Red Right 88

In Cleveland, hope dies last

Cavs four wins away from something special

When the NBA Finals tip off tonight at 9, it will mark the beginning of the end for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The Cavs entered the 2014-15 NBA season with raised expectations after the return of LeBron James, but even the most hardcore Cavs fan knew that tonight was far from a certainty. The team had a new coach who, while not a rookie in the true sense, was new to the NBA, and a roster full of players who had never been tested in the meat grinder of the NBA Playoffs.

“Anybody talking about us winning it all, I think they’re being unfair to those great NBA teams that are out there that have either won it or have been there to win it, and also to us as a team that’s talented but new,” head coach David Blatt said a few days before the season opener. “We have a lot of work to do before we can start claiming anything before it’s time.”

A large part of why the Cavs are one of the two teams still playing is due to the changes the squad made during the season.

There is probably no way the Cavs would be in the finals if Dion Waiters was on the team rather than Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith. And while general manager David Griffin may still have made the trade for Timofey Mozgov if Anderson Varajeo hadn’t suffered a season-ending injury, there is no way of knowing for sure. As good as Varajeo is, Mozgov brings a different dimension to the defense and the post-season may have played out differently if Varajeo was on the floor rather than Mozgov.

Even with a dominant presence like James on the roster, the Cavs are a team in just about every way you want to define that word, which is part of why the looming end of the season is a touch bittersweet.

While winning has certainly played a major role, this Cavs team has been so much fun to watch. The movement on offense, the way they play defense, the emergence of Tristan Thompson and Matthew Dellavedova, the chance to appreciate what Kevin Love does on the court, it has been quite a fun ride.

Beyond all that, this has become an easy team to root for, with the way everyone has bought into their role and embraced a mantra of “next man up” when injuries have struck. While James may have hit the season-saving shot at the end of Game 4 against Chicago and will also be the center of attention, just about everyone on the roster has had their moment during the playoffs as the Cavs have found a way to win 12 of their 14 playoff games.

While we love to see that attitude, it is also one that makes us a bit nervous going forward. It is one thing to get everyone to sacrifice a bit of their personal glory for the greater good for a playoff series or even a season, but will everyone buy into that philosophy next year? That may be a tall order, even for a team that has a dominant personality like James to make sure everyone is pulling in the same direction.

There is also the fact that the first time is always the best and it is hard to recreate that magic. The joy of the Cavs last trip to the finals in 2007 quickly turned into the disappointment of losing to the Celtics in 2008, the agita of losing to the Magic in 2009 and the outright angst of losing (again) to the Celtics in 2010.

Looking back at 2007, it seemed as if that first trip to the finals was just the first of many for the Cavs, and we all know how that turned out. While that feeling has once again return to Cleveland – James is the only regular who is 30, meaning the Cavs should be making more trips to the finals – there is a long, long road to go down before the team can make it back.

That is part of what makes the absence of Love so hard to take. Having Love on the floor would not guarantee a championship for the Cavs, but he would certainly make things a lot more difficult for Golden State if he were on the court rather than the bench.

If the Cavs ultimately lose the series to the Warriors, we’ll always wonder if Love would have been the difference maker and, until the Cavs finally win a title, if this year was their best chance at glory.

But those are fears for another day; for now it is time to enjoy the Cavs return to the national stage.

Pretty much everyone outside of Northeast Ohio expects Golden State to just roll over the Cavs in this series, making sure the final game of the season ends for the Cavs the same way it began. After all, the Warriors did win an NBA-high 67 games this season and they do have an MVP in Steph Curry. (Although we all know who the real MVP was this season). But despite all that, we have to wonder how it was that the last time these two teams met, the Cavs easily took care of the Warriors?

Could it be that the Warriors are maybe not as unbeatable as the “experts” would have us believe? Or that the Cavs maybe stand a chance?

After everything we’ve seen this team accomplish this season, is it really that hard to see LeBron lifting the trophy once again later this month?

To answer that question, let’s go back to the beginning of the season, when we convened a panel of Cavs thinkers for a season-opening 5 Questions segment. The final question that day was: Will we be celebrating come June? Here’s what the lads had to say:

Ben Cox: My gut says no, that it’s too much to expect both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love to win a title during their very first playoff run. But they might. They have the best player on the planet and he’s in his prime, so they’ll always have a shot. They’re the most loaded Cleveland sports team since the 1998 Indians; they have three in-their-prime All Stars, a boatload of talent, and a coach who’s won everywhere he’s ever been. If they can gel on defense and if they can add a center … they got a shot.

Mike Mayer: I tend to take a “hope for the best but expect the worst” approach when it comes to Cleveland’s teams. But I really do think this is the best team in the NBA, and they should win the title this season. I have no problem saying that because I don’t believe in jinxes.

Murray Alexander: I say … yes. There are issues to work out and the team needs to gel, but the regular season is 82 games long. By the time the playoffs come around they’re going to be full speed and they aren’t gonna be stopped.

Demetri Inembolidis: Absolutely.

Do you really want to argue with that kind of logic?

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