And I’m a sportswriter, so I traffic in narrative at times. It’s funny that I’m also someone who loves advanced stats and delights in finding stats or numbers that help explain what we’re seeing (or maybe missing) when we just watch games with our eyes.
But by and large, if you’re going to write great stories, you need to find the human element of the game. Numbers are great and numbers are enlightening and numbers only get you so far. Hype only gets you so far. At the end of the day, in the biggest moments, sometimes human will, confidence and any number of non-trackable factors can kick in.
I especially noticed this during Ohio State’s run to the 2014 national championship. Yes, the numbers were showing that the Buckeyes truly were among the elite teams in the nation (and perhaps historically good at times), so someone paying attention to the numbers should have noticed.
But at the same time, just being around the Buckeyes, you could tell something was building. You could tell something was coming together, a confidence, a belief and perhaps a swagger that the Buckeyes simply weren’t going to lose. Break Braxton Miller. Break J.T. Barrett. Make Darryl Baldwin play a new position. Put freshmen and sophomores on the most important spots on the field. Who cares? The Buckeyes had it covered.
That’s why it was so funny watching national commentators predicting Oregon was going to win the national championship game. As good as the Ducks were on offense, it was like, did you not just watch Ohio State beat the No. 1 team in the country, an SEC team that already had rings on its fingers, in the South, no less? Was it not clear to you from that moment on that the Buckeyes were on a mission and were going to accept nothing less than seeing it to conclusion? I went to AT&T Stadium on Jan. 12 fully expecting Ohio State to win the national championship and saw exactly what I expected would unfold.
I get the same feeling watching this Cleveland Cavaliers team. To many, the Cavs had no chance when Kevin Love went down. Those doubters doubled down when Kyrie Irving finally succumbed to a knee injury in Game 1 of The Finals. Matthew Dellavedova is gonna help lead a team to the NBA title? Come on.
But again, people might have missed the forest for the trees. #ALLinCLE is the hashtag everyone is using because every team has to have a slogan these days, but there can be no doubting that watching even a minute of basketball that these guys are all in.
How else to explain the suffocating, swarming brand of basketball the Cavs have played the last two games, making a historically great offensive team into one that can’t even hit 60 through three quarters? The Cavs have things going for them that people seem not to be able to quantify, just like Ohio State did in its run to the title.
First, there’s an identity. This is often the most overlooked thing in sports, but Urban Meyer has figured it out. The man he sat a row or two behind last night, David Blatt, seems to have as well. Organizations that excel at the highest level have something that when chaos reigns, they can fall back on. For this Cavs team right now, it’s defense. Helped by refs that seem OK with letting them play with the title on the line, Cleveland has simply been physical and suffocating, rarely letting Golden State impose its will.
Second, there’s a belief. Do these guys ever look beaten, ever look like they think they’re going to let down? So much of sports at the highest level is a mental battle – a battle with consistency, a battle with handling both ups and downs, a battle with staying in the moment and not letting something like a 19-point run in the second half that cuts a lead from 20 to one get in their way.
(By the way, it’s no coincidence Dellavedova has become the darling of this team. He embodies each of the first two characteristics to a T.)
And then there’s the ultimate trump card, LeBron James. Just like Ezekiel Elliott put the Buckeyes on his back when they needed him most (seriously, how great was Elliott's first TD run vs Oregon?), James is the man who refuses to let them quit. He has his team working as a unit that complements well off of him, as he’s able to the center of things on the offensive end while others feed off of what he provides.
This is why I see Cleveland’s championship drought ending this year, and this would be a fitting team to do it, one whose teamwork and toughness are befitting of northeast Ohio.
I could be wrong – if Steph Curry makes 10 threes and scores 50 points against a tired Dellavedova tomorrow, I’ll have to reevaluate my stance – but to me, there’s no denying the Cavaliers have something going right now, the kind of thing that often ends in a ring.
Just ask the 2014 Ohio State Buckeyes.