In 2016, after a 52 year long drought, Cleveland was a city of champions once again. Lebron James and co. emphatically proved, that God does not hate Cleveland. He brought true joy to a city, conditioned to reject happiness like a bad kidney transplant, simultaneously assassinating the NBA’s greatest season ever, with the warriors going for 89 wins. No team in NBA history had ever come back from a 3-1 deficit in the Finals, but on the 20th of June 2016, the King’s men had a date with destiny. The game itself was not memorable in its entirety, but it really came alive as a spectacle in the final 7 minutes. Both teams were unable to create offense in the half-court, there were barely any uncontested shots, which resulted in a grueling and physical defensive showdown. But when it came down to the wire, it was the Cavs that made the plays to win the game. The 2 plays in question are the block by Lebron James on Andre Iguodala and Kyrie Irving’s 3-pointer to give the Cavaliers the lead, more famously known in Cleveland as ‘the block’ and ‘the shot’.
Some important context to know before this play, with 7:40 left in the game Andre Iguodala gets fouled by Richard Jefferson, and misses both resulting free-throws, which would have given Golden-State the lead. In fact, Iguodala had been in a free-throw shooting slump the entire series, shooting only 33% from the foul line. So one could imagine, he wouldn’t be too keen on being the one shooting free-throws with the game so delicately poised.
Now, with 1:55 remaining and the game tied at 89-89, Iguodala grabs the rebound off a Kyrie miss, passes it forward to Curry, and the Warriors are now in a perfect fast-break situation with Curry and Iguodala 2-on-1 with J.R Smith and a trailing Lebron James. J.R commits to Curry, Curry passes it back to Iguodala, and here’s where the 2 missed free-throws come into play. So, instead of just ramming into J.R, Iguodala moves to the right and tries to go around him to avoid the foul. That split-second, where he moves, gives Lebron just enough time to get there.
Now Lebron goes up with both hands, one hand on the right side of the rim and one hand on the left side, beacuse he knows Iguodala sometimes does the reverse-layups, such is the basketball IQ of Lebron James. As Lebron blocks the shot off his right hand…. his left hands hits the rim, which under NBA regulation would be goal-tending(i.e Basket counts, irrespective of the block shot).
But, in real time it all happened so fast, that there was no way the refs could have known. Keeping in mind this is the pre-Review Center era(Basketball’s VAR), and this call could not be checked, it had to be a complete guess on part of the officials. But it was ultimately the right call. The block was about as close to goal-tending, without it actually being goal-tending.
Ever since Lebron entered the league, everyone just assumed that he was going to have one of the great highlights of all time and as the years passed by he had the game winner against Orlando, the dunk on Jason Terry, the poster on Jusuf Nurkic and so many more memorable plays.
But the instant the block happened, everyone watching just knew, that’s the one he’ll be remembered for. Lebron has even publicly stated that it gives him immense pleasure to know that his greatest ever play, was a Defensive play.
More than 4 million shots have been made in the entire history of the NBA. Which one of them was the biggest has always been a matter of debate. Anyone who goes searching for that one shot would be wise to start with the last made shot of the last game of a season. Kyrie Irving’s shot in this game comes pretty close to ticking all the boxes.
At 1:09 on the clock, with both teams struggling to score, Cavs coach Ty Lue called a timeout. After Lebron’s block on Iguodala, the Cavaliers had momentum on their side, they just needed that one moment of offensive brilliance to take the lead.
Coming out of the timeout, Lebron in-bounded the ball to Irving and ran straight across the court to the corner, near the Warriors bench. It was clear, the play called was meant for Kyrie. Irving initially defended by Klay Thompson got switched on to Steph Curry, and went over to the right wing where he’s most comfortable on.
Herein lies the subtle brilliance of Kyrie Irving, usually when a right-handed shooter is going to step-back he crosses over from the left to his right because it gets him the momentum going into the shot and that’s what defenders are used to seeing. Kyrie actually does a side-ways dribble with his right hand which catches Steph completely off-guard because he’s expecting the cross, and this small adjustment creates enough separation to allow Kyrie to get his shot off.
When the shot went in with 00:53 remaining in the game, the Cavaliers staff and fans, probably for the first time in the series, believed they were actually going to win the championship. The iconic photo of Irving falling back awkwardly with the ball in mid-air will forever be etched in the brains of every Cavaliers fan. The story of Kyrie Irving’s career might not be fully written yet, but looking back on it ‘the shot’ will probably be the most important part of it.