The NBA Finals MVP has to come from the champion. It’s obvious. But that doesn’t mean Andre Iguodala was the best player in the series. LeBron James was. He simply played with a bad set of cards dealt to him, and couldn’t do the impossible with it. The Cleveland Cavaliers as a team simply weren’t good enough.
As losing often does, this fourth trip to the finals for James that ends with him on the losing side, will only help breed the hate for him among NBA fans and those who simply love to immerse themselves in negative feelings towards athletes. But James, who played all but 25 minutes in a six-game series that included two overtimes, didn’t have to prove anything to anyone. And for those willing to lift off the negative blinders, he showed quite a lot in this series.
David Blatt said that the Cavaliers didn’t get their happy ending, but it doesn’t mean it was a sad story. LeBron James spoke about chapters and different phases of this season. A team quickly put together, turning from a lottery group to championship contenders with the addition of one name, who helped push the Kevin Love trade and create a new big three for him to enjoy playing within.
After the rough 19-20 start, the Cavaliers were the best team in the NBA during the second half of the season. Yes, they play in the Eastern conference, but you can only beat the teams scheduled to face you. In the playoffs, they lost just two games in their side of the bracket. But it came at a cost of losing Kevin Love in the first round, during the sweep against the Boston Celtics.
The moment that changed the series against the Warriors completely was the Kyrie Irving injury. It put LeBron James in a position he’s been in before but preferred not to be; part of being in a big three doesn’t mean losing your place at the top of the hierarchy, but it does mean having the chance to share the spotlight. And in more professional terms, having to play against Kyrie Irving is a lot more difficult for the Warriors than having to think about how to stop Matthew Dellavedova, which they didn’t worry about at all.
Some would say that Irving’s injury came at overtime in a game the Cavaliers were going to lose anyway. That’s true. But he was a problem on both ends of the floor for the Warriors. And except for those moments when Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson got the ball in the paint between a forest of players, James was the only player the Warriors had to worry about in terms of double teams or actually getting by players through dribbling on the way to the basket. Irving would have presented another similar challenge, and that would have changed the series. Maybe not won it for the Cavaliers, but obviously making it a completely different scenario. An All-Star, one of the best point guards in the league. That’s a tough loss to take.
James did everything, and I do mean everything. He ended up averaging 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists in the series. Not just MVP numbers, but worthy of greatest Finals performance of all-time. Only it happened on the losing side. He led the series in points, rebounds and assists, but that doesn’t mean it’s good. However, this wasn’t a case of someone trying to do too much on his own. Clearly, the Cavaliers were more than lost without him. They were completely incompetent when he was getting his short rests, or falling apart late in games, especially in game 5 and 6.
An illuminating tweet from Tom Haberstroh explains it perfectly: J.R. Smith, Dellavedova, Shumpert and James Jones were 0-for-21 from the field when James wasn’t on the floor. He didn’t just score points. He was the reason they got open and good looks, because the Warriors had to worry only about him, or from time to time about Mozgov and Thompson near the rim and their rebounding ability.
A huge effort from James. A championship-worthy one, but this league is more difficult than that. One player can’t win a series. Not when the other side is packed with talent, depth, incredible shooting and fantastic coaching which led to fantastic defense. James, with a team of very limited players surrounding him, couldn’t have done anything more.
In interviews during and after the series, he said he could have done more, but it’s hard to believe it was possible. Maybe a bit more efficiency on his side when it comes to shot selection? Here and there, yes. His free throw shooting was disappointing (just 68.7% in the series) and was only 31% from beyond the arc. But he was running on empty too many times. Reaching a fifth consecutive final and getting asked to do so much just took too much out of him.
It’s good that the winner of the Finals MVP comes from the winning team. It just feels weird when someone who is experiencing one of his most disappointing moments has to stand and pose with an award he doesn’t care much about, not at that moment. But there was one player who was better, by far, than everybody else in this series, and that’s LeBron James, not anyone else.