Path to a Trilogy, Chapter II: To Fit In Or Fit Out?

Ken Blase/USA Today Sports

Welcome to Path to a Trilogy, where we re-examine recent NBA events that have led to the Cavaliers and Warriors appearing in three straight NBA Finals. This series will be composed of several entries and will continue into the 2017 NBA Finals if necessary. Happenings of the past are written in the present tense, as they happened, to create a more vivid portrait of the NBA landscape as it was at the time the events took place. 

In Chapter II, we examine the initial struggles of the Cleveland Cavaliers as they adapt to life with LeBron James, Kevin Love, and new head coach David Blatt. We also take a look at the dominance of the Golden State Warriors under their first-year head coach, Steve Kerr. Chapter I of Path to a Trilogy can be found here.

Without further ado, this is Chapter II of Path to a Trilogy. Hope you enjoy.

Heading into the 2014-15 NBA season, much is made of the Cleveland Cavaliers and their new “Big Three” of Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving, and, of course, native son and local hero LeBron James. Many are also curious about the adaptability of head coach David Blatt, who is coming off leading Maccabi Tel Aviv to a shocking EuroLeague title; one NBA general manager tells that Maccabi was “outgunned at every position except coach.” However, he is about to embark on the toughest challenge of his entire coaching career: jumping to the NBA and coaching arguably the most talented roster in the league. Also, it is fair to wonder if he can cast his ego aside and work with James, one of the more famously strong-willed stars in sports.

Early on, the new-look Cavaliers struggle with their new way of being as Blatt tries to institute his well-renowned Princeton offense. In the first game of the season, which quickly turns into James’ own personal homecoming, Cleveland loses 95-90 to the New York Knicks; New York goes on to win just 17 games that season. The Cavaliers, and particularly their prized acquisitions, aren’t on the same page, and as it’s later disclosed, aren’t fully healthy, either. James misses eight games between December 30 and January 11 with back and knee injuries, and his team goes just 1-7 in that span, a period that included losses to non-playoff teams such as the Hornets, 76ers, and Kings. Also included in that time frame is a 112-94 loss to the Golden State Warriors on January 9. Part of the problem is that the Cavs are playing under a microscope many of their players are unaccustomed to; after all, Irving and Love, to this point, have never appeared in a playoff game.

Cleveland craters in James’ first game back from injury, as a 107-100 loss to the Phoenix Suns drops them to 19-20 on January 13. This game truly represents rock bottom for the Cavaliers; while James pours in 33 points in nearly 37 minutes, Love and Irving contribute just eighteen points while collaborating to shoot a combined 7-for-25 (28%). After this, though, Blatt’s team pulls it together, winning twelve games in a row in a three-week span from January 15 to February 5; the final win of this run is an impressive 105-94 home victory over the Los Angeles Clippers in a nationally televised Thursday night game on TNT. The streak ends the next night with a loss to James’ old playoff nemesis, the Indiana Pacers. Love has quite possibly the worst game of his season, scoring just five points and making two of his eight shots from the field.

On February 7, the night after that game and the night before another nationally-televised game against the Los Angeles Lakers, James takes to Twitter and sends out this message, which many interpret to be a thinly-veiled shot at the struggling Love:

While the Cavaliers destroy the ailing and undermanned Lakers the next day, virtually all of the discussion is about James’ tweet. Sure enough, after the win, James seemingly confirms that his tweet was directed in the general direction of the former Timberwolves star; Love had previously spoken about “fitting out” in the preseason. Still, even with the drama and social media finger-pointing, the Cavaliers are playing their best basketball of the season and continue to do so for the rest of the year. One of their best wins of the season is a 110-99 home win over the Warriors on February 26. The team loses just eight games over the course of the season’s final two months to finish the year at 53-29 and in second place in the Eastern Conference.

Meanwhile, the Golden State Warriors do not have nearly this much drama or adversity, as they win 21 of their first 23 games and never look back. The team completes an outstanding season, the first for newly-minted coach Steve Kerr, at 67-15 and at the top of the Western Conference. The Warriors’ consistency is so impressive that they never lose more than two games in a row at any point in the regular season. Players such as Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Harrison Barnes all have, to this point, the best seasons of their career. Curry’s year stands out in particular, as he emerges as a potential candidate for Most Valuable Player; the award becomes a two-horse race between Curry and Rockets guard James Harden. Curry also breaks his own record for three-pointers made in a season with 286 in 80 games. He emerges as one of the most popular players in the NBA, and some even argue that he has supplanted James as the face of a league awash in young stars.

Slowly but surely, the Warriors capture the public’s imagination with their exciting and unselfish style of play; Kerr has instituted a system that allows the Dubs to rank first in the NBA in three-point shooting percentage and assists. The Warriors are far and away the league’s best team in the regular season; the second-best team by record, the Atlanta Hawks, win 60 games but are viewed as overachievers who have defied odds and, frankly, the law of averages for a full season. The Warriors, on the other hand, are believed to be every bit as good as their 67 wins would suggest.

The Golden State Warriors are the West’s best team in the 2014-15 regular season. And while they have endured a tumultuous regular season, the Cleveland Cavaliers are the favorites heading into the Playoffs to come out of the East. The Cavaliers and Warriors are on a collision course to meet in the NBA Finals, but can injuries or other teams block the impact before it occurs?

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