The 2023 NBA Finals are finally here.
After a hard-fought seven-game series that almost saw the Boston Celtics claw back from a 3-0 deficit, the Miami Heat will take on the Denver Nuggets in the playoffs’ final round.
Each team will have completely different stakes heading into the championship showdown. The Nuggets will be playing for the first NBA Championship in franchise history, while the Heat are looking to complete a miracle run since they lost to the Atlanta Hawks in the Play-In tournament.
A few former Cleveland Cavaliers will have the chance to earn minutes on the NBA’s biggest stage. Forward Kevin Love, who signed with the Heat after being bought out by the Cavaliers in February, will take on former Cavs forward Jeff Green when the two teams square off in Game 1 on Thursday.
Denver and Miami face off for the Larry O’Brien trophy and officially ending the 2022-23 season can provide the perfect opportunity to relive every time Cleveland at least came close to scaling the NBA’s mountaintop and made a trip to the NBA Finals.
Three years before The Decision, Cleveland was close to winning the franchise’s first NBA championship.
The closest it had been in franchise history at the time.
Led by the 27.3 points per game from forward LeBron James, the Cavaliers made it to the NBA Finals for the first time in team history. It would be their second season under now-Sacramento Kings head coach Mike Brown. Guard Larry Hughes, who would go on to play with a multitude of teams following his short stint with Cleveland, was the team’s second-highest scorer at 14.9 points per outing.
The Cavaliers had come close to the NBA Finals in years past. They made it to the Eastern Conference Finals during the 1991-92 season following a tightly-contested series with the Boston Celtics. They took down the veteran Boston squad in seven games before falling to the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls in six.
But now, they could show how far they had come on the national stage.
The Cavs pushed past the Washington Wizards, New Jersey Nets and Detroit Pistons to represent the Eastern Conference in the Finals. They were primed to take on the experienced San Antonio Spurs squad featuring a Hall-of-Famer in forward Tim Duncan.
But, even for the 22-year-old James, the lights shone a little too brightly for the Cavs to find a comfortable rhythm in the Finals.
San Antonio swept Cleveland on its way to its fourth NBA Championship, leaving the young James with valuable lessons to learn before paving the path for a Hall-of-Fame-caliber career of his own.
“Well I mean, obviously they were the better team. Dealing with Timmy and Manu and Tony and Pop, Hall-of-Famers,” James said in 2020. “I knew it’d be challenging not only for myself, but for our franchise. I saw the way they approached every game, how they approached every possession. They didn’t make mistakes. They weren’t just happy with being there. They wanted to be great as a unit and as individuals as well and I sensed that as a 22 year old.
“That helped shape me year after year after year after year. Just holding onto that feeling of not being able to reach the ultimate goal and at the same time, having that adversity and having those moments that’s put me in positions where I’ve been throughout my career.”
It would take eight years for the Cavs to make it again.
2015 kicked off the battle in the NBA Finals that kept a stranglehold on the league for four-straight years. The Cavaliers completed a blockbuster trade for Love the offseason before, laying the foundation for James’s return to The Land and a 53-win season that saw the New York Knicks spoil the team’s opening game at Quicken Loans Arena.
With a 22-year-old Kyrie Irving and a 26-year-old Love just hitting his prime, the Cavaliers swept the Boston Celtics and recovered from a 2-1 deficit to the Bulls to take down the Central Division rival in six games. They swept the 60-win Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference Finals.
But Irving would suffer a fractured knee cap during Game 1 of the Finals. Love would dislocate his shoulder in the first quarter of Game 4 of the Boston series, causing him to require surgery that would keep him out for 4-6 months. Cleveland would end up falling in six games to the Golden State Warriors, giving Golden State guard Stephen Curry his first-ever NBA ring and the Warriors their first championship since the forward Rick Barry led the team in the 1974-75 season.
But the Cavaliers would be back.
This time, history would be right there with them.
After decades of waiting, the Cavaliers finally did it.
Not even a 3-1 deficit was enough to stop the Cavs from clawing back into contention and ultimately winning the whole thing. Three plays, The Block from James, The Shot from Irving and The Stop from Love, would be the trinity that would solidify the legacy of the Cavs’ big three and mark the trio as some of the best to ever suit up in a Cavaliers uniform.
James ended the series with averages of 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 2.6 steals and 2.3 blocks per game during the seven-game series, highlighted by a 27-point triple-double during Cleveland’s 93-89 win over Golden State in Game 7.
“I’ve never seen a man in my life tell an entire state: ‘Get on my back, I got you. Get on my back and I’m going to carry you. I don’t care if we fail, I’m going to wake up the next morning and I’m going to start working out and prepare for the next year,'” then-Cavs forward Richard Jefferson said in 2016, via the Associated Press. “… He was like, ‘I’m going to come back home because I promised them that I would do something.’ And he carried us the whole way.”
But the fun from the 2016 series wouldn’t last forever.
And, as talented as Cleveland’s big three was, one massive move in the offseason would rid the Cavaliers of their chance to repeat as NBA champions.
Cleveland again returned to the Finals one year after winning it all.
Kenny Honaker ·
This time, they had to worry about Kevin Durant.
The Warriors signed then-Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant to a two-year, $54.3 million contract in the 2016 offseason, adding the 2013-14 MVP to a roster that had won 73 games the season before. The four-time scoring champion fit in seamlessly with the Warriors’ roster, making his presence known during the Finals as he scored 35.2 points per game and shot 47.4% from the 3-point line during the series.
Cleveland was able to take one game, a 137-116 win over Golden State in Quicken Loans Arena. But the team lost in five games, leading to an offseason that saw the Cavs trade Kyrie Irving to the Celtics and make a flurry of signings in a desperate retool to try and keep pace with the Warriors.
The rebuilding years slowly inched closer when Irving requested a trade in 2017.
Still, the Cavaliers of old didn’t go out without a fight.
For one final time, the Cavs fought their way through their Eastern Conference foes for a chance to take on Golden State in the Finals.
Despite Cleveland’s best efforts to reshape its roster in hopes of winning one final championship, Durant and the Warriors swept the Cavaliers on their way to yet another NBA championship. James and Love fought valiantly throughout the series, but it wasn’t enough to stop the Warriors from scoring 116 points per game in the 4-game series.
Cleveland would select guard Collin Sexton with the Brooklyn Nets pick they acquired from the Irving trade, ushering in the rebuilding seasons that saw the Cavaliers reshape their roster with a healthy mix of home-grown and added talent of their own.
The rest is history. Only time will tell how far Cleveland’s new young core can take it in the future.