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The Corner: The Cavs have a monster chip on their shoulders

(USA Today Sports)
Is it even comprehensible that your Cleveland Cavaliers are standing on the precipice of their second stint in the NBA finals?

Seriously, How in the hell are they this good?

I know, it's all about LeBron James. But you and I know it's something more than that, right? This team is different than any team we've ever seen here in Cleveland. It's different from the Lenny Wilkens Cavs because they have the best player in the world on this team. It's better than the Miracle at Richfield teams because of the same reason. Yet, the intangibles that those teams shared can be found here on the Corner of Huron and Ontario, and when you mix LeBron James into the equation, you get a finished product that's hard to define.

It's hard to know what the dialogue will be about the 2014-2015 Cavs season 20-years from now, as this journey will likely seem a given to most. People will check out the box scores, see LeBron James name, remember his July 2014 return to his home team and think, "It was a given that he was going to lead Cleveland back into contention."

Hell, perhaps that rhetoric will even be correct. I mean, most people assumed that the Cavs were immediately one of the top two or three teams in the East. The unabashed were saying that with LeBron returning, along with a newly signed Kyrie Irving and just-traded-for Kevin Love were going to win the NBA title. The cautious were saying that a finals appearance was likely, but not a given, and that the Wild, Wild West would ultimately win the title.

With the final pages yet to be written on this season, one would say that predictions are falling right into line, right?

Could that be even further from the truth?

Just take the season into account.
  • From the second the Cavs acquired Kevin Love for Andrew Wiggins, it was questioned. Let's be honest...it's still being questioned, but I'll get into that in a second. Love had never played in a playoff game, and wouldn't provide the Cavs with their "next" superstar, as Wiggins would. This was a narrative that would weave in and out of the season, as the Cavs and Love never seemed to mesh, at least not in the way that many in both the media and social media thought. Bill Simmons and ESPN connected to Love to the Lakers and Celtics on numerous occasions, and Love and LeBron seemed to be on separate pages often on the court and in the press.

  • The Cavs started off 1-3, then won four in a row, then lost four in a row, then won eight in a row, then lost 3-of-4, then won three in a row, then lost 10-of-12. At the end of that, the Cavs were 19-20. I mean, the Cavs were 19-and-freakin'-20. During the end of that final 2-10 stretch, LeBron went on the IR for two weeks starting on December 30th, missing eight games (Cavs went 1-7) while he reportedly went back to Miami and lived in a hyperbaric chamber (no rumors there, right?). 

  • Who knows what the hell was going on during his time away, but Cavs' GM David Griffin decided that it was time to make a change. On January 5th, Griffin traded Dion Waiters to the Oklahoma City Thunder, as well as Louis Amundson, Alex Kirk and a 2019 second rounder to the Knicks. In return, the Cavs received Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith (there were other parts to the deal, but you get the point. On January 7th, the Cavs traded two first rounders (including the one that they acquired from the Thunder in the Waiters deal) to the Denver Nuggets and received center Timofey Mozgov. Holy new team Batman!!!

  • The Cavs rookie coach David Blatt, who seems to be the Kevin Love-adjace in the world of NBA head coaching, has been on the chopping block since they hired him. LeBron is in charge of the huddles, and Tyrone Lue is in charge of everything else, and Blatt just doesn't have a clue...so they say. Like the Love rumors, the Blatt rumors have resurfaced more than Billy Martin managerial stints with the Yankees. While LeBron was gone, it was virtually a lock that he'd be gone, at the very least, by the end of the season. There were a few rumors circulating that if the Cavs lost to the Lakers in LeBron's second game back, Griffin would cut his losses, and Lue would take over. So much for that.

  • Starting with that Lakers game, the Cavs reeled off 12 wins, including two victories over the Clippers, and one each against the Bulls, Trail Blazers and the Thunder. They closed out the year with a 34-9 run, also beating Golden State, San Antonio and Memphis along the way. More impressive were that the Spurs and Grizzlies victories were on the road against the vaunted west.

  • While the Cavs swept the Boston Celtics in the first round of the NBA playoffs, Kevin Love was lost for the remainder of the playoffs when Kelly Olynyk decided to turn Love into the 2015 version of Stretch Armstrong. Love was coming off perhaps his best game of the season, scoring 23 points on 6-of-10 shooting from behind the arc. With the Chicago Bulls looming, there's no way the Cavs could win, could they?

  • In Game 3 against the Bulls, Kyrie turned his ankle, and while he played in much of the rest of the series, was clearly not 100%. It turns out that he originally turned the ankle in game two of the Celtics series. Then, to make matters worse, Irving, who already was diagnosed with knee tendinitis, tweaked it in Game 6 against the Bulls, only playing 12 1/2 minutes in the first half. He was thought to be questionable early on in the Hawks series, but made an amazing recovery. Then, in the third quarter of Game 1 against the Hawks, Irving attacked the basket and clearly tweaked the knee again. He was used sparingly for the rest of that game, missed Game 2, is likely out of Game 3, and trying to practice with a brace going forward.

  • So the Cavs, are...you know...missing two of the "New Big 3."

  • Oh, I almost forgot; David Blatt rumors resurfaced after Game 4 of the Bulls series. The Cavs' James Jones had to use two timeouts with 18 seconds left in the game trying to inbound the ball. The Cavs, now out of timeouts, got the ball to James on the inbounds, who promptly was called for an offensive foul, allowing Derrick Rose to tie the game with 8.5 seconds left. Blatt wanted a timeout after the play, when Lue grabbed him before the refs turned around. Yeah, it was a major blunder averted, and the Cavs won on a baseline, three-point, buzzer-beater, that will likely go down as one of the biggest plays in Cavs' history. But, you know, Blatt almost blew it. Reports have since come out that Dan Gilbert will fire Blatt "regardless of what the Cavs do in the playoffs." Good lord...
So here we are, in the land of the strange. LeBron James is clearly in the midst of willing this team of immeasurables to the NBA finals.

Ponder this for a minute. On opening night for the Cleveland Cavaliers last October, Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith started their season standing on the Quicken Loans arena floor ready for a big year. Both guards went a combined 9-for-13, with 12 points each, and they walked out opening night winners...

...for the Knicks.

Both have been key players in the playoffs. Shumpert was lighting up the Chicago Bulls to the tune of 22 points in a game one loss, and 15 points in a Game 2 victory, before he injured his groin. He finally seems to be healthy again offensively, and has been a force on defense through the end of the Bulls series, and the start of the Hawks series.

Smith, the misbegotten son of the New York Knicks, has been nothing short of sensational after returning from his reverse roundhouse KO of Boston's Jae Crowder in the "Love Arm-Yanking" affair in Game 4 against the Celtics. While it was a stupid play, there was something interesting about it. Like Kendrick Perkins earlier in the game who received a technical with a "hard-screen" on Crowder, this Cavs team seemed on the same page.

I know, Smith was suspended for two game for the incident, but Smith was excessively reticent in the press, while it was clear that the Cavs roster was nothing but ecstatic for the way the team handed what was clearly a beast of a foul. I'm not sure there are words to explain the way the Cavs handled the Love-incident other than to compare it to the way a family handles a serious threat, should it present itself. Sometimes, when your back is against the wall, there needs to be a physical presence. While dumb, Smith did was a pissed off older brother does.

He protected his teammate.

While we had podcasters and media belting him for being dumb afterwards, in the locker room, there's no doubt that Smith's actions didn't put him in the doghouse. It was exactly the opposite. The Cavs went 1-1 in his absence, and Shumpert (15 points) and James Jones (17 points) stepped up in a Game 2 victory.

Since Smith returned, he's averaging 14.7 points per game, including his scintillating Game 1 performance against the Hawks in which he led the Cavs in scoring, going 8-for-12 from three-point land, to the tune of 28 points. He had back-to-back eight board games in Game 6 against the Bulls,, and that Hawks performance, and has been every bit the fantastic teammate that he wasn't in New York.

Mozgov hasn't been perfect, but he really fits that on-the-court, Ivan Drago presence. He has double-double ability every night, and while he hasn't had any blocks in the Hawks series (more a product of their weak physical presence), he's the clog in the middle that the Cavs haven't had in years.

I haven't even mentioned Tristan Thompson yet, who may actually be the heartbeat of the team. How many games have we watched as Cavs fans in which they couldn't get a key defensive rebound, while the other team, time-and-time again grabs the offensive board. Yeah, that's Tristan Thompson. He's a damn beast. He reportedly turned down a four-year, $52 million deal at the beginning of the year that had me belly-laughing. While the advanced metric crew are all over Thompson like bark-on-trees, most thought his desire at a max deal was incredulous.

What do you think now?

Over the past seven playoff games, he's averaging 10.4 PPG, 12.14 rebounds per game (5.7 offensive boards per), and has had two blocks in each of the last four games. He's a force in the middle, has played in over 40 minutes four times in the past six games, and has the type of grit that the many hoped for when he was drafted four years ago.

Oh, and about Matthew Dellavedova. Is anyone else sick of listening to the BS about the Cavs backup point guard? We seemed to be locked in the era in which every player is compared to an All-Star starter. Delly isn't that, nor should he ever be. If he has to start because of an injury to a high-priced player like Kyrie Irving, you thank your lucky stars you have him.

No, he's not as quick as many starting point guards in the league, but he's a damn solid defender, and damn is it fun watching him post up guards who just aren't as physical. This guy has a motor, and while he sometimes doesn't know where it's going, he's a key cog in this team...since he is...you know...A BACK-UP FREAKIN' POINT GUARD. I know, I know, there are things I just don't understand.

But I digress...

This is a Cleveland Cavaliers team that has LeBron James, an injured Kyrie Irving, no Kevin Love, a sure-to-be-fired coach, two Knicks players that were afterthoughts (one was, at least), a center straight-outta-Rocky IV, a mocked back-up point guard, a power forward that turned down $52 million that most thought was an overpay, and a bunch of even lesser role players.

This is a team that many experts thought would lose to the Bulls, but didn't.

This is a team that many experts thought would struggle against the team oriented Hawks, but aren't.

This is a team that many experts said couldn't play defense, but may be the best defensive team in the playoffs.

But what LeBron James, David Blatt and his Cleveland Cavaliers are right now is a team with a chip on it's shoulder.

Heaven help the NBA.
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