Kerekes: Despite victories, Cavaliers’ appear vulnerable

In the waning seconds of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, Indiana Pacers’ guard C.J. Miles put up a potential game-winning shot as 20,562 fans held their breath at Quicken Loans Arena.

They all exhaled a sigh of relief as the ball hit the rim and bounced toward the sideline. The Cleveland Cavaliers pulled out a 109-108 home victory to begin the playoffs and bolster their title defense.

However, the game was not supposed to be this close. The seventh-seeded Pacers rallied from a double-digit deficit to take the lead in the fourth quarter. The Cavaliers looked nothing like the team that defeated the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals last season. Their defense and overall play lacked energy at times.

The mediocre performance, as well as a lackluster end to the regular season, has some fans worried the team will not repeat as champions. Even throughout their struggle, the expectation was that a team led by superstars LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love would be favorites to win the title. Now, there is doubt.

What happens if that doubt becomes reality, and it’s not James holding up the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy after the final buzzer sounds on the NBA season? How would that affect both the team and the city they represent?

To start, the team would undergo a dramatic cultural shift. Right now—and throughout the regular season—the team was very loose and laid-back. There was no intensity. A championship had already been won, and it seemed like they were just waiting for the playoffs to start. That attitude resulted in bad habits starting, particularly on defense. Bad habits die hard and that may just be the Cavaliers’ undoing in the playoffs.

If the team were to not achieve its championship goal, James and other veteran leaders would institute the cultural shift. There would be no off-days and 100 percent focus. It would be like when James played under Pat Riley with the Miami Heat.

Of course, the city where more than one million people lined the streets to celebrate the team’s championship would be disappointed if they did not repeat. I just don’t think it would be very much. Remember, “The Land” waited for 52 years for another championship. A one year wait would be nothing to the hardy fans who stuck it out that long.

A good example of the mild disappointment was showcased after the Cleveland Indians lost the World Series in heart-wrenching fashion. If their Game 7 extra-inning loss would have occurred before the “curse” had been broken by the Cavaliers, the city would have been devastated. In fact, a similar situation happened in 1997, when the Indians lost Game 7 of the World Series to the Florida Marlins. It was used frequently as another example of Cleveland’s futility and Jose Mesa, who blew the save in Game 7, was vilified in the city.

Contrast that reaction to the present day. Bryan Shaw, who gave up the game-winning runs against the Chicago Cubs, has not been turned into a scapegoat by upset fans. In fact, the city is optimistic about the Indians, focusing more on the positive fact they even made the World Series. Because of the championship, “Believeland” has a different connotation. Instead of a city that has unfounded hope, it’s a city that knows its teams can get the job done.

Many believe the improved mood around Cleveland has coincided with its rise as a championship-winning sports town. By this view, if the Cavaliers do not win a title this year, the city will start declining again. That would not be the case. Cleveland’s gains will not be undone by basketball. The city won’t go into another gloom because it already has the championship it has been waiting for. Additionally, if the team were to shift to a more intense, hard-working mindset, that would better reflect the blue-collar city in which they play.   
Eddie Kerekes is a second-year chemical engineering major with a German minor. He currently serves as The Observer’s Sports Editor.