PUSKAS Adversity got the better of Cavs


It’s difficult to do a postmortem on a four-game sweep in the NBA Finals and point to a moment or two that made a lot of difference.

The thinking is that if a team sweeps a best-of-seven, it is decidedly better than its opponent.

Who can argue that after watching the Golden State Warriors dismantle the Cavaliers in a four-game sweep?

The Warriors shot better. They passed better. They defended better. They also dealt with adversity better the few times they encountered any.

And yet when LeBron James and the Cavaliers look back on this series, there will be a few moments they can point to and say if things had gone differently in them, Cleveland might have had a chance to make a series of its fourth consecutive NBA Finals matchup against Golden State.

All of these critical moments came in a series-changing Game 1.

The first is squarely on the shoulders of the officials, who consulted replay and then overturned a critical charging call on Kevin Durant late in regulation.

That should never have happened.

Next, in the closing seconds of regulation, George Hill missed the second of two free throws. Had he made it, the Cavaliers would have had a one-point lead. Instead he left it way short off the front of the rim.

The good news was that — despite an obvious lane violation by Draymond Green — J.R. Smith rebounded the miss and had a chance to go back up for a game-winning shot. Or maybe pass to a wide-open James as time ticked away.

Instead, Smith — thinking the Cavaliers were up one — dribbled away from the lane to the right wing and didn’t realize his mistake until it was too late.

That ending completely deflated the Cavaliers and allowed the Warriors to survive Game 1 despite 51 points from James.

Had the Cavaliers been able to hold on and steal the opener, the entire complexion of the series changes.

James — clearly aware of the ramifications — appeared stunned at the end of regulation and even into overtime, in which Golden State pulled away.

Afterward, James admittedly let his emotions get the best of him and punched a whiteboard in the Cavaliers’ locker room.

The result was a contusion on his right hand. Essentially, James played one-handed for the next three games after undergoing two MRIs and wearing a soft cast between games.

Looking back, the injury clearly took away James’ perimeter shot and altered his ability to finish at the rim.

Advantage, decidedly, Golden State.

Much was made of the officiating in Game 1 and, really, in Game 3 in Cleveland, too.

But the Cavaliers had every chance to steal the opener and failed to do so.

Smith’s situational unawareness will undoubtedly rank up there with some of the all-time bonehead plays. Chris Webber’s timeout for Michigan has always been at the top of the basketball list, but Smith probably took a lot of heat off the former Wolverines’ star.

It’s Cleveland, so there has to be a nifty term for it that people can go back to when they want to make themselves miserable.

The Gaffe?

The Brain Cramp?

The D’oh?

Smith’s Folly?

Something will eventually stick and join the pantheon of Cleveland sports misery like Red Right 88, The Drive, The Fumble, Jose Mesa and The Rain (Reign) Delay.

But remember, it was only one game. Yes, the Cavs coming out of the opener with a series lead changes things, but it wouldn’t have guaranteed anything.

Golden State is that good. The Warriors are not a likeable bunch — from Steph Curry’s fish-like flopping on every shot to Green’s ability to get away with just about every kind of bad behavior on the court — there isn’t much to like there.

But Durant is the second-best player in the NBA and everyone on that team can shoot and pass. They also help each other by cutting to the basket to create easy shots.

And unlike the Cavaliers, the Warriors contest shots. How many times did James or Kevin Love get into the paint only to have three guys hanging all over them? Compare that to all the unmolested moves to the basket Golden State players had, resulting in what amounted to repeated layup drills.

It’s disappointing that the Warriors’ sweep is what capped a season — and a playoff run — for the changes by James and the Cavaliers. They fought through so much adversity, including the rebooting of the team with a series of deadline trades, and still ended up as the NBA’s second-best team. En route, James played in every game and if he isn’t the MVP this season, there ought to be an investigation.

But when you have James, second-best is not good enough. The Cavaliers’ inability to beat the Warriors could lead to James leaving Cleveland again this summer and rebooting his NBA title quest somewhere else.

The Cavaliers’ unlikely comeback from a 3-1 deficit in 2016 to win their only championship makes the possibility of James leaving again a little easier to consider.

LeBron came back intent on delivering Cleveland that long-sought title and he made good on that promise. If he decides that the best option for what could be the final contract of his playing career is somewhere else, most Clevelanders appear to be in a much better place to accept that this time.

But James has a lot to consider. His family, his future as a player and the future of his brand all will figure in The Decision II.

Does another team and another cast of characters in another city give LeBron a better chance to beat the NBA’s newest dynasty? Does he want to uproot his family again with his kids now older and one of them ready to start high school?

It would be nice to see LeBron’s oldest son play at Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary.

And it will be nice — especially for the Cleveland economy and the immediate future of the Cavaliers — if James decides to stay and finish his career where it began.

Let’s be honest. Who will show up downtown with any regularity to watch Jordan Clarkson and Rodney Hood play 35 minutes a night?

Write Vindicator Sports Editor Ed Puskas at epuskas@vindy.com and follow him on Twitter, @EdPuskas_Vindy.

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