By Jake Brown (@JakeBrownRadio)
NBA fans got the matchup they wanted when both the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors breezed through the Conference Finals. You have the reigning NBA MVP in Stephen Curry vs the four-time MVP in LeBron James. You got King James taking the Cavs back to the NBA Finals in his second stint in Cleveland. Plus, the Warriors finally made it over the hump, cruising to the Finals for the first time since 1975, while the Cavs are seeking their first NBA title in franchise history. Not to mention that the city of Cleveland is looking to win a championship for the first time in 51 years.
It’s safe to say Cleveland is hungry for a title and it’s even safer to say that it wasn’t the easiest of roads getting here for the Cavs. After an offseason that featured an overhaul of their roster, it took time for the team to mesh. At 19-20, panic ensued. Allie Clifton, Cavs sideline reporter for Fox Sports Ohio, joined us on Brown and Troupe (heard on Play.it and iTunes) to break it all down.
“I will never forget that shootaround at UCLA,” Clifton said of the practice following the 19-20 start to the season. “The media, the scrutiny, the microscope surrounding that team was eerie. That feeling was one for the ages. Even in January, the media was saying, ‘David Blatt needs to be fired. Kyrie and LeBron will never figure it out. Kevin doesn’t belong here in Cleveland.'”
Clifton, a lifelong Cavs fan, wasn’t ready to give in to those thoughts with more than half the season still to play.
“Then there stood the big three at the time. The media just watching them,” said Clifton. “The team rattles off 12 straight wins. The trades come in. They fit. I never lost hope. I see what this team was working on and doing day in and day out.”
The trades she referred to were the acquisitions of J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, and Timofey Mozgov.
“They were huge. That was the turning point of the season,” Clifton stated. “They have found a way to make this thing happen pretty quickly in terms of integrating the new pieces and really turning this thing around from that point.”
While the trades may have turned the Cavs season around, King James has shown all season and especially in the playoffs why he’s the best player on the planet. Sure, his 27.6 PPG, 10.4 RPG, and 8.3 APG has been remarkable, but it’s not just the numbers that have spoken volumes.
“He demands excellence first and foremost of himself and it’s contagious. You want to be great. You want to the little things to be a winner. That’s what he has gotten out of his teammates and coaching staff,” the 26-year-old reporter said. “There was a time between the Chicago series and Atlanta series where he was in the gym for five hours because he was losing his mind not being able to play a game.”
LeBron has willed the Cavs to the Finals and will play for a championship for the fifth consecutive year. He’ll look to capture his third championship against the NBA’s best. The Warriors might be favored and own home court in the series, but that doesn’t mean much to Clifton.
“I’m saying Cavs in six, maybe seven. It’s so hard to go against a LeBron James-led team,” Clifton said. “They got depth. I find it right now Cleveland is so locked in, so focused, so determined and Iman Shumpert said this team feels like nothing is too big for them to handle.”
“They have been able to establish a different defensive identity in the postseason. They’re the number one team defensively when it comes to the playoffs. You got nine championship players inside that Cavaliers locker room. There’s some value to experience to this stage at this point of the season.”
While the Cavs and Warriors have been remarkable stories this season, Clifton’s story is quite intriguing as well. After majoring in education for three and a half years, she decided to switch to Communications and Sports Broadcasting before finishing her undergraduate degree at the University of Toledo. After playing basketball for the Mud Hens in college, she made the transition from a player to a broadcaster.
“To even have an NBA gig right out of college, that doesn’t happen very often and to have it happen in my home state,” Clifton said. “I get reminded daily how fortunate I have been. I’m really blessed covering the game I love.”
At 19-20, the Cavs turned the season around. At 22, Clifton changed her career completely. At 24, she landed the job she dreamed of.
“I was told no so many times. You’re told you’re not good enough. Worth ethic and a little bit of luck has been on my side.”
The Cavs and Warriors get the NBA Finals underway Thursday at 9 p.m. ET at Oracle Arena in Oakland.
Jake Brown is Program Manager as well as a Columnist at CBSSportsRadio.com. He hosts Brown and Troupe with former NFL tight end Ben Troupe on CBSLocalSports.com, Play.it, iTunes, and Spotify. Jake lives in Queens, NY and has lived through being a Mets, Knicks, Jets fan his whole life. Find him at the big game, concert, or in the studio.