When the buzzer sounded after the Cavaliers’ 93-89 win on Sunday, all the eyes were on LeBron and Kyrie, and rightfully so.
LeBron had just fulfilled his promise of delivering Cleveland an elusive championship, and Kyrie capped off an epic second half performance with the “Shot Heard Round the World” to bring home the title.
But a championship isn’t won by simply riding the coattails of your two best players. And in a star-driven league, it’s often the role players that make the title-winning difference.
Here’s a look at the unsung heroes of Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals, or what is now widely regarded as the “biggest” game in league history:
Though he was misfiring for the majority of the first half, he found his stroke just as it looked like Golden State would break the game open.
With the Warriors on the verge of going up double digits early in the second half, JR’s brief barrage of 3-pointers kept the Cavs in the contest, while changing the momentum and pace of game.
Smith did get his fair share of attention post-game, however, for his shirtless partying and this heart-warming press conference that will leave you in tears.
Love has been somewhat unjustly criticized all series for his lack of aggressiveness and production on both ends of the floor. A lot of this can be attributed to the matchup nightmares that Golden State causes for non-physical bigs like Love.
But when his team needed him most, he came up big. On both ends.
With his teammates misfiring early on, Love went back to what made him an All-Star in Minnesota. He crashed the glass. Hard.
K-Love controlled the offensive glass early on, netting the Cavs second-chance opportunities when it looked as if the Dubs would jump out to a big lead early.
But his aggressiveness on offense pales in comparison to his efforts on the other end.
With less than a minute remaining and the Cavaliers up 3, Love was switched onto an isolation with the league MVP with 15 seconds left on the shot-clock.
Notorious for defending with his arms rather than his feet, Love’s textbook footwork in this sequence allowed him to stay with every pup-fake, crossover, and shimmy Steph threw at him, forcing Curry into a contested 3-point shot.
Say what you want about Love, but he earned his entire contract with this defensive possession.
Coach Lue has been a revelation for the Cavs for the way he’s handled the egos of his players, LeBron James in particular. But his impact goes far beyond his command for respect; he simply out-coached and outsmarted the NBA’s Coach of Year for the entirety of this series, Game 7 in particular.
His in-series adjustments were superb, with one of these being the limitation of the switches on pick-n-rolls, as the complicated and excessive switches just led to confusion and countless wide open layups for Golden State in the first two games.
The shortening of the rotation was also critical for the Cavs, and while Steve Kerr tried to follow the “strength in numbers” mantra, Lue’s shortened rotation did the trick while on the Golden State side, impactful players like Shaun Livingston and Leandro Barbosa were losing minutes to James Michael McAdoo and Festus Ezeli.
But Lue’s tactics in the 4th quarter of Game 7 will be what’s remembered the most about this matchup between two Phil Jackson apprentices.
Tyronn constantly switched from big to small lineups down the stretch, which led to Steve Kerr having Festus Ezeli in the game having to guard perimeter players.
LeBron’s six quick points with Ezeli on him changed the landscape of the game, and put Cleveland up 2, and they would never trail again en route to their first title.
While LeBron and Kyrie may get all the glory, it was these guys who did the dirty work and played just as big a part in ending Cleveland’s title drought.