When you research basketball thoroughly, you learn to appreciate the teams that have been forgotten, the players whose feats have been surpassed and beaten. Not everyone has the talent or money to win championships every year, so the Cinderella teams that come up short give us reason to hope and inspiration to improve.
It’s these powerful, yet beatable teams that slip through the cracks, teams like the 2000s Phoenix Suns, 1980s Milwaukee Bucks, and 1970s Chicago Bulls that put up great fights but couldn’t reach the NBA Finals that are such intriguing stories. Another specific team that comes to mind is the 1991-92 Cleveland Cavaliers, a lone bright spot in an otherwise tortured decade for fans.
As their franchise was left destitute in the 1980s by the actions of owner Ted Stepien, the Cavaliers return to relevance in the late ‘80s came as a relief to fans and players alike. In 1988, behind the emergence of floor leaders Mark Price, Ron Harper, Larry Nance, and Brad Daugherty, the team won 42 games to clinch their first winning season in a decade. Cleveland would lose a tough five-game opening round of the playoffs to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, but the Cavaliers were back on the map.
A 57-win season fell by the wayside in 1989 as Cleveland again went out in five to the Bulls after “The Shot,” an iconic game-winner courtesy of Jordan. A third straight five-game opening round loss in 1990 and injury to Price in 1991 kept the Cavaliers from advancing in the playoffs, but 1992 saw them tie their franchise record with 57 wins and enter the playoffs as the third seed, eager to win their first series since 1976.
Eastern Conference First Round
The Cavaliers matched up with the 40-win 6th seed New Jersey Nets, led by Drazen Petrovic, Mookie Blaylock, and Derrick Coleman. Though Harper had since departed, Cleveland still relied heavily on the point guard – center tandem of Price and Daugherty.
In game one, Petrovic dominated his individual match-up to the tune of 40 points, but Price and Daugherty countered effectively with 35 and 40 points respectively, and the Cavaliers came away with a 1-0 series lead. Game two saw Cleveland jump out to a 16-point lead after the first quarter and coast to a 2-0 series lead thanks to poor shooting from the Nets and a steady offensive attack.
Game three sent the series to New Jersey, where the Nets needed a furious fourth quarter comeback to win their first game of the series and avoid a sweep. The Cavaliers returned the favor in game four, using a late fourth quarter comeback of their own to win their third of the series and eliminate the Nets.
Eastern Conference Semifinals
Coming off their first series win in nearly twenty years, the Cavaliers matched up with the Boston Celtics. Although they still featured their dominant “Big Three” of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish from their two championships in 1984 and 1986, the former stars were in the twilights of their respective careers. Chronic back issues would cause Bird to retire following the season.
Without Bird, Boston quickly fell behind in the series 1-0 when the Cavaliers beat them by 25 points in the series opener. A resounding recovery saw Parish and Reggie Lewis combine for 53 points in game two to knot the series at 1-1 and steal homecourt advantage for the underdog Celtics. Cleveland fell further behind as Boston held serve at home in game three, and the Cavaliers resurgence hang in the balance with Bird returning in game four.
Larry Legend was fairly ineffective with only four points off the bench, but Lewis erupted for 42 points to lead Boston. A similar outburst from Nance for 32 points complemented Price’s double-double and allowed the Cavaliers to force overtime, where they dramatically outlasted the Celtics to tie the series at 2-2 and save their season heading back to Cleveland.
Bird was again marginally effective off the bench, and the Cavaliers jumped ahead 3-2 with another convincing win at home. Cleveland only needed to take one of the last two games to advance to only their second Eastern Conference Finals in franchise history. The Celtics refused to go quietly and dominated back at home by 31 points to force a game seven, but a strong opening half in the finale allowed the Cavaliers to send Bird off into retirement and clinch a meeting in the ECF with their rival Chicago Bulls.
Eastern Conference Finals
Both Cleveland and Chicago were coming off grueling seven-game series in the semifinals, but the 67-win, defending champion Bulls clearly had the upper-hand as three-time MVP Michael Jordan led his team to a 14-point victory in the opener. Jordan and his sidekick Scottie Pippen struggled in game two, however, and the Cavaliers stole homecourt advantage with a 26-point win in game two.
Jordan again proved to be too much with 36 points in game three, and the Bulls reclaimed homecourt advantage with the win on the road. The gritty Cavaliers were able to knot the series at 2-2 again for the second straight series with a win in game four, making the ECF a “best-of-three” affair.
The Cavaliers were cold from the field in game five, and Jordan’s 37 points helped Chicago climb to within a single win of their second straight NBA Finals. Cleveland, exhausted after three tough series, managed to tie game six heading into the fourth quarter, but the Bulls pulled out a hard-fought win in the final period to eliminate the Cavaliers. Though they bowed out in six, the final appearance at home was a heartwarming way to end the season for the upstart Cleveland team and fans alike.
Though they returned with 54 wins a year later, the Cavaliers could never quite regain the magic from the 1992 season, and the franchise would toil in the lottery from 1999 until the arrival of franchise savior LeBron James and the team’s return to the playoffs in 2006. Cleveland would reestablish themselves as contenders until James departed in 2010, and his fabled return in 2014 allowed the team to build another contending roster that upset the heavily-favored, 73-win Golden State Warriors in 2016 and win their first NBA championship.