OAKLAND, Calif. — When this season began, George Hill was in Sacramento, Rodney Hood was in Utah and Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson were in Los Angeles with the Lakers. So it came as a shock to their systems at the February trade deadline when they became part of the biggest midseason reboot in history and joined LeBron James and the Cavaliers.
Going into Game 1 of the NBA Finals against the Warriors on Thursday night at Oracle Arena, the newcomers and the rest of the Cavaliers know they have been panned by critics as “The Other Guys,” the ones James had to strap to his broad back and carry to this point.
The Cavaliers are making their fourth straight Finals appearance, but this is a completely different team from the one beaten in five games by the Warriors a year ago.
They hear the criticism and do their best to ignore it. As Nance said, “You hear it. You can’t turn on SportsCenter without it. But at the same time, that’s everybody that’s not playing in the NBA championship. Feel free to judge us, make comments and do whatever else you like, but at the end of the day, we have a chance to win a ring. We’ve done what it takes to get this far.”
In truth, it hasn’t been easy. The Cavs went 5-7 coming out of the All-Star break, ultimately settled for the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference and had to go seven games against both the Pacers and the Celtics — with a sweep of the Raptors in between — to reach the Finals. But here they are.
“The first 50 games [with the Kings] were a roller-coaster, but the opportunity to be in this environment, this magnitude, is something that I can’t believe happened,” said Hill, who replaced Isaiah Thomas as the Cavs’ starting point guard. “So I’m truly blessed. I’m happy to be a part of the opportunity.”
The Cavs were buoyed by the news that starting forward Kevin Love was cleared from the concussion protocol to play in Game 1. Love’s presence should help settle things, but Hill acknowledged the difficulty they all faced trying to adjust to each other so late in the season.
“It’s a tough process,” Hill said. “To say, ‘You’re coming to a team that competes for the NBA Finals every year, that already has everything set in stone and how can you guys find a way to put yourself in position to fit in,’ that’s tough.
“If we could go back in time, we’d say, man, let’s start the season in October. We didn’t have a time machine to do that. So in 30 games, we had to do the best we could to help, learn the plays we can, learn the defensive schemes, and we’re still learning. Guys are still learning how to play NBA championship basketball with one of the best players in the world.”
Nance said it helped that he was accompanied by Lakers buddy Clarkson, and they bonded quickly in the same boat with Hill and Hood. “All four of us are just so thrilled to be here that we don’t really need any more direction between the four of us now,” he said. “We’re pretty well integrated.”
No one was happier to make the move than Nance, whose father starred for the Cavs from 1987-94. “It’s been wild,” Nance Jr. said. “With the Lakers, our goals weren’t an NBA championship. To flip the script and be here with the team I rooted for my whole life and to play with the greatest player in the world has been awesome. Growing up and seeing my dad play for the Cavs and now having the chance to do something his teams never did has been special.”