Prior to the two runs LeBron James had in Cleveland, the greatest era the Cavaliers had was from 1987-93. In that stretch, they won 50 regular season games three different times. The 1992 Cleveland Cavaliers edition was the best, reaching the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 1976.
Brad Daugherty, a former #1 overall draft pick in 1986 and a pure center, was the focal point. Daugherty averaged 22 points/10 rebounds. Larry Nance Sr was a solid power forward, averaging 17/8. If an opposing defense focused too much attention on these interior threats? No problem—Mark Price was one of the premier outside shooters of his time and knocked down 17 a game himself.
Nor did the Cavs lack for depth. John “Hot Rod” Williams was good for 12/8 off the bench and Craig Ehlo was a solid complement to Price, averaging 12/5/4 and hitting 41 percent from behind the arc. Mike Sanders, John Battle and Terrell Brandon all made their own contributions. There was nothing this Cleveland team didn’t do well.
The schedule sent them out west to start the season and they lost four of five. The Cavs began to gradually gain steam and on December 20th, began an 11-game win streak. They nipped Utah, the second-best team in the West by a point. They beat the playoff-bound Spurs. Cleveland knocked off Boston and New York, the two teams that joined them as possible challengers to Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference. By the end of January, Cleveland’s record stood at 29-13.
Chicago was running away with the best record in the entire league, but the Cavs were in control of the race for the second-best mark in the East. In February, they pulled out a 113-112 win over the Bulls and then won at New York, 92-89. Cleveland finished the regular season 57-25—tied with Portland for second-best in the NBA, though still ten games behind Jordan’s Bulls.
An old friend in Bill Fitch was waiting in the first round of the playoffs. Fitch had coached Cleveland to its only conference finals appearance to date back in ‘76. After a stint with the Celtics, where won the 1981 NBA title with Larry Bird, Fitch was in charge of the New Jersey Nets. He had a couple 20ppg scorers in Drazen Petrovic and power forward Derrick Coleman. Mookie Blaylock was a capable point guard, who averaged seven assists a night and chipped in 14 points.
Cleveland couldn’t contain Petrovic in Game 1, as he went off for 40 points. The good news is that Daugherty did too. And Cavalier depth was decisive, as their bench outscored that of the Nets by a twenty-point margin. Cleveland getting to the foul line 45 times compared to just 19 for New Jersey certainly didn’t hurt either as the Cavs won 120-113.
They turned up the defensive pressure in Game 2, holding the Nets to 42 percent shooting. Daugherty’s 29/8 and Price’s 15 assists led the way in an easy 118-96 win. In an era where the first round was a best-of-five affair, Cleveland was closing on in a series win.
With a seven-point lead after three quarters of Game 3, the Cavs could smell the sweep. But Daugherty was being contained, finishing with just 14 points and the lead slipped away in a 109-104 loss. The negative momentum carried into the first quarter of Game 4, as New Jersey bolted to a 30-16 lead. Cleveland began chipping away and had the margin down to six by the beginning of the fourth quarter. Hot Rod Williams had a big game, with 20/13 and the Cavs dominated the fourth quarter, winning 98-89.
Boston was up for the conference semifinals. This was the final year for Bird, and his bad back had kept him out of the first round and would continue to keep him sidelined for the early part of this series. Kevin McHale and Robert Parish were still holdovers from the 1980s glory years. But the real threat on these new Celtics was small forward Reggie Lewis, a 21ppg scorer, and Boston had a bench long enough to match up with Cleveland’s good reserves.
The Cavs frontcourt made an immediate statement in Game 1, with Daugherty and Nance combining for 50 points and 26 rebounds. Cleveland blew open a close game in the second half and won 101-76. But they took their foot off the gas in Game 2, allowing the Celtics to shoot 59 percent and giving up homecourt advantage in a 104-98 loss.
Cleveland continued to be a little too soft in Game 3 at Boston Garden, outrebounded 45-33 and watching McHale turn back the clock with 22 points. Lewis poured in 36 and the 110-107 loss had the Cavs facing a virtual must-win spot in Game 4.
The fourth game of this series was one of the best of the entire 1992 NBA playoff year. Bird made his first postseason appearance, while the Cavs still couldn’t contain Lewis or McHale. But Nance was brilliant, with 32 points. Daugherty contributed a 20/8 line. Price knocked down 26 points and dished 12 assists. Williams off the bench was invaluable again, with 18/7. The game went to overtime and Cleveland survived, 114-112. Homecourt advantage was theirs again.
This time they didn’t let it slip away. Ehlo had has best performance of the playoffs in Game 5, with 20 points/6 rebounds/13 assists, supplementing Daugherty’s typical excellence and the Cavs cruised 114-98. They basically no-showed the sixth game at the Garden, playing little to no defense in a 122-91 blowout loss. A Game 7 on a late Sunday afternoon in Cleveland would settle the series.
It was really no contest. Daugherty posted a 28/9/6 line, while Williams knocked down 20 points. The Cavs led by fourteen after a quarter and stayed in control the whole way. The 122-104 win has a place in league history as the final NBA game for Larry Bird. For Cleveland, it marked a long-awaited trip to the conference finals.
Chicago had won 67 games, was the defending champ and had the greatest player of all time leading the way, so no one was really banking on Cleveland winning this series. But there was no question the Cavs were deeper, enough so that you couldn’t really write them off. And their performance in this series basically vindicated that.
They got a game on the road, winning Game 2 in Chicago Stadium behind Daugherty, Price and some stellar defense on Jordan and Scottie Pippen. But back home in Game 3, with a chance to get real control, they were run off the floor in the first quarter, falling behind by 19 points and losing decisively. Cleveland still bounced back and won Game 4. The fifth and sixth games were each tight going into the fourth quarter, but the Cavs were outrebounded in Game 5, while Price had a bad shooting night in Game 6. They lost both games and the run was over.
It was still an excellent season and as good as any team that didn’t have Michael Jordan was going to produce in the 1990s. Cleveland would need their own superstar to take the next step. They had to wait over a decade, but eventually LeBron James was drafted and by 2007, they again reached this stage of the playoffs.