BOSTON — In the visitors’ locker room, their fourth consecutive trip to the NBA Finals secure, the Cavaliers weren’t dousing each other with water. They were singing rap artist Meek Mill’s anthem “Dreams and Nightmares.”
They now had their share of both. But until mid-April it was the nightmares that kept recurring, pushing the dreams aside, making it harder and harder to remember they were playing for the love of the game and for each other.
Trades, injuries, a team meeting that turned confrontational. A player that walked away, another who had panic attacks. Their coach experiencing chest pains and taking a two-week leave of absence, their 37-year-old shooting guard burying his 27-year-old brother, their owner’s son undergoing major brain surgery, which was followed by other health problems that have left him in a wheelchair.
The Cavs started training camp without All-Star Kyrie Irving, sent to the Celtics on Aug. 22 after he demanded a trade, but with eight new rotation players. They watched Isaiah Thomas, the centerpiece of that deal, be forced to wait until Jan. 2 to make his debut as he rehabbed a hip injury.
At the Feb. 8 trade deadline, they sent out six players and brought in four. They saw Kevin Love, their second-leading scorer and leading rebounder, miss two months with a fractured hand, then sit out for all but five minutes of the final two games in the Eastern Conference finals with a concussion.
But they always had LeBron James, the best player on the planet. They had him for 100 games, all 82 in the regular season. They had him for two seven-game series and a four-game sweep. They had him for all 48 minutes Sunday.
If there were tears after the Cavs defeated the Celtics 87-79 Sunday night in Game 7 of the East finals in TD Garden, they had been dried before the locker room door opened. But the Cavs still had fire in their voices.
They were proud of themselves for surviving the turmoil. Proud for tuning out the doubters. Proud for playing defense in the biggest game of the season when no one thought they could.
“Man, this season has been somethin’ else,” Kyle Korver said. “That it’s going to end in the Finals is amazing. All the ups and downs and storylines and drama and even in the playoffs, how these series have been so tough to come here and to know that we’re going to play for a championship at the end is unbelievable. It speaks to a lot of people in this organization. I really can’t believe it, to be honest with you.
“It’s been an amazing, crazy, hard year, emotionally draining. All the stuff that’s gone on, and that was just the regular season. Then you get to the playoffs, it’s just been tough. Yeah, I think last year we kind of expected it to happen. This year you didn’t at all. You knew you had to go out there and get it. Yeah, it hasn’t been fun this year, that’s for sure.”
J.R. Smith, one of four Cavs who have been on all four Finals teams, called the trade of Irving “a blow,” and used the same description for Love’s fractured left hand.
“The season that we had, not playing our best basketball really all year, guys being in and out, injuries, trades. This is the biggest change that I’ve had in my time in this league and it hasn’t always been easy,” Smith said. “Fortunately for us, we got easily the best player in the world on our team and he put us in situations to where we can succeed as individuals and as a team and we rely on him and we trust him to do that. And our coaching staff has been sticking with us day to day and just preaching, ‘Keep fighting. Play on the defensive end and not worry about the offense’ and it paid off.”
Jeff Green, who started in place of Love on Sunday and came through with 19 points and eight rebounds in 42 minutes, heard the criticism. He may not have appreciated the unaired Saturday Night Live skit on the ineptitude of James’ teammates that went viral when posted online.
“Everybody doubted us. Everybody had their opinions on what our team was, what we would do, what we can’t do, from the start,” Green said. “To be where we’re at, through all the doubters, all the hate, you name it, I think we had everything thrown in our direction. But we have one of the best players in the world, and we’re going to fight to the end, and that’s what we did, and that’s why we’re at the point that we’re at now.”
Lue commented Sunday about James being on television every day, saying, “For some reason the negative press on the Cavs sells.”
James said he doesn’t listen to it, but knows it has an effect. Few believed the Cavs could win in TD Garden, where the Celtics went 10-1 in the postseason.
“I think Coach Lue, he feeds off of it. Some of our teammates kind of feed off of it, on just people counting us out and counting them out personally,” James said. “I think this tonight was another example of counting my guys out, saying they’ve been struggling, they won’t play well on the road … and counting my coach out. I think they all rose to the occasion.”
James has said for weeks that the Cavs have had five seasons in one. He’s upped that to six.
“I guess this is the last chapter for our team in this season. It’s been a whirlwind. I mean, it’s been Cedar Point … it’s been a roller coaster,” James said. “It’s been good, it’s been bad. It’s been roses, there have been thorns in the roses. There’s been everything that you can ask for. I’ve said this has been one of the most challenging seasons I’ve had.”
James is going to his eighth consecutive Finals and ninth overall. The only other trip that may have been this difficult and this satisfying was his fourth year with the Miami Heat. Dwyane Wade said earlier this season that everyone had grown tired of each other by then and even the jokes weren’t funny anymore.
During this season the Cavs have been mentally fragile. Lue has repeatedly questioned their toughness. Endless doubt seems to have strengthened them.
But it wasn’t just doubt from the outside. It sounds as if some arose inside as well. The fact that James wouldn’t answer when asked if there was a moment when he lost hope and thought the season could not be salvaged seemed to hint at that.
“I mean, if I did, I wouldn’t tell you. I wouldn’t tell you,” he said, drawing laughter.
But now the thorns have been cut out, the roses have rooted. The Cavs have been through their own version of “Dreams and Nightmares” and come out on the other side with their dream intact.
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