2016 NBA Finals: Overlooked Moments That Keyed Cleveland Cavaliers’ 3-1 Comeback

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 19:  Andre Iguodala #9 of the Golden State Warriors goes to the basket against J.R. Smith #5 of the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game Seven of the 2016 NBA Finals on June 19, 2016 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

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In early April, with the NBA on hiatus amid the coronavirus pandemic and the country desperate for sports to watch, ESPN re-aired Games 5 and 7 from the 2016 NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers.

While basketball fans across the country tuned in, so too did those who actually played in the game.

Kevin Love, part of a group text featuring Cavaliers who were on the 2016 title team, told Bleacher Report, “We were just breaking down the game and going back and forth and just reliving it.”

“That’s a bond that will really never be broken,” Love continued, now four years after the Cavs took down a 73-9 Warriors team. “It doesn’t feel like that long ago that, you know, we had come back from 3-1 and won away from home and ended that 52-year drought, so that’s something that will always be, you know, right there, top of mind, that you can never take away from us.”

While moments like LeBron James‘ block on Andre Iguodala, Kyrie Irving‘s game-winning dagger over Stephen Curry and Love’s defensive stop on Curry immediately come to mind, a comeback from a 3-1 deficit took far more than just three plays.

Packed into the seven games were little moments that helped Cleveland climb out of what was previously an inescapable hole, and those moments were led by guys not named LeBron, Kyrie or Kevin.

These are the top unheralded plays, players and moments of the 2016 NBA Finals that, while rarely talked about, helped the Cavs take down Golden State.

Richard Jefferson Steps in for Concussed Kevin Love in Game 3

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 8:  Richard Jefferson #24 of the Cleveland Cavaliers celebrates during the game against the Golden State Warriors in Game Three of the 2016 NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers on June 8, 2016 at Qu

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Following a 17-point, 13-rebound performance in Game 1, Love took an elbow to the head from Harrison Barnes in the second quarter of the Warriors’ Game 2 victory. After he re-entered the game and showed symptoms, the Cavs removed Love for good and diagnosed him with a concussion.

History was repeating itself.

Love had already missed the entire 2015 NBA Finals with a separated shoulder suffered in the first round of the playoffs, and he was in danger of again being sidelined. Although heading back to Cleveland, the Cavs were in a 0-2 hole, even worse than the 1-1 split they had come out of Oakland with a year ago.

With Love officially ruled out for Game 3, the Cavs turned to 35-year-old Richard Jefferson to start in his place.

The 6’7″ forward allowed Cleveland to play smaller and faster, beating Golden State at its own game. The Cavs opened up a 20-point first-quarter lead and never looked back, winning 120-90 as Jefferson finished with nine points, eight rebounds, two assists and two steals while shooting 57.1 percent from the floor.

Rather than allowing his team to experience a crushing 0-3 deficit, Jefferson came up big when the Cavs needed him most and helped save the series.

Dahntay Jones Keeps Cavs’ Momentum in Game 6

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 16:  Dahntay Jones #30 of the Cleveland Cavaliers drives to the basket against the Golden State Warriors during Game Six of the 2016 NBA Finals on June 16, 2016 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly a

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Near halftime of Game 6, the Cavaliers held a 54-38 lead over the Warriors when Jefferson fouled Klay Thompson, drawing his third whistle of the game.

Jefferson had already started two games in the series for a concussed Love. Now, with Love back, he was the team’s most important reserve. Cleveland was down to the end of its bench and was forced to put in veteran Dahntay Jones.

Jones had spent most of the season in what was then known as the D League, signing with the Cavaliers as a veteran presence at the end of the year for a postseason boost. Just weeks after playing for the Grand Rapids Drive, Jones was sharing the floor with James and Curry in the NBA Finals.

Golden State went on a mini 5-0 run to cut Cleveland’s lead to 11 before Jones stole the momentum back.

He caught a pass from James while cutting to the basket, finishing through a foul by Draymond Green and capping off the and-1. Seconds later, he drew a second foul on Green when both went for a loose ball, giving the Warriors’ All-Star power forward his third foul of the half and going back to the line for a pair of free throws.

In 11 seconds of play, Jones scored five points and drew two fouls on Green. Cleveland stretched its lead back to 16 and went on to win Game 6, 115-101.

Iman Shumpert Makes Cavs’ First Three-Pointer of Game 7 with Four-Point Play

After hitting 32 three-pointers in their first three wins of the series, the Cavaliers were ice-cold from deep in Game 7. Nearly 17 minutes into the game, they still hadn’t made a triple, starting 0-of-8 from the outside.

Iman Shumpert made sure the Cavaliers’ ninth attempt counted.

Getting a rifle pass from James on the right wing, Shumpert knocked down Cleveland’s first three-pointer of the game while getting fouled by Shaun Livingston. The ensuing free throw made it a four-point play for the swingman, turning the Cavaliers’ 29-27 deficit into a 31-29 lead.

His huge triple helped break the glass on the Cavs’ outside shooting, and they went 6-of-17 from three (35.3 percent) the rest of the way after that 0-of-8 start.

Tyronn Lue Calls Out LeBron

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 13:  Head coach Tyronn Lue and LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers talk during the game against the Golden State Warriors in Game Five of the 2016 NBA Finals on June 13, 2016 at ORACLE Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER:

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At halftime of Game 7, LeBron James had played nearly 23 of the 24 possible minutes, putting up 12 points, seven rebounds, five assists, a steal and two blocks. No other Cavalier had scored in double figures, and only JR Smith had recorded more than a single assist. The Cavs trailed the Warriors 49-42, their epic Finals comeback very much in doubt.

Though James was doing everything for Cleveland, head coach Tyronn Lue thought he wasn’t doing enough.

What transpired was a heated discussion between star player and coach, during which Lue demanded more out of James. As detailed by Joe Vardon of The Athletic:

“Rather than show film at halftime, Lue went at LeBron. ‘You gotta guard Draymond Green, stop turning the ball over, be aggressive, shoot the ball, be aggressive,’ Lue said. ‘And I walked into the coach’s office. And this is what everybody told me. He grabbed [Damon Jones] and said, “Man, your boy’s trippin.” And D. Jones said, “I’ve been in the G League, I haven’t been here all year, but everything I read in the paper about how much you trust T. Lue, how much you love T. Lue as a coach, why not trust him now?”‘

“Lue continued, saying LeBron said to Jones, ‘F–k that’ and was ready to storm out. But before LeBron left, he found teammate James Jones and logged the same complaint to him. ‘Well, ‘Bron, is he lying?’ James Jones said, according to Lue. ‘F–k you, too,’ LeBron yelled back.

“‘And then he went out and dominated the second half,’ Lue said. ‘After the game, ‘Bron said to me, “You know how to push my buttons, don’t you?”‘”

After Lue challenged James and the four-time MVP sought advice from longtime NBA veterans like Damon Jones and James Jones, Cleveland and the four-time MVP responded.

The Cavs outscored the Warriors 51-40 in the second half at Oracle Arena, and James recorded 15 points, four rebounds, six assists, a steal, a block and only one turnover.

Lue getting the absolute best out of James the way he did was risky, but it worked.

JR Smith’s Big Threes, Key Defense Saves Game 7

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 19:  J.R. Smith #5 of the Cleveland Cavaliers shoots against Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors in Game Seven of the 2016 NBA Finals on June 19, 2016 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly ackn

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Smith was the third-leading scorer for the Cavaliers during the 2016 Finals, behind only James and Irving, and he played brilliant defense at times against Curry and Thompson.

At no point were his shooting and defense needed more than in the second half of Game 7.

Trailing the Warriors 49-42 at halftime, the Cavaliers needed a big third quarter to stay in the game. Golden State was capable of going on incredible runs in short periods of time, and momentum was shifting toward another such run in the third.

After a couple of jumpers by Smith and Tristan Thompson cut the Warriors’ lead to three, Thompson scored the game’s next five points and pushed Golden State out to a 54-46 advantage. Just minutes into the second half, Cleveland’s halftime deficit had only grown larger.

When the Cavs needed a spark more than ever, Smith caught fire.

After drilling a three-pointer with Green right in his face, Smith hit a second three-pointer less than a minute later to cut the Warriors’ lead to just two. An Irving layup tied the contest, stopping Golden State from potentially blowing the game open.

On defense, Smith’s biggest contribution won’t ever show up as a stat on any box score, but it helped lead to one of the most famous plays in Finals history.

Following a rebound by Andre Iguodala, the Warriors started a fastbreak with only Smith between Iguodala, Curry and the basket.

While backpedaling, Smith centered himself between the two, switching his attention first to Curry before a pass back to Iguodala in the paint. He quickly had to turn his whole body around to contest Iguodala’s layup long enough to make him bring the ball down, which allowed James to catch up in transition.

If Smith hadn’t gotten his body around in time to defend Iguodala without fouling, James’ block probably never would have happened, and the Warriors would have taken a late-game lead.

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