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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
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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
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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