A season full of twists and turns threatened to end prematurely for Kevin Love.
As he sat in a room in the back halls of TD Garden for Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics, still at the mercy of the league’s concussion protocol after knocking heads with Jayson Tatum in Game 6, there was one thought he couldn’t shake.
“This can’t be the way the story ends,” Love told ESPN of the mantra that got him through the game, watching the action unfold on a television with members of the Cavs’ video staff.
By late March, LeBron James had begun describing the story of the Cavs’ 2017-18 campaign — and all that went into it — as five seasons in one.
By the time the Cavs beat the Celtics on Sunday, without Love, to assure that the story would continue, James recalibrated his math.
“Well, it’s now six,” James said afterward. “It was five, now it’s six. It’s now six seasons in one. I guess this is the last chapter for our team in this season.”
The adversity that’s ahead of the Cavs right now is far more routine than the challenges they’ve faced to get to this point, but just as daunting: In order to win the championship, they have to beat an incredibly talented basketball team in the Golden State Warriors.
The Warriors are the biggest NBA Finals favorites in at least the past 16 years, according to ESPN’s David Purdum. However, the moment of calm before the storm that Cleveland earned by reaching a fourth consecutive Finals — all against Golden State — allowed the Cavs to wonder if they’re just unpredictable enough to pull off the upset.
“You just never know what you’re going to get from us,” Love told ESPN. “There are certain nights where the energy isn’t there. And there are certain nights where the third quarter, the second half, we just seem to not move the ball and are not ourselves. And there are certain nights where we’ll come out and hit 15-20 3s and some nights we’ll shoot 4-for-27 or whatever it was or 1-for-14 to start [Game 7]. There’s a lot of stuff that’s correctable, a lot of stuff that could have gone our way that didn’t, but we just stayed with it.”
As Love spoke, he was wearing a pair of Nike Air Zoom Generations, the original shoe in James’ 15-year-long signature Nike line. James’ entire life has been about overcoming the odds, a notion that rings true to this day as the still-dominant 33-year-old defies the concept of how long a player’s prime is supposed to last.
“I was talking to Lynn Merritt,” Love said, referring to the Nike executive who manages James’ brand and has become a father figure in the Cavs star’s life. “He was like, ‘What’s the hat I always wear? It says, “Always Believe.”‘ You just can never count this team out, even throughout all the chaos that we’ve been through — highs and lows, ups and downs — that’s just the way it goes. Listen, it’s a cliché, but one game at a time and anything can happen.”
• Oral history: Game 1’s wild end of regulation
• After wild Game 1, is this a series after all?
• Twitter reaction to JR’s Game 1 blunder
• Lowe: Which lineup gives Cavs best chance?
• So happy together: Warriors’ secret weapon
• Playoff MVPs: LeBron, Draymond and more
• NBA offseason guides for eliminated teams
• Tickets on Vivid Seats
“Obviously, this is the first active superstar I’ve ever played with,” Nance told ESPN. “Like, Kobe [Bryant] was on his [retirement] tour. And there’s not a better one to start with, right? I had a thought last year during the Finals, like, ‘Man, KD [Kevin Durant] might be creeping up as the best player in the world.’ Now that I’m here? I mean, [LeBron is] far and above. He’s far and above. It’s ridiculous.”
The Durant conversation will be reopened starting with Game 1 on Thursday (9 p.m. ET, ABC). The Warriors, with their plus-130 point differential in the third quarter during the 2018 postseason, could win their third title in four years without ever having to execute a full 48-minute game against the Cavs. Four well-timed runs on offense — a Warriors specialty — could be all she wrote.
But there is a consistency to James’ output that allows Cleveland to think it has a puncher’s chance.
“The things he’s doing are unbelievable, but it’s not just every once in a while,” Nance said. “It’s night in and night out. On the road, at home, it doesn’t matter. He’s the greatest.”
As superhuman as James has been this postseason, there were reminders in the locker room in Boston that even he has limitations. From the two massive ice bags covering his right leg, still sore from when Nance fell into him earlier in the series, to his admission that Tatum reached his stratosphere with a dunk on him in the fourth quarter — “He boomed me,” James said. “He boomed my ass.” — the signs were there that it might be asking too much for him to author four more wins on his own against Golden State.
Yet, in the same moment, as he prepared to take his postgame shower, he showed the type of resourcefulness it will take to beat a team like the Warriors. Kendrick Perkins, covered in nothing but a towel, approached James’ locker to hand over a bottle of body wash that still had some gel left in it.
“That’s OK, I got my own,” James said, proudly revealing how he had brought a few mini shampoo and body-wash bottles over from the swanky hotel the Cavs stayed at in Boston.
It was a savvy move from a savvy veteran who will have to reach deep into his bag to somehow beat this Warriors team four times in seven games.
This Cavs season, which could have ended unceremoniously far sooner than it has, keeps on going.
“I’ve said this has been one of the most challenging seasons I’ve had,” James said. “But like I told you guys, you guys are around us every day, right before the break, right before the trade deadline, I kind of reset. Didn’t know if we were going to make trades or not. Didn’t know what we were going to do with our team.
“But I just kind of reset my mindset and said, ‘OK, this is the season and let’s try to make the most of it.’ That’s what’s gotten me to this point, gotten our team to this point.”
“I had a thought last year during the Finals, like, ‘Man, KD [Kevin Durant] might be creeping up as the best player in the world.’ Now that I’m here? I mean, [LeBron James is] far and above. He’s far and above. It’s ridiculous.”
Larry Nance Jr.
Everyone says the Cavs are supposed to lose in these Finals. Then again, many people said the Cavs weren’t supposed to get to the Finals, either.
James, before hitting the showers, let it be known that he has no plans on giving up after coming this far.
“Have you ever seen ‘Finding Nemo’?” James asked, before quoting the fish named Dory from the Oscar-winning Pixar film. “‘Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming.'”