CHICAGO — Thursday's celebration was subdued by series-winning standards, but that shouldn't be mistaken for any missing satisfaction after the Cleveland Cavaliers' 94-73 Game 6 victory over the Chicago Bulls at the United Center.
From the executive offices to rear end of the rotation, there was much of the satisfaction that comes from validation. It's just that the Cavaliers had actually advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals roughly an hour before the final buzzer, but the clock hadn't caught up yet. It was somehow even slower than the beleaguered Bulls had been.
Still, there were some hugs, nearly as many as there had been Chicago points—42!—in the final three quarters. Hugs between J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert, between David Blatt and Tristan Thompson, between Matthew Dellavedova and LeBron James, with the latter gripping the Aussie's neck tighter than Chicago's latest villain has ever locked a leg.
Later, there would be plenty of laughter in the locker room. Laughter as James, resting and then dressing prior to his trip to the podium, directed others to conduct their media sessions nearer to the showers, to clear some space in front of his locker stall.
Then James peered between reporters and cameramen and yelled at the guy lounging against a stall in the far corner of the locker room. Dellavedova was already dressed in black Levi's and a casual green hoodie over a black T-shirt, not the sort of attire one wears to a game when expecting to be sharing the podium with one of the planet's premier players after Cleveland's victory.
"Delly!" James said, through a smile. "Delly! Way to be ready! I'm right behind you!"
Just as he was on the score sheet on this most unusual, uplifting evening.
James scored 15, one of only 10 times in 168 playoff games he's scored so few, and the only time his team has won. That was second on the Cavaliers to Dellavedova who, forced to play more after Kyrie Irving aggravated his left knee injury, scored 19 on a dozen fewer shots than James took.
James was 7-of-23, dropping his shooting percentage to 39.9 percent for the series. It was a series that the Cavaliers, with Kevin Love sidelined and Irving hobbled, still won in six games. The Bulls were sometimes disinterested and often disjointed, but no one should dismiss what the Cavaliers did here.
They overcame what was, with the exception of his outstanding Game 5—in which he recorded his seventh-highest postseason game score, according to Basketball-Reference.com—among the least efficient series of their superstar's career. James might have heard more criticism if everyone, appropriately, hadn't been so busy complimenting the rest of the team's components.
In particular for Dellavedova, statistically one of the league's poorer rotation players for much of the season, especially for a supposed contender. After missing several weeks with a knee injury, he ended January having made just 27 percent of his two-point attempts, and the team's metrics nosedived whenever he replaced Irving. It was no secret that, even with Blatt's affinity for him, the Cavaliers were attempting to upgrade prior to the trade deadline.
"Yeah, I remember that," Dellavedova said. "You know, I guess I wasn't playing as well as I would have liked, helping the team."
The Cavaliers thought they had pried James favorite (and Rich Paul client) Norris Cole away from Miami in two separate three-team deals. But both times, Heat president Pat Riley backed out late rather than aid the enemy, sending Cole to New Orleans even though it netted Miami less in exchange.
So Cleveland had no choice but to stick with the Saint Mary's product, to play him, trust him, develop him, comfortable with his work ethic if not all of his athletic attributes. Even so, it seemed as likely that James would eventually serve as the backup primary playmaker in this postseason as Blatt shrunk his rotation.
But that was before Dellavedova performed well early in the first round against Boston, and before Irving's body started breaking down. That was before Dellavedova became a Cleveland hero and Chicago heel for locking Gibson's legs, a Game 5 incident that earned him a belated, meaningless technical and earned him jeers all Thursday night. They were jeers he drowned out with jumper after jumper for his highest offensive output of the season, with the Cavaliers' All-Star point guard sitting out after tweaking his left knee in the second quarter.
"Andy [Varejao] grabbed me an extra coffee at halftime," Dellavedova said. "And you know, just go out and play. That's about it."
And the booing?
That didn't trouble him much.
"Well, I mean, I've played at Gonzaga and BYU, and it definitely was a lot louder, the boos there," Dellavedova quipped after the game while sitting to James' right, part of an unexpected Big Three.
On James' left?
Thompson, who showed he was much more than a spare part in this series. Questioned in some corners for turning down a massive contract extension last offseason, the former No. 4 pick stepped into Love's starting role against Chicago following Game 1. While he didn't provide the same floor spacing as Love, he did give Cleveland plenty of extra possessions, averaging 11.2 rebounds per game, four on the offensive end.
More impressive, according to SportVU, 5.2 of those 11.2 were contested, with 2.8 of those 5.2 on the offensive end.
"I think myself, Delly, Kevin and Kyrie, the way we approached the season was we have a chance to play with someone that is going down as one of the best ever, so it just motivated us to work harder because at the same time we want to be great in our own right," Thompson said.
Thompson, Dellavedova and Irving were holdovers from last year's 49-loss campaign, and Thompson and Irving were centerpieces of teams that went 45-103 the two seasons prior.
J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert weren't part of any of those squads, but they did plenty of losing earlier this season before they arrived from New York, so there was some validation for them as well. Shumpert had been a coveted asset, but his career had plateaued after shredding his left knee during the 2012 postseason. Smith, the 2013 Sixth Man of the Year, had become so toxic that Phil Jackson's Knicks shopped Shumpert just to be rid of Smith's contract.
In fact, when the Cavaliers acquired Smith, Shumpert and a first-round pick while subtracting Dion Waiters, they weren't initially sure whether they would keep the former, not until he convinced them of his commitment during a visit to their training facility.
On Thursday, Shumpert and Smith were often together on the court, more than they've typically been for Cleveland, and they took turns catalyzing runs. They combined for 25 points, 15 rebounds, six assists and three steals in nearly 70 minutes, again giving the Cavaliers a little New York edge without all the Knick ineptitude. The Shumpert-led surge—20-2 in the second quarter—came after Nikola Mirotic clotheslined him.
"That wasn't smart," Shumpert said. "I didn't like that at all. There was no need for it and to stand over me, that wasn't smart."
He told Mirotic as much, in less than polite parlance.
Later, at a timeout, Smith shared a message with his former Knicks running mate.
"I just told [Shumpert], man, we came a long way," Smith said. "From being where we were at, with the guys we were with, we switched over like this. And the situation we're in now, that's the ultimate opportunity, and we've just got to make the best of it."
Their opportunity came due to the daring of general manager David Griffin, who took quite the chance when he cashed in several chips to acquire Shumpert, Smith and Timofey Mozgov. If any, especially Shumpert and Mozgov, failed to assimilate, and the Cavaliers continued to sputter, it's not clear they could have recovered, not with so much flexibility gone. And it may have cost him his job.
Instead, the executive with the unusual path—rising from his initial role as a Suns media relations intern—proved he was a lot more than someone who just does whatever James wants. The Cavaliers don't win this game, or this series, without the three guys he acquired in early January, which was just in time to steer the season back on course.
No one has had a choppier few months than the Cavaliers coach, but Blatt earned some validation Thursday too. His team played much harder and better than Tom Thibodeau's did, even though it was well-known that a Bulls loss would likely mean the end of Thibodeau's tenure. While he's made some excuses throughout the season, Blatt cut that back some during this series, and his team adopted more of a next-man-up attitude.
"I thought we behaved as a team in every respect," Blatt said. "Faced a lot of adversity coming into the series and during the series. Individually, we manned up and as a team we believed in ourselves."
"We're tougher than we thought," Smith said.
And while Blatt had some struggles in the series—from overthinking how to defend the pick-and-roll in Game 1 to trying to call a timeout he didn't have in Game 4—it's hard to find fault with anything he oversaw in Game 6.
His season-long faith in Dellavedova was rewarded, as was his willingness to stick for lengthy stretches with lineups that were working, something that Cavaliers insiders believe is one of the positive byproducts of his European experience. His team defended better than Chicago did, which, at least for a few days, should give Blatt less need to defend himself.
Did he find validation in his decision to leave Miami for Cleveland?
It's still too soon to say, not just with an appearance in the finals of a weakened conference. James was a bit hyperbolic in saying this had been his toughest test prior to the past five Eastern Conference Finals, especially when you consider the strength of the Celtics and Pacers teams he beat in the second round in 2011 and 2012, respectively. (In 2012, he had to overcome a top teammate's injury, when Chris Bosh missed the final five games of the Indiana series).
But what this series did, if anything, was start to validate his approach to leadership this season. He has seemed domineering at times, and some of his team-building strategy has come off as clunky, particularly during interactions with Love.
Yet it's clear that many of his teammates, especially the youngest and most impressionable, are buying in, clear when Thompson referred to him jokingly as "this father." It's one thing to believe in his ability to lift the team. But it's better when they believe that, with his backing, they have to do some of the lifting too.
That has become James' primary leadership principle, one he expressed in an interview with Bleacher Report last postseason. On Thursday, he dove in a little deeper.
"I think it's the development of the mind, more than anything," James said. "I think the game will take care of itself. These guys work their tail off before and after practice, off days they come and get their work in, but I think the development of the mind, how you think the game, how you approach the game mentally will take you a lot further than just going out and dribbling the basketball and shooting it. Obviously, we have stat sheets and highlights that everyone sees after the game and things of that nature, but how you approach the game mentally will take you a lot further."
He turned his attention to Thompson and Dellavedova, each unexpectedly taking a turn in the shadow of his spotlight.
"These two guys, he's not the most athletic guy right here, he's not the tallest power forward in the league, he's not the smallest power forward in the league, but you've got to keep him off the glass," James said. "This guy right here, he's not the most athletic, fastest, greatest shooter in our league; I'd put him out there with anybody. This guy has to guard Kyrie Irving every single day in practice. That's not an easy task. But when your mind is true and, I just think the game gives back to you and I'm blessed to have some guys that really care about the game of basketball in true form. Not the stat sheets and all that crazy mess."
The Cavaliers, for a while, were a crazy mess.
Now they're in the Eastern Conference Finals.
That's not cause for wild celebration.
Just some validation.