Adversity is just another opportunity to prove yourself and Lebron and Michael had been proving themselves their entire careers. The next chapter in the lives of these two superstars would provide more challenges, leaving many wondering if we’d ever see them reach the summit again? Major changes were afoot albeit very different ones for both athletes but once again they would have a major impact on the basketball landscape as well as in the general sporting world. Both had worked their entire career chasing gold and they had achieved that with interest but what now for two of the greats?
The Third Stage: More Rings
Jordan shocked the world as he announced his retirement from the game following the three-peat and the tragic murder of his father in South Carolina. He had decided to walk away from the game and pursue a boyhood dream he shared with his father of playing professional baseball. It was a tough start for Jordan who played for the Birmingham Barons and the Scottsdale Scorpions but he was making progress day by day, finally finishing with a batting average of .252 for Scottsdale. However, former-teammates, fans, the game itself was crying out for MJ to return to the game. The game was having major Jordan withdrawals and eventually and thankfully Jordan started having NBA withdrawals. March 18th, the words “I’m Back” would become the iconic phrase that saw the prayers of every sports fan answered. Jordan would rejoin his Bulls for the rest of the 1994/95 season.
Lebron had won back-to-back titles but just failed to get that elusive three-peat. He saw his time with his superstar friends on the down swing and decided it was time to go home for some unfinished business. An unlikely return to Cleveland and talk of redemption followed what was another speculation filled off season, minus the circus that accompanied “The Decision”. This time though Lebron wouldn’t be joining a Cavs team with nothing besides himself going for it, now he’d have help. While away the Cavaliers picked up Kyrie Irving with the number one draft pick and would bring in one of the best power forwards in the game in Kevin Love. How much time would Lebron need with his new teammates to really challenge an improving field in the East and an extremely strong West?
Jordan Is Back
Now 31 and more than a season and a half out of basketball, there was some concern at what impact Jordan could have on a struggling Bulls outfit who were 34-31 by the time Jordan would take to the court against the Indiana Pacers. He would be playing with new teammates Toni Kukoc, Ron Harper, Steve Kerr and Luc Longley with the big departure being Horace Grant.
It wasn’t pretty for His Airness in his first outing, shooting a rusty 7-28 from the field and finishing with just 19 points in 43 minutes as his side lost by 7 in overtime. It wasn’t until his fourth game against Atlanta that signs the old Jordan rather than just an old Jordan might be back when he scored 32 and hit a buzzer beater to win the game. The next game would take him back to one of his favourite hunting grounds, MSG, it was here the return of Jordan seemed complete when he torched the Knicks for 55 off 57% shooting, stealing the narrow victory.
The Bulls finished the regular season with a 47-35 record to be the fifth seed in the East. In Jordan’s 17 regular season games he averaged 26.9 points, 6.9 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 1.8 steals. They would face the fourth seed Charlotte Hornets, who were led by their big men Alonzo Mourning and Larry Johnson, in the first round of the playoffs. The Bulls would wrap the 5 game series up 3-1 to set up a very well-rounded Magic in the semis.
Shaquille O’Neal was the most dominant big man of the time and the Bulls didn’t have the presence down low to combat his threat. To make matters worse, their powerful big man of previous years, Horace Grant, was now the starting power forward at the Magic. Penny Hardaway and Nick Anderson were offensive threats and Dennis Scott off the bench could light it up from deep. It was a very tough match up for Jordan and Pippen especially defensively to guard the perimeter and paint effectively. The Bulls would go out in six games but it would be educational in knowing where they would need to strengthen for next season.
Replacing Grant on the defensive end would be a difficult challenge but key moving forward and what looked like a risky move at first proved to be an inspired one when the Bulls acquired the eccentric Dennis Rodman. As eccentric as he may have been, he was a defensive and rebounding machine so getting past the quirkiness of his character would see them benefit greatly from his uncompromising play. Another big change that would prove to be key was BJ Armstrong departing to Charlotte and Ron Harper becoming the starting point guard.
The 1995/96 Bulls consisting of Jordan after a full off-season, Harper at point guard, Rodman in the post, Kukoc as sixth man, and Pippen an established star in his own right were ready to make a statement. Make a statement is what they did, losing only three times in the first half of the season and finishing with a record of 72-10 which was an NBA record until the Golden State Warriors 73-9 in the 2015/16 season. They would lose only two regular season games by double figures, their two home losses were by 1 point each, and they would win twenty six games by 20 or more points. Jordan would win the league MVP as his team would improve by 25 games on the season before and he would average 30.4ppg, 6.6rpg, 4.3apg and 2.2spg while playing for less than 40 minutes in 45 games.
The East provided little resistance to the Bulls marching towards the Finals as they swept Miami with an average winning margin of 23 points. In the semis they faced the Knicks who gave them their only loss in the East by 3 points in overtime at the Garden. In the Eastern Conference Finals, the Magic would be waiting and the Bulls and Jordan couldnt wait to exact revenge on Shaq and Penny’s team. In game one the tone was set with the Bulls winning by 38 points and that is with Jordan top scoring for them with only 21 points which is how many rebounds Rodman got in the game. Defence was where this game was really won though with Horace Grant, Dennis Scott and Nick Anderson being held for a combined 2 points and Shaq and Grant only pulled down 7 rebounds a third of Rodman’s total.
Sweeping the Magic aside would set up a Finals match up against the Seattle Supersonics. Seattle had had a very impressive season finishing top in the West with 64 wins and breezed into the Western Conference Finals where they beat out the Utah Jazz in seven. Shawn Kemp, Gary Payton, Hersey Hawkins and Detlef Schrempf with a solid supporting cast provided a fascinating match up. Kemp had size and athleticism that would be hard to contain, Payton was one of the best point guards in the game in any era and known for shutting down players, Hersey Hawkins showed at Philadelphia that he was a threat on offense not too dissimilar to Harper when he was at the Clippers, and Schrempf had range so the Bulls would have to respect his shot.
The Bulls would have the answers though and would rush out to a 3-0 lead in the best of seven series. It looked over for the Sonics but in the 4th game they lifted in front of their home crowd to take advantage of a complacent Bulls who put in a below-par offensive performance. Game 5 went the same way with only Jordan getting over 20 points while three Sonics (Kemp, Payton and Hawkins) getting over 20 each.
It was a wake up call for the seemingly unstoppable Bulls but with the last two games being in Chicago, it wasn’t quite panic stations. Game 6 would not be a pretty one with defense overshadowing the offense. Hersey Hawkins was limited to 6 points, Kemp and Payton under 20 and Sam Perkins who had been quite productive off the bench also was limited to 7 points. Jordan would be the top scorer for the Bulls but it wasn’t his finest offensive performance shooting 22% from the field for 22 points. He wasn’t far off a triple double (9 rebounds and 7 assists) but it was Rodman’s 11 offensive rebounds – one less than Seattle’s team total- and Pippen’s defense which netted him 4 steals and suffocated the Sonic’s threats that helped the Bulls get their 4th championship.
Jordan got the Final’s MVP just pipping Pippen and finished the playoffs with stats of 30.7ppg, 4.9rpg, 4.1apg and 1.8spg which overall were down on his previous playoff performances. Chicago were so far ahead of the pack with an overall record of 87-13 in 1995/96 that it seemed only age and their head office could stop the domination continuing.
Able to keep the key components of their team together, the Bulls entered 1996/97 season as hot favourites. The Bulls wouldn’t match last season’s 72 wins but they went close with 69 in a tough Eastern Conference. Five other teams in the East got 50 or more wins with the Miami Heat also breaking the 60 barrier. In the West, Utah broke 60 while another three got 50 or more.
Jordan would average 29.6ppg, 5.9rpg, 4.3apg and 1.7spg in the regular season but would lose out to Utah’s Karl Malone for the league MVP. He would play less than 40 minutes for most of the games (47) including only 23 minutes in a 42 point home win over San Antonio Spurs. Pippen would average over 20 points to take some of the burden off Jordan and help the Bulls be the top scoring team in the league for the second straight season with over 103 points per game.
Chicago would lose only 2 games in the Eastern Conference playoffs, once to Atlanta in the semis and once to Miami in the Eastern Conference Final. Against both Atlanta and Miami, the Bulls would beat them on their home courts by 20 or more points just to punctuate their dominance. Jordan would get his ideal opponent in the Finals against Utah and Karl Malone where – like against Barkley and the Suns in 1992/93 – Jordan could show the world he was the real MVP.
Karl Malone and John Stockton v Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, four Hall of Famers, four original Dream Team members and two tandem acts that would go down as two of the greatest of all time. Since Stockton and Malone teamed up in Utah they had always been around the mark but had never quite reached the pinnacle so there was a sense that this could be their time but the Bulls were irrepressible.
During the regular season the teams split their series one win a piece and Game One would highlight just how tough the series would be. Jordan scored 31 points and dished 8 assists but it was with scores tied 82-82 at the end of the game that Jordan delivered his most Jordanesque play. He received the ball outside three point territory with Byron Russel on his heels, he went right then switched left to leave the Utah forward in his wake before pulling up just inside the arch and nailing the jumper leaving zero time on the clock.
In Game Two it was more comfortable for the Bulls who never trailed in the game and held off a last quarter fight back from the Jazz to win by 12 and give the Bulls a two nil lead in the series heading to Salt Lake City. The performance from Jordan this game was immense as he narrowly missed a triple double with 38 points from 55% shooting, 13 rebounds and 9 assists. In comparison to Karl Malone’s 20 points off 30% shooting, 13 rebounds and 1 assist.
Utah and Malone were far from done though and with the series returning to the Delta Center for Game Three they’d be looking to get one back and use that momentum to take a series lead at home. The night would belong to the Mailman with 37 points and 10 boards as the game played out for them as it had done for the Bulls in Game Two.
It was a seesawing contest in Game Four albeit more a slugfest with no one able to really take the game over offensively, Jordan had 22 and Malone 23. Utah led after the first quarter, Chicago led at the half, the scores were tied going into the last quarter and Utah did enough while restricting the Bulls to 17 last quarter points to their 22. It wasn’t pretty but the Jazz had tied the series to set up a crucial Game Five.
The “Flu Game” aka Game Five was the type of game and performance that legends are made of but in Jordan’s case it was an exclamation point on a career of legendary performances. Jordan was clearly unwell and struggling physically from the beginning of the game and at times required assistance to the bench during stoppages.
The Jazz were merciless and started the game strongly to race to a 13 point lead. The second quarter saw the misfiring Bulls light up for 33 points (Jordan scored 17of them) after the lead had blown out to 16 but they still trailed at the half. After the third quarter they were still trailing by 5 points and the Jazz were getting it done as a team (Five of their players would get double figures). The Bulls – thanks to an under-the-weather Jordan – were able to hang in there and in the final quarter Jordan put the team on his back and carried them over the line. He scored 15 of their 23 points in the final term including the three pointer which gave them the lead that they wouldn’t relinquish. He ended up with 38 points which was more than the entire Bulls team minus Pippen who had 17 points.
The series would return to Chicago as would the momentum. Despite this, the Jazz would start Game Six very well and would lead for most of the game until the final quarter where they’d be outscored 16 to 26 to turn a six-point lead into a four-point loss. Kerr hit the shot at the top of the key with five seconds left that gave the Bulls the lead after Jordan had found him off the double team. A steal and assist to Kukoc by Pippen wrapped up the series and crowned the Bulls the back-to-back champions.
Jordan and Pippen had 62 of their team’s 90 points and MJ was the top scorer with 39 to go with his 11 rebounds. For the Jazz it was another even point-sharing night with four of the starters getting into double figures but once again – as had been the story of this series – no one stepped up to take control when needed. A big part of this goes to the excellent defensive effort by Rodman on Malone during the series who helped limit the power forward to just over 23 points a game. Jordan would get Finals MVP with 32.3ppg, 7rpg and 6apg whereas the season MVP – Karl Malone – would finish with 23.8ppg, 10.3rpg and 3.5apg.
The following season the Bulls were once again able to keep their core members together as speculation grew over the future of the most dominant team of the 90s. Chicago would have to start the season without Batman’s Robin with Pippen out injured for the first 35 games of the season. During this time the Bulls would go a solid 24-11 but it was clear that some of the mystique of invincibility had worn off. Upon Pippen’s return against Golden State on January 10, the Bulls would go 36-9 to finish with the equal best record in the league with the Utah Jazz.
Jordan was named the league MVP with averages of 28.7 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.7 steals in what wasn’t a spectacular stat line for the 34 year old MJ but he did a lot of it without his deputy. The East still had 5 teams with over 50 wins as did the West but the Bulls were the only East team to crack 60 wins as opposed to the West which had Utah, the Sonics and the Lakers all reaching the 60 win mark. For many, this would be the West’s best chance to end the Chicago run.
The first two rounds of the playoffs were business as usual with the Bulls dropping only one game which was against Charlotte in the semis. It would be the Eastern Conference finals where the Jordan-led Chicago would face their biggest challenge in the playoffs in a long time. Reggie Miller and Larry Bird as coach had joined forces to create a well-balanced team with a lot of quality and experience.
The series started off with the Bulls racing to a two point lead in no small part to the tremendous defensive effort of Pippen to shut down the playmaking of point guard Mark Jackson. This translated into the dangerous Regie Miller being restricted to just 35 points from 33.3% shooting in the first two games as opposed to Jordan’s 72 points at 48 per cent.
Games Three & Four would head to Indiana and give Pacers a chance to save the series. The first game was a tight contest and the teams went in to the last quarter all square but in a high scoring quarter it would be the Pacers who would take the game by two points with the last minute or so spent at the line for both teams.
Game Four was another close one. The Bulls were in control for most of it and took an eight point lead into the final quarter but with the next game heading back to Chicago the Pacers knew they had to lift and they did. They outscored the Bulls by 10 points in the last with Reggie Miller hitting a huge three pointer at the death to steal the points and keep the series alive.
As they often did when given a a wake up call, the Bulls responded in Game Five with authority. They completely shut down the offense of the Pacers until they took their foot off in the last quarter which they went into up 31 points. Travis Best and Miller top scored for Indiana with 14 points each with Jordan out scoring the two guards by one point. The Bulls defensive pressure forced the Pacers into shooting below 35% in the game while their three main offensive threats in Jordan, Pippen and Kukoc all shot around 60 per cent.
The series returned to Indiana and would be another close, seesawing battle. Miller would have an uncharacteristic off night from the field scoring only 8 points at 15% shooting while Jordan would score 35 at 52%. It was Rik Smits who would step up for Indiana – getting 25 points at 92% from the field – as well as the Pacers bench who outscored Chicago’s 25 to 8. The biggest lead at any of the changes was three points but it was the Pacers who would hold on at home thanks to some clutch shots by Travis Best and a Jordan slip on their final possession with a chance to tie or even win.
Home court advantage was proving the difference but at the beginning of Game 7 that looked like it might be about to change. The Pacers hit their first eight shots while the Bulls couldn’t hit the side of a barn with Jordan having an off night scoring only 2 first quarter points. Jordan stepped it up to score 13 in the second quarter but it was on the offensive glass that the Bulls were able to keep it close as they had 15 offensive rebounds to 1 in the first half.
After a torrid start, the Bulls went into the second half with a narrow lead. The third saw Reggie and Kukoc trade shots and it was the Croatian who shot 5 from 5 in the quarter compared to the rest of the team’s 2 from 11 that kept Chicago in front going into the last quarter. Some big shots from Steve Kerr and a more aggressive Michael Jordan kept the Pacers at bay as they held on to record a 5 point win and move on to face the waiting Utah Jazz. Second chance points were a major factor with Chicago finishing with 22 offensive boards (Jordan 5 and Pippen 6) to Indiana’s three.
Apart from a tough 5-game series against Houston, the Jazz coasted past San Antonio 4-1 and swept the Lakers in the Western Conference Final. They went into the series in ominous form and with the home court advantage.
Jordan would be the top scorer in the game with 33 but it would be the Jazz who would have a more even spread of scorers. The game would be a tough slog with neither team able to deal the death blow so it went to overtime. The fresher Jazz had the legs to pip the Bulls by three points and give them a series lead.
Confidence was high in Utah going in to Game Two and rightly so but Jordan had other ideas and he turned it on again with 37 points to have 16 more than anyone else. The Jazz made a run in the third quarter which gave them a three point lead to take into the last quarter but the Bulls would outscored them by eight to take a crucial 5 point lead and even the series heading back to Chicago.
At home in Game Three the Bulls were merciless against the Jazz. They routed them 96 to 54, restricting the visitors to 23 second half points with only Malone getting into double figures while four Bulls got into double figures and everyone that played scored. It was a huge statement by the Bulls and had many wondering if the Jazz could come back from such a humiliating loss.
To the credit of the Jazz team, they came out in Game Four with a lot more fight but as had been the case for this series and the last time the two met, no one was able to take charge of the series whereas Pippen and Jordan ran the show in the fourth game. The pair scored 62 points compared to Utah’s 82 and again it was only Karl Malone who breached the 20 point barrier for the Jazz. Despite this the Jazz kept it close at every break but the Bulls held on to win by four points and take a 3-1 lead.
The Bulls had a chance to close out the series at home in the United Centre but Malone put in the type of performance that his team were screaming out for as he piled in 39 points to combat the 30 by Kukoc who put on a tremendous shooting display of 11 from 13. Jordan added 28 but an improved second half saw the Jazz sneak a two point win and keep hope alive as the series would way or another end back in Utah.
It was another tight game with the Jazz holding a slight lead at every change and going into the last quarter up by four. Jordan and this Bulls team didn’t do Game Sevens though and MJ was determined to keep it that way. The Bulls made a run in the final quarter to outscore the Jazz and it was that man Michael Jordan who came up with a couple of big plays which included stripping Malone of possession with under 20 seconds left and down by one. He then dribbled down the other end faced up against Russel. With the clock winding down Jordan dribbled right before crossing Russel over and perhaps with the help of a slight push off created space for an open jumper which he made no mistake with.
Forty five points and the game winning shot was the perfect end to what many thought would be Jordan’s final game of basketball and the end of the Bulls dynasty. Jordan would get the NBA Finals MVP for the sixth and final time in his career. A perfect record in the NBA Finals and never to go to a seventh game would be key components to the legacy of His Airness but the story wasn’t quite finished yet.
The Prodigal Lebron
Lebron’s leaving Cleveland was an acrimonious split to say the least. The city of Cleveland felt betrayed like a jilted lover. Even Cleveland Cavaliers’ owner, Dan Gilbert, penned a brutal open letter aimed at James. So with that, it was a huge surprise to everyone that Cleveland was the destination chosen by Lebron after opting to leave Miami.
A lot had happened in the Akron-natives absence. The season following his departure, they went 19-63 which was the equal worst record in the league but it did help them get the number one pick the following year, Kyrie Irving. They also picked up Tristan Thomlson the same year with the 4th pick. The following three drafts got them 2 of the 3 number one picks with the other one being the 4th overall pick. All three picks were eventually traded for more established talent but there was a lot for Levron to work with and he had already gotten his rings so he could be patient.
Patience wasn’t needed though because in his first season back they reached the NBA Finals. Kevin Love joined in a three-team trade that saw number one picks Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins leave while mid-season JR Smith and Shumpert joined for 2012’s number 4 pick, Dion Waters. This revamped Cavs side with a good mix of youth and experience saw them improve to a 53-29 record from the 26-56 record the year before to finish second in the East behind Atlanta.
James would miss out on the league MVP to Golden State’s Stephen Curry and his points and rebounds would dip to below the levels he was achieving at Miami. His season finished with 25.3ppg, 6rpg, 7.4 apg and 1.6 steals.
As second seeds in the East they would face Boston first up who they would sweep without much trouble before facing Chicago. They beat Chicago in 6 and then impressively swept the top seed Hawks to have an easy run into the Finals against the Warriors. Despite the dominant lead in to the Finals, the Warriors were still the favourites and had only dropped three games themselves.
With the home court advantage and the Cavs without Kevin Love, the Warriors took the first game in a close battle. The Cavs started like a house on fire to lead by 10 after the first. Golden State pulled them back and it was all square during the last quarter. James had scored 11 of his team’s 25 fourth quarter points but missed the chance to win the game with 4 seconds left with the last shot. In overtime, the Warriors outscored the Cavs by 10 to 2 with 7 points from the line. Lebron was 1-4 from the field and had 2 of his 4 turnovers in OT but his 44 points for the game was the highest of both teams.
Game Two saw the odds get even worse for Cleveland when they lost Kyrie Irving to injury. James would have to now beat the team with the best record in the NBA and the current MVP as the lone recognized star. Like the superstar he is, he stood up to keep his team in the contest going into crunch time, getting a triple double with 39 points, 16 rebounds and 11 assists in the process. He again had the last shot to win with 2 seconds left but missed, after scoring 10 of the side’s 25 fourth quarter points.
In overtime he went 0-4 from the field but he did hit three free throws to help his team grab a huge win against the odds.
As the game went back to Ohio, the Warriors were still considered heavy favourites. But from the get-go, the Cavs came out firing and led for basically the whole game. Lebron poured in 40 points compared to the 41 of Curry and Klay Thompson combined and he also pulled down 12 rebounds and dished out 8 assists in another super effort. He did get help offensively from an unlikely source in Matthew Dellavedova who had 20 points of his own. The Cavs had built a big enough lead going into the last that a late rally by the Warriors was not enough to stop Cleveland going up 2-1.
Game Four and the city of Cleveland were becoming believers, a win in this game would put them up 3-1, a position which had not been reversed in Finals history. Unfortunately for the Cavs, the “real” Warriors showed up for this one and controlled from start to finish. It was a very even performance for the Warriors starters offensively and they kept James quiet with only 20 points. The final winning margin was a resounding 21 points and the series was now tied.
Game Five was now back in Oakland and the momentum had switched to the Warriors. James had come to play though and his 40 points in a trouble-double game meant his team were able to hang in there for most of the contest. In fact the the Cavs were within 1 point with under five minutes left before Curry and Andre Iguodala sparked a 19 to 7 run with the pair contributing 18 of those points. Lebron had put in a solid performance but the Cavs team couldn’t get it done against the many weapons of Golden State. Timofey Mozgov who had been the Cavs top scorer last game only played 9 minutes which had a big impact on the team who were already down Love and Irving but had a big advantage in the middle with Andrew Bogut out.
Game Six would see the Warriors come out strongly but the Cavs rallied in the 2nd quarter to get within 2 points at the half. The Warriors would go on another spurt to lead by 12. The final quarter would be a high scoring one with both teams getting over thirty. With 29 seconds left James found JR Smith who hit a three to pull within four points but misses by Smith and James from range and the Warriors making their free throws meant they fell just short.
Andre Iguodala would win the Finals MVP, the Warriors their first NBA title but Lebron would win a lot of respect for the way he carried his depleted team and gave the Warriors a scare.
2015/16 season would see the core group of Cavs retained but star point guard, Kyrie Irving would miss the first 24 games due to injury. In that time the Cavs went 17-7 but they finished the season top of the Eastern Conference with 57 wins. They would replace coach David Blatt with Tyronn Lue in January at what some would suggest was Lebron’s request. James had another solid season similar to last season but would go the whole regular season without registering a 40 point game. Golden State’s Steph Curry would win the MVP again and the Warriors would also beat the Bull’s 72-10 season by going 73-9.
Cleveland would sweep Detroit and Atlanta in the first two rounds before beating Toronto in six to reach the NBA Finals again. Golden State would also make it after coming from 3-1 down to Oklahoma in the Western Conference Finals. The two teams played each other twice in the regular season with the Warriors winning both games by an aggregate margin of 40 points which included a 34 points home loss to the Cavs. Despite Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving suiting up for this series the Warriors were overwhelming favourites.
Games One and Two would go to script with 15 point and 33 point victories to the Warriors in Oakland. Golden State won 7 of the 8 quarters across the two matches on the back of balanced contributions from the whole team as the Splash Brothers weren’t firing as they had been most of the season. Lebron wasn’t taking control of games although he was posting decent numbers including being one assist away from a triple-double in Game One.
Game Three back in Ohio wasn’t expected to present anything different than the previous four results between the two throughout the current season. However a remarkable reverse saw a completely different result end in a 63 point turnaround from the previous game. A strong first quarter of 33 to 16 had the Cavs playing catch up the whole game. Lebron and Irving outscored the Warriors double act by 62 to 29 and despite no Love, the two Cav superstars were able to do enough with their supporting cast to show the series wasn’t quite dead yet.
The Cavs were seen as a real chance of tying the series although many thought it would be just delaying the inevitable. It was bad news for Cleveland because The Splash Brothers finally turned up as they combined for 63 to outscore the two Cavs by 4 points. It was a close game but a burst in the last quarter saw them earn a 9 point win. Lebron had stepped up in the 4th getting 11 of his 25 for the game but it wasn’t enough to stop the Warriors taking a commanding 3-1 lead back to Oakland.
This game was set to be the crowning glory to an outstanding season by the Warriors although they would be missing the influential Draymond Green who was suspended after picking up his fourth flagrant of the playoffs. Lebron and Irving were having none of this and the two scored 41 points each compared to the combined 62 of Curry and Klay Thompson. James and Tristan Thompson were big on the boards too, pulling down 31 rebounds to the Warriors forty three with Green missing and Bogut getting injured early being a big factor. A dominant second half saw the Cavs pull away from Golden Stae to outscore them by 15 in the half and ultimately win by that margin.
Cleveland were now 3-2 down and had earnt a stay of execution but no team had come back from 3-1 down in the Finals before and a team with the Warriors record made it still an unlikely scenario. Back home in Ohio inspired the Cavs to start strongly again. They held Golden State to 11 points in the first quarter while scoring 31 of their own. Green was back but Bogut was out for the rest of the series however Green didn’t have the type of night that had become expected of him so despite the Splash Brothers having their usual contribution it wasn’t enough to stop a rampaging James (41 points, 11 assists, 8 rebounds) and his supporting cast. The series was now tied after a 14 point home win.
Game Seven would shift back to Oakland but the momentum had shifted to Cleveland. The Warriors started the strongest and ended the first with a seven point advantage. The big names weren’t shooting well but Kyrie Irving inspired an 11-0 run in the third quarter to briefly get the Cavs the lead and they’d only be trailing by one going into the last quarter. Green was having a big game (32 points, 15 rebounds, 9 assists) but James who had a triple-double stepped up in the last quarter with 11 of his team’s 18 points. They held Golden State to just 13 last quarter points and Irving hit a three to give them the lead with under a minute left. The Warriors would get three looks but couldn’t hit the shots – Curry missing two of them – while James was able to hit a free throw to push it out to four and secure the most unlikely of Championship victories.
James and his team created history by defeating the Warriors after trailing 3-1. It also added to Lebron’s legacy because the Warriors were such heavy favourites that expectations for a victory were almost non-existent outside the Cleveland locker room. He rightly claimed the MVP award for the Finals leading both teams in points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks, minutes and even turnovers. It was arguably the most dominant performance of an individual in a modern finals of any sport. It was such a strong performance that it reopened the Lebron James v Michael Jordan debate.
Third Stage: Head to Head
Jordan had returned to basketball after losing the drive and desire to continue on. He was at the peak of his powers when he left but doubts remained if he could get back to the top. The Bulls had seen some important changes to the first three-peat but Phil and Scottie remained. The new additions fitted in well to the system so Jordan had a strong group to work with.
After the disappointment of the first comeback season, going out to the Orlando Magic, Jordan would work tirelessly and obsessively in the off-season. The rest as documented above was history.
He could once again bow out of the game that he had dominated indivdually since coming in as a rookie in 1984 and in a team sense from 1990. His impact on the game both on and off the field was as big as any other athlete had had on their sport and sport in general.
Lebron had surprised everyone by returning home after an acrimonious split when he chose to leave for Miami. It was a brave decision and a true redemption story. Only by delivering on a title which had eluded the city in any major sport for 52 years would he be redeemed.
The first season he got them to the Finals against all odds but fell agonizingly short as had happened before in the Cleveland and Lebron story. They got a second shot the following year and this time the odds were even more stacked against them. Lebron though showed how far he had come as a player and leader when he was able to stand up and deliver when it mattered most. The redemption was achieved and history made but Lebron’s story isn’t quite finished yet.
Second three-peat Jordan (regular)
Cleveland II James (regular)
Second Three-peat Jordan (playoffs)
Cleveland II James (playoffs)
Check out the next and final part coming soon:
Miscellaneous: Amazing Men Doing Amazing Things