The Cleveland Cavaliers had never made the NBA Finals in their history, but hope came in the 2003 draft. With the first pick they grabbed local high school phenom LeBron James and quickly improved. In James’ first season they jumped from 17 wins to 35 and were over .500 at 42-40 a year later.
In the 2006 season the Cavaliers won 50 games, made the playoffs and won a first-round series over Washington. Only a seven-game barnburner against the Detroit Pistons, one of the most respected teams in the East, ended their season, so there was plenty of evidence that the 2007 Cleveland Cavaliers were going to get better.
LeBron would average 27 points/7 rebounds/6 assists per game for the 2007 Cavaliers. The supporting cast was far from great, although guard Larry Hughes chipped in 15, while Drew Gooden, Anderson Varajeo and Zydruna Ilgauskas hit the boards and Sasha Pavlovic gave the team a three-point shooter. Still, whatever the merits of these role players, Cleveland would go as far as LeBron took them.
A 7-2 start gave way to a brief stumble prior to Thanksgiving, and the team was still a middling 15-11 at Christmas after an 87-71 home loss to Detroit that seemed to spell out the differences that still existed between the Central Division rivals.
Then Cleveland ripped off eight wins in nine games, including a home win over the respected Western power San Antonio Spurs. A seven-game road trip west that saw four losses cooled the Cavs off and on Super Bowl Sunday they again lost by double digits at home to Detroit, putting the record at 26-20.
The next stretch, taking the fans up to March Madness, was the one that gave Cleveland some separation on other teams in the East besides Detroit. They went 14-4, moved the overall record to 41-25 and were able to mostly hold serve the rest of the way. In the mediocre Eastern Conference, a second straight 50-32 record was good for the #2 seed in the playoffs, trailing only the 53-win Pistons.
Washington was again the first-round opponent, and given the weaknesses of Cleveland after LeBron this might have been a series. The Wizards had an explosive offense led by Gilbert Arenas in the backcourt, Caron Butler on the wing and Antwan Jamison in the post, but Arenas and Butler had been both hurt down the stretch and were unavailable.
Cleveland defended and rebounded well, and even though Jamison played at a high level, the Cavaliers got two wins at home and then LeBron dropped 30-plus in each of the road games in Washington, enabling Cleveland to deliver a series sweep.
Now the playoffs would start for real—even if #3 seed Toronto had been beaten, the Cavs path was still paved with #6 New Jersey, who had the core talent from the team that had made consecutive trips to the Finals just four years earlier, and then presumably Detroit would be next. It was time to find out how far King James had come.
New Jersey came to Cleveland on the first Sunday in May with Jason Kidd and Richard Jefferson representing the point guard-forward combo they used to win two straight Eastern Conference titles from 2002-03 and had since added prolific scorer Vince Carter to the backcourt.
But Cleveland, with the underappreciated coaching of Mike Brown, played very good team defense and hit the boards. That’s what Gooden and Ilgauskas did to great effect in Game 1, collecting 14 rebounds apiece, while James knocked in 21 points and Kidd was held to seven. An 81-77 win gave Cleveland the series lead and a similar approach in Game 2 got them another win. Gooden had 14 boards, LeBron went for 36 and dished 12 assists and the Cavs won 102-92.
The Cavs may have been soft for Game 3 back in the Meadowlands, because they were outrebounded and gave up 47 percent shooting from the floor, was the Nets’ core trio all had 23 points apiece. A 96-85 win kept New Jersey alive. The Cavs’ defense came back with a vengeance in Game 4, holding Kidd to 2-of-13 and Jefferson to 3-of-12, and Carter to an atrocious 6-of-23. Cleveland did not have a good offensive game themselves, but LeBron covered a lot of ills in scoring 30 and the team pulled out a clutch 87-85 win.
If the Game 4 win was a sign of a young team announcing its arrival, then the potential clinch game back home two nights later was an announcement of the maturity issues such teams face. The defense was soft, New Jersey shot 48 percent and stole an 83-72 win.
But then in Game 6 at the Meadowlands, the Cavs showed that whatever their flaws, they weren’t going to roll over in the face of taking a punch. They combined some good defense, with a rare display of three-point shooting, connecting on 11-of-27, and they got something winning teams usually do and it’s the unexpected play from a bench player. Donyell Marshall bagged six treys, scored 18 points and helped LeBron, who posted a 23/8/8, lead a decisive 88-72 win that clinched the series in six games.
Cleveland came into the conference finals against Detroit as the underdog. They were the lower seed, it was the farthest this group had advanced, and this was a battle-tested Piston team that had won the NBA title in 2004 and come within one game of repeating a year later.
Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton were a solid backcourt and Tayshaun Prince a double-digit scorer in his own right. Ben Wallace and Chris Webber manned the middle and they all helped the Detroit win the first two games on their home floor, both by the same 79-76 score. Even when LeBron dropped a 32/9/9 in an 88-82 win to make it a series, no one was thinking anything else but that Detroit was going back to the Finals.
Cleveland might have given observers some second thoughts, as James was again clutch in Game 4, at 25/7/11, and the Cavs won 91-87, but they still had to find a way to win at least one game in Detroit.
Which set the stage for the final night in May when James went into Motown and put one of the most electric displays in NBA playoff history. It was his “48 Special”, so named for his final point total and the fact he scored the Cavs’ last 24 points by himself. Cleveland won in double overtime, 109-107 and took control of the series.
A pumped city welcomed Cleveland home for Game 6 and there was no letup this time at home. The Cavs destroyed the Pistons on the glass and rookie Daniel Gibson came off the bench to score 31 points. James had 14 rebounds and 8 assists to go with a more pedestrian 20 points and the team coasted to an 98-82 win. The Cleveland Cavaliers were making their first-ever trip to the NBA Finals on the back of LeBron James.
The NBA Finals would be a tough row to hoe for Cleveland. The West was the superior conference, as evidenced by the fact it five teams with 50-plus wins, compared to two in the East. San Antonio’s 58 wins were third-best in the West during the regular season, while being eight games better than Cleveland and five better than Detroit.
The Spurs beat a 61-win team in Phoenix, and while they got a break by the stunning exit of 67-win Dallas and league MVP Dirk Nowitzki in the first round, the Spurs were a decorated team with rings from 1999, 2003 and 2005. The core of the team was the same as it is today, with Tim Duncan in the post, Tony Parker in the backcourt and Manu Ginobli gunning from downtown, then a slew of role players ably mixed in by head coach Gregg Popovich.
Duncan took away Cleveland’s usual rebounding edge and made it his own in Game 1, with a 24/13 night, as solid Spurs’ boardwork keyed an 85-76 win. The Cavs closed off the glass better in Game 2, but the offensive weaponry by San Antonio was too much. The Cleveland guards were being exposed by Parker, who scored 39, while Duncan’s 23/9/8 essentially offset James and his 25/7/6. An 11-point win meant San Antonio held serve at home.
Cleveland came home for the middle games and the defense was tough, as the Spurs averaged 79 ppg over Games 3 & 4. But they got unexpected help in Game 3 from Bruce Bowen, the reserve who hit 4-for-5 from behind the arc, part of ten treys for the team and the 75-72 win ended any doubt over who was getting the ring.
The Spurs closed it in Cleveland two nights later. James had a 24/6/10, but merely being good was not enough against a complete team, as Duncan grabbed 15 rebounds and Parker scored 24. San Antonio survived an exciting 83-82 game and clinched its fourth championship in nine years.
There could still be no doubt about the pride Cleveland fans could take in their team and their young star beating Detroit a year earlier than anyone expected. Surely this Finals trip was the first of many to come—trips that would end with rings.
Of course we know how it worked out—after three years of playoff losses, LeBron got his future NBA Finals trips and rings with the Miami Heat. The city of Cleveland is back in basketball no-mans land, with the 2007 Cleveland Cavaliers remaining the high point in franchise history.