely happy, and that is a very good thing. They didn't need to preen or pound their chests. They could just look up at the scoreboard, laugh, smile, hug and say meaningful things in each other's ears. And feel at peace."
Put another way, winning after losing is the best thing in the world.
Which brings us to Cleveland. The last time Cleveland won a championship, the Beatles were the hot new thing, LBJ was president, and Ali beat Liston for the belt.
Cleveland had endured 52 years of losing. Not only games, but jobs.
After Lebron's home-coming two summers ago, Cavs fans had high hopes for last season. But those hopes were dashed in the Finals by injuries and a young upstart team from Oakland, which itself exorcised 40 years of NBA losses with their win over the Cavs. To add insult to injury, the Warriors won on the Cavs home-court, leaving empty champagne bottles and broken dreams in their wake.
All of which made this season's Cleveland victory so sweet. The Cavs returned the favor, winning on the Warriors home floor, leaving a messy locker room and broken dreams in their wake. And the city of Cleveland could, at long last, actually celebrate. The loss suffered the year before, to the same team, made this year's win that much sweeter.
Yes, winning after losing is the best thing in the world.
* * *
It has been so long since Cleveland won anything, they even had a peaceful parade! They didn't know any better, I guess. My long-time law partner, all around good guy, Cleveland native and live-long sufferer after Browns, Indians and Cavs losses, Norm Levine, received this photo from a cousin who is still (happily)stuck in Cleveland. It shows 1.3 million happy Clevelanders, which is a good (and rare) thing. (Thanks to cousin Al for the shot.)
When Lebron's Miami Heat team lost to the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals, I coined (or inadvertently stole) the phrase "The outcome drives the narrative". Perhaps a slightly different take on the more well-known phrase "History is written by the winners."
In those 2011 Finals, Lebron was criticized, unjustly in my opinion, for not shooting more. I pointed out that if the Mavericks had not shot the lights out from 3, the Heat would have won. In that case, Lebron would have been lauded for ignoring the "experts" who had said he needed to shoot more, ignoring the fact that he was then, and is still today, the best passing forward ever. (Larry Bird fans, please send your complaints to me by Pony Express to ensure prompt delivery.)
As in 2011, the outcome of the 2016 Finals drives the narrative. As a result of the outcome, many have proclaimed Lebron as rightful challenger to the previous undisputed GOAT, Michael Jordan. While that is true, the outcome, and thus the narrative, could have been different if the following things did not happen - none of which were controlled by Lebron:
- Bogut hurting himself in Game Five, forcing the Ws to play Festis Ezeli instead. Ezeli missed two easy shots early, and those misses counted the same on the scoreboard as all the missed shots in the fourth.
- Curry hurting himself in the Houston series when he slipped on the sweat left by two Rocket players colliding
- In Game 7, Tristan Thompson going 3 - 4 from the free throw line, while Iguodala went 0 - 2.
- Harrison Barnes going 5 for 32 from the floor in the last three games. The Cavs strategy of leaving him wide open sure worked.
- In Game 7, Curry dribbling off his foot in the first quarter, leading to a break-away lay-up for Richard Jefferson - his only basket in 24 minutes of action.
Put another way, Lebron could have played equally as well as he did in this series, including his unworldly Games 5 and 6, but the outcome, and thus the narrative, could have been much different. Injuries matter, free throw shooting matters, how the ball bounces matters. Indeed, NBA championships are often influenced, if not decided, by injuries. But ultimately the outcome drives the narrative. No one can defeat the Corman Outcome Theory.
In my Finals preview, I noted that the Warriors are primarily shot makers:
"The Warriors are fun to watch because they excel at making the difficult shot. The announcing team last night talked about a Thompson brick by saying that it would be a bad shot by anyone else in the league (presumably except Curry). Compare that to the Spurs, and in particular their "beautiful game" as exemplified in the 2014 Finals against the Heat. The Spurs excelled at getting and making excellent shots, not taking or making difficult ones. The Spurs mantra was "good to great", meaning passing up a good shot to get a great one.
The Splash Brothers, on the other hand, don't pass up many shots - possibly because they believe (with some justification) that any shot they take past half-court is a good one. In essence, a key distinction between the Spurs and the Warriors is shot selection vs. shot making."
It turns out that shot-making is great and all, but it may fail a team which is not making the shots. (Thanks, Captain Obvious.) The Warriors shot-making in Game 7 was atrocious. Other than Draymond's incredible stretch in the first half, the Warriors all became shot missers. Each Warriors player other than Draymond was less than 50% for the game. It is virtually impossible to win a game when only one player has a good statistical game. (Thanks again, C. O.) However, the Ws could have won because other than Tristan Thompson, who went 3 for 3, every Cav was also less than 50% for the game. Even with Lebron and Irving throwing in some difficult shots, Lebron wound up 9 for 24, Kyrie 10 for 23. The Cavs went only 6 for 25 from 3. Of course, we all remember the 3 that went in - Kyrie's 3 over Curry - and the one that didn't, Curry's attempt to match at the other end.
The Cavs 6 for 25 team shooting from 3 was remarkably similar to the Splash Brothers, who went a combined 6 for 24 from 3 for the game. The technical term basketball coaches use for shooting like that is "bricks". For a team that relies on shot making, that type of shooting (known in inner circles as "brick-laying"), culminated in the Warriors missing their last 9 shots, determined the winner - and helped cement Lebron's legacy.
When Lebron left the Heat to go back to the Cavs, he became the first person ever to voluntarily move from Miami to Cleveland. In a piece during his first season back in Cleveland, I suggested that his motivation was likely affected by the desire to create a younger and more talented Big Three than the group he was leaving behind in Miami:
"So he decided to walk away from his Miami Heat team, his Miami Heat teammates, and a Miami Heat fan base that had showered him with adoration when the rest of the country was treating him like a villain. His escape from Miami happened to take him "home", which was convenient and made for a good story. But it appeared to many, including this writer, that the driving force behind this second "decision" was his ability to re-create what was fading in South Beach - a new and younger Big Three, with Kyrie Irving already there, and Kevin Love on the way."
Ironically, Lebron wound up in last year's finals with a Big Three which included Timofy Mosgov and JR Smith as the two next best Cavs players - Love and Kyrie were out with injuries. This year, the Big Three morphed into a Big Two and a Half, as Kyrie was often great and much improved defensively, but Kevin Love was not. However, because the entire Cavs team improved defensively, and the ball bounced the right way, Lebron and company were able to change the outcome.
Interestingly, because the Cavs lost last year, it became much easier for much of America to root for the Cavs, and Lebron, in these Finals.
Indeed, I believe the performances of Curry and Lebron in these Finals will make Lebron the regular season MVP next year, even if Steph and Lebron have the same seasons next year that they had this year. I began the piece quoted above by referring to Thomas Wolfe's line "You can't go home again". This year, Lebron proved to Mr. Wolfe that sometimes, if everything breaks just right, you can.
Now begins the long wasteland of days, weeks and months with no NBA games at all, and even worse, no playoff games. I will spend the dog days of summer thinking back on my favorite NBA memories.
As is now a tradition, like One Shining Moment at the end of March Madness, I will end this season with a list of those memories. Some from the distant past, some from the recent present. This list grew out of a question asked by masters division hoops multi-time champion Steve Carlston about my favorite players. In my lawyerly way, I instead answered the question I wanted to answer - favorite memories. Like these:
Coop in a defensive stance,
Stephen Curry looking for any opening to shoot a 3,
Magic in the middle dishing this way - no, that way,
Robert Horry spotting up in the last minute of a playoff game,
Kawhi Leonard D'ing up on LeBron, or Durant, or Westbrook, or Curry or whoever else Pop sends him after,
Kobe retiring with a 60 point game (and me at Staples to witness it),
Manu Euro-stepping to the rim, and left-handing it cross-court to the open man,
DFish bellying up on a guy bigger faster quicker and more talented,
Nash dancing around a ball screen,
Draymond Green assisting,
Patty Mills water-bugging to find himself an open spot to catch and release a sweet J,
Jerry West dribbling hard right and pulling up for a jumper,
Walton rebounding and outletting,
Rick Barry underhanding,
Earl the Pearl spin-dribbling,
Pistol Pete (or Ricky Rubio) behind-the-back passing,
Kevin Durant nothing-but-netting,
Chick Hearn hyper-ventilating,
Dr. J dunking,
Popovich angry time-outing,
Stockton pocket passing,
Worthy baseline spinning,
LaMarcus free-agenting to San Antonio,
Sage Steele half-timing,
Lebron chasing down a seemingly uncontested breakaway lay-up (Note - I include this every year. This is not one of Iguodala's favorite memories),
Duncan blocking a shot, controlling it, kicking the ball ahead to Manu - and both coming back for one more run at a title,
And in honor of Norm Levine, Cousin Al, and all the other long-suffering Cleveland fans, and Lebron and the other Cavs -- one of my favorite things is winning after losing.
Thanks for following along.