OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers know what’s being whispered – and sometimes shouted – at the NBA Finals.
The Cavaliers play in the Eastern Conference, they say. They haven’t been tested, they say. What happens when the adversity finally hits?
It came in Game 1, with the Golden State Warriors not even needing their two biggest stars while flattening the Cavaliers in the din of Oracle Arena. Now everyone wants to know how the Cavaliers will respond, how will they react after a body blow in Round 1 showed no indication that a fully health Cavaliers team was any more capable of defeating the mighty Warriors than the depleted unit that James dragged along with him for six games last year.
The Cavs cruised through the inferior Eastern Conference all season, the narrative goes, and now their reckoning is upon them. Game 2 is on Sunday in Oakland, and the Splash Brothers will be frothing at the mouth after a tepid Game 1. It’s up to the Cavaliers to show they belong on the same court with the defending champions.
“We’re not a team that loses our composure over anything,” James said.
In reality, the Cavaliers have been tested like few others. Such is life on Planet LeBron, the most scrutinized, most followed, most nit-picked athlete in America. His gravitational pull draws in fans, teammates and anybody with a notebook, a microphone or a blog, for better and worse.
“It was funny because people were talking about not having been through adversity, and, I mean, we’ve been through adversity all season,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said. “And I thought our guys did a great job of just coming together and understanding we have one common goal to start the season, and throughout that we had a lot of bumps in the road and a lot of things that happened.”
No adversity? How about firing a coach who led them to the NBA Finals a year ago and got them off to a 30-11 start to this season?
How about James raising eyebrows with his cryptic tweets, public challenging of teammates and midseason refreshes in South Beach?
Sure, they won their first 10 games of the playoffs. Sure, the Raptors were never truly a threat to them in the East finals, even after tying the series 2-2. Sure, the Eastern Conference remains far less challenging on a night-to-night basis than the West.
But these Cavaliers have lived in a pressure cooker ever since James decided to return to Cleveland two summers ago. They know that the city’s tortured fan base pins its hopes on them to end a 52-year championship drought. They have been pushed and prodded and poked at all season long.
“There’s good things that can come from it and feeling like your back is up against the wall,” Love said. “Then you have to push back and fight. I think we’ve been a team that has kind of thrived in, I don’t know if chaos is the right word, but thrived in adversity and been able to bounce back. We’re going to look to Sunday as definitely a bounce-back game and try to go 1-1 back to Cleveland.”
Then again, there is adversity, and there is Golden State.
The Warriors have returned the finals even better than the team that throttled the league a year ago. They won a record 73 games in the regular season, survived some injuries to star Stephen Curry in the early rounds of the playoffs and then were pushed to the brink by the Oklahoma City Thunder in the West finals.
Surviving that crucible – coming back from a 3-1 deficit – only served to embolden a team that needed no such emboldening.
“I think that experience of going through that definitely makes us closer and a lot tougher,” Warriors forward Draymond Green said. “That wasn’t an easy series by any means. Then coming down and coming back from down 3-1, it gives you a certain amount of confidence.”
The Warriors also know what can happen when they ease up against James. Last year they took Game 1 and then dropped two straight to a James-led team missing Irving and Love due to injury.
They also know it’s highly unlikely that Curry and Klay Thompson clank jumpers like they did Thursday night.
“I don’t think it will be a problem,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “I think we’re much more experienced. We have that memory in our mind. We’ve been through this now, and we understand you can’t let up ever. Sunday is obviously a huge game. We’d like to go take care of business and get out on the road with a 2-0 lead. But we’ve got to play well.”