LeBron James didn’t hide from a truth that became especially clear Wednesday night. His team’s task is to take on a historical obstacle. There was no use pretending the talent levels of each team were equal.
“How do you put together a group of talent but also a group of minds to be able to compete with Golden State, to be able to compete for a championship?” James said on Thursday afternoon. “That's what GMs and presidents and certain players [try to do.] It's not every player. Every player does not want to — sad to say — but every player doesn't want to compete for a championship and be in a position where every possession is pressure.”
Acceptance colors the way James has been speaking about the Warriors for the past few days. James and his team are on the verge of being swept out of the NBA Finals, and he knows why. It’s because his team is facing an astonishingly talented team, one built like few in NBA history.
James can address the Cavaliers’ deficiencies this summer by hoping the front office can revamp the roster, again, or by looking elsewhere in free agency. For now, though, nothing can be done to change this group.
Finals sweeps have only happened eight times. It takes an extraordinary event, or an extraordinarily talented team, to put one together. It takes mental toughness from the winning team, and the ability to stifle the fighting spirit teams develop when they are on the verge of elimination.
“We've never done that in our four years, sweep The Finals,” Warriors veteran Shaun Livingston said. “It's an incredible opportunity.”
The Lakers have a dubious distinction when it comes to playoff sweeps. They became the first team to participate in a sweep of every round of the playoffs in 1989. It took a killer’s mentality in each round to accomplish that.
“We don’t exhale; we don’t wait for the fight to come to us,” said A.C. Green, who played on that team. “Now it’s Game 4, the mentality was, ‘Let’s let them know this is gonna be their last game in the first quarter.’”
But when they got to the Finals, disaster struck. Because of two unlucky events — injuries to their starting backcourt of Byron Scott and Magic Johnson — the Lakers found themselves on the wrong end of a Finals sweep. They are still the only NBA team to sweep the first three rounds only to be swept in the Finals.
Four of the eight Finals sweeps in NBA history have involved the Lakers. Thrice they were on the losing end — in 1959, 1983 and 1989. The Lakers swept the New Jersey Nets in 2002. Longtime Lakers broadcaster Stu Lantz had the call for the 1989 and the 2002 series, and recalls lessons from both in closeout games that lead to sweeps.
“You don’t want teams to develop any kind of confidence,” Lantz said. “I’m sure for Friday’s game the Warriors should have the mentality we can’t come out lackadaisical and … let’s jump on them early and make them think about being down 3-zip.”
While an unmerciful mentality can take over in elimination games, there is a human element that can factor into sweeps. Clyde Drexler remembers that from the 1995 series when his Rockets swept the Orlando Magic.
“You really feel bad for the other team,” Drexler said. “You have the utmost respect for the competition. It’s sad that someone’s gotta lose but you don’t want to make anybody feel bad. You want to win but you want everyone to feel good about their accomplishments.”
Drexler barely focuses on the fact that his team swept its opponent in the Finals and the historic nature of that accomplishment. All he can remember is how hard it was year after year to even make it — and how much it meant to him to win for the first time.
That phenomenon is part of what makes sweeps so rare. A chance at the Finals feels precious to players and their pride steps in when facing elimination.
“Close-out games are the hardest things that you can ever experience in the playoffs,” Warriors point guard Stephen Curry said.
For the Warriors, a sweep would be something new.
They’ve accomplished just about everything else. They have two championships already. Last year they lost Game 4 in part because of a 40-point performance by Kyrie Irving. Cleveland traded Irving to the Celtics last summer and the Cavaliers have no consistent second threat after James, making the likelihood of their extending the series lower.
Drexler liked Cleveland’s fight in Game 3, but thinks they know their chances are finished.
“Now they’re thinking we’re down 3-0, even if we win this game we’ll go back to Oakland just to get spanked,” Drexler said. “That’s crossing their mind. They may never tell you that but they’re thinking that. Even if they win Game 4, Game 5 is not going to be in their favor.”
James has been swept in the Finals before. The last time a Finals sweep happened, a 22-year-old James had led his team to the 2007 championship series where the San Antonio Spurs beat the Cavaliers in four games. He knew then that his team didn’t have the firepower it needed to beat the league’s best teams.
Should it happen to him again, it’s more of a coincidence rather than an indictment on his legacy. Who could have predicted he’d run into one of the greatest teams ever constructed 11 years after his first Finals appearance.
“If they wind up getting swept … it’d be very, very hard to say he was the reason why they got swept,” Green said. “… That’s a hard one to sell to someone who has a very objective point of view. He literally has done everything he possibly could have done in this series let alone the other ones.”