The Cleveland Cavaliers were not supposed to win the 2016 NBA title.
Yet three weeks ago today, that's exactly what they did.
Now, it may seem strange to say that a team that was technically the preseason favorite among Vegas oddsmakers to win it all wasn't supposed to win the title, but things changed a lot between July 2015 and June 2016. By the time the Golden State Warriors started 24-0, the Cavs' status as favorites had been wiped away. When the Warriors blew out the Cavs in Cleveland in January -- with Stephen Curry saying the visiting locker room still smelled like champagne -- it seemed difficult to see any way for Cleveland to win it all. Depending on how you viewed things, the firing of David Blatt four days later either gave the Cavs a bit of renewed hope or sealed their fate.
Either way, by the time the postseason started, it seemed a near foregone conclusion that whichever team came out of the West was going to win the title.
Yet through all that, I maintained a brief glimmer of hope that Cleveland could win it all. In fact, as the Oklahoma City Thunder took a 3-1 lead over the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals, I started to allow myself to think that this might in fact be the Cavaliers' year. That hope faded with the Warriors comeback, and finally died when the Warriors took a 2-0 lead, absolutely obliterating the Cavs in Game 2.
In fact, I remember the exact moment I gave up on the Cavaliers winning the 2016 title: it was at halftime of Game 2. As silly as this sounds, I'd been looking at buying tickets for a Sia concert in Connecticut for a few weeks leading up to this game. But the concert was scheduled for one day after the 2016-17 NBA season would likely begin. I'd held off on buying the tickets, because if the Cavs won the title, I wanted to be in Cleveland for the banner-raising game, and I didn't think I could fly back from Cleveland the next day and make it to the concert that night.
So convinced the Cavs were done, I bought the tickets and started mentally preparing for what I thought would be an incredibly short series. When the Cavs won Game 3, I was torn, because part of me wanted the series to be over quickly so I could go home -- thanks to some weird scheduling circumstances, I'd only been home for 5 days since May 12, and was staring at the possibility of not being home again until June 26 if the series went 7. There was part of me that was okay with the series going back to the Bay Area if only to see some friends again. The thought of the Cavaliers actually winning the series didn't remotely enter into my mind at that point.
My mood toward returning to Oakland for Game 5 shifted drastically the night after Game 4. I got back to my hotel room late that night and was hoping to go to sleep quickly, because the flight back to Oakland was early in the morning. But before I went to sleep, I decided to check my Twitter timeline one last time. And that's when I stopped caring about the Finals entirely.
When I first saw the tweets that Christina Grimmie had been shot after a concert in Orlando, I wanted to believe that it was just a bad Twitter hoax. But it quickly became obvious that those reports were far too real. I just kept refreshing Twitter, hoping it wouldn't be true, or that there'd be an update that she was recovering and she'd be okay. I don't know recall exactly when I finally fell asleep, exhausted more from crying than from a day of covering basketball.
Waking up to the news that the worst had happened was devastating. Basketball was the furthest thing from my mind at that point. While most people on the flight were discussing whether Draymond Green would be suspended for Game 5, I was simply trying to hold back tears -- and probably failing, as I'm sure some of my colleagues could tell you. I couldn't fathom why someone would want to kill Christina. She'd been one of the nicest, most genuine people I'd ever met, and it seemed like everyone who had the pleasure of knowing her wanted nothing but the best for her. That she could be taken away from the world when she had so much left to give back to it seemed incomprehensible to me. I covered the practice day before Game 5 and Game 5 itself, but basketball seemed inconsequential by that point. I barely remember the brilliant Game 5 performances of Kyrie Irving and LeBron James. I mostly just remember being in a state somewhere between shock and disbelief that the series was returning to Cleveland. I still just wanted to go home.
Still, I didn't think the Cavaliers were winning the title. In fact, it seemed almost preordained that the Warriors -- with Draymond Green back in the lineup -- were going to win Game 6 in Cleveland exactly one year to the day they'd beaten the Cavs in Game 6 in Cleveland to win the 2015 NBA title. But the Cavs took control from the opening tip and never relented, and when Stephen Curry fouled out and got ejected for tossing his mouthguard, it seemed like the tenor of the series had finally shifted.
After Game 6 had ended and both teams had left the court -- and most of the fans had left the arena -- the Cavaliers Game Ops crew played this clip from "Major League" on the Humongotron. Logically, I have to believe they played the edited version, but for some reason in my mind I vividly remember the uncensored version playing. And when Jake Taylor said "I guess there's only one thing left to do ... win the whole fucking thing", I said -- to no one in particular, since I was standing alone in the arena at the time -- "holy shit, they're really going to do this."
Once we got back to Oakland for Game 7, I distinctly remember how the vibe around the entire series had changed. The Warriors no longer seemed invincible, or even in control. The nonsense storylines that had once consumed the Cavaliers seemed a distant memory. At open practice the day before, LeBron James seemed unusually loose, singing and joking around in front of the assembled media. As the league ushered us out toward the end of the open practice, I hung back for a moment, speaking to one of my fellow media members and a team staffer. We watched LeBron go through his stretching routine, singing and practically dancing, and the other media member said to us both, "When LeBron is like this, you should be worried. He's not going to lose." And the three of us looked at LeBron, then looked back at each other with this look that said, "you know what? You might be right."
As I arrived at the arena for Game 7, I talked with a few different colleagues about what we expected for the game. Weirdly, no one wanted to go out and say with 100% confidence that the Cavaliers would win, but we all agreed that the only things making us lean toward the Warriors were historical factors: teams rarely lose Game 7 at home, no team had ever blown a 3-1 lead in the Finals, the Warriors hadn't lost 3 straight in almost three years, etc. But putting those historical trends aside, we collectively couldn't find a reason the Cavs could lose.
Still, I watched Game 7 through the most pessimistic prism possible. Every time the Warriors would go on a little run, I would say to myself "okay, here's where they put it away." There was one point in the second quarter where the Warriors had opened up a 7-point lead, and after a Kyrie Irving turnover, Stephen curry pulled up for one of his trademark deep 3-pointers. As he rose up, I immediately thought "game over." I was certain the shot would drop, the Warriors would go up by 10, and that'd be it. But somehow Curry missed. And when he did, even with the Cavs still down 7, I began to think that it might really happen for Cleveland.
It wasn't until the fourth quarter that I shifted from "this might happen" to "this is definitely happening", when Stephen Curry threw that ill-advised behind-the-back pass that went out of bounds. Golden State still had a 1-point lead at the time, but LeBron James erased that with a 3-pointer on the next possession , and the Warriors never had the lead for the rest of the game.
As the final buzzer sounded and the Cavs bench poured onto the court in celebration, I just stood there in shock. I had to fire off a post at the buzzer, which I did while still standing there not quite comprehending what I'd just witnessed. The closest I can remember to feeling like that was after a Bulls-Heat game in 2011. Dwyane Wade missed an 18-footer at the buzzer and the Heat lost by 1. I distinctly remember being in the arena and thinking "no, this isn't how this ends. There has to be something else, right?" (As it turned out, the only "something else" that day was Erik Spoelstra saying there were players crying in the locker room after the loss).
I'm not sure exactly when it sank in that the Cavs were NBA champions. Hell, it probably still hasn't. I half-expect to wake up one day and find that I'm back in a hotel in San Francisco waiting to go to Game 7. But until that happens, I'm happy to live in a world where the Cleveland Cavaliers defied expectation and won the 2016 NBA title.