There are some who say that merely sneaking in to the playoffs in the NBA is a waste of time, especially in these days of the draft lottery for non-playoff teams, and there is some validity to that argument. After all, where is the excitement in slipping in only to get dusted aside in the first round? The Chicago Bulls claimed the No. 8 seed this past season, after all, at 41-41, and although they gave the Cavs a battle, winning one game out of five and losing out on the lottery was not cool beans for the squad from the Windy City. It didn't even save the coach's job.
So what could possibly make a year with a first-round exit memorable?
On December 12, 1984, the Cavaliers lost to the Atlanta Hawks for the first time in the '84-85 season. Unfortunately, up to that point, Atlanta was the only team that the Cavs had beaten. Two wins against Atlanta, and 19 losses through Dec. 12, and Cleveland was on pace to break the Philadelphia 76ers record for NBA losses, at the quarter pole of the season. A 2-19 record had the Coliseum quiet as a church on many nights, and in fact if it were not for the "star" of the team -- World B. Free -- there would be little if any reason to come out and watch Cleveland play at all.
The Cavs broke out of their funk in their 22nd game and put together a modest four-of-five run to at least make the 76ers mark of 73 losses seem safe. Of course, a mini losing streak followed, and for over a month the Cavaliers treaded water, winning a couple, losing a couple, but buried in the standings and seemingly only building for next year. A loss to Houston on February 16, 1985 and Cleveland was 19 games under .500 at 17-36, seemingly dead in the water with 29 games to go.
Then the Cavs won two straight before a loss to Utah...and then Cleveland ran off a six-game winning streak, five of them on the road, and when the Cavaliers returned home after losing the last game of the road trip, the record, while still poor at 25-38, saw Cleveland tied with the Hawks for the final playoff position in a very top-heavy East dominated by four teams and with the rest of the race wide open.
The Cavs went into a mini slump but Atlanta could not take advantage, although when the Hawks beat Cleveland on March 23, the teams were again tied, at 28-43.
But then the Cavaliers ripped off another six game winning streak to grab a three-game lead over the Hawks as frenzied crowds packed the Coliseum and as World B. Free and other Cavs grabbed microphones after the games and addressed the suddenly-full house. It was magic, and the Cavaliers closed the deal and clinched the final playoff spot on April 9th with a win at home against New Jersey while Atlanta fell to Washington.
When the smoke cleared, the Cavs were only 36-46...in almost any other season that would not be good enough, but in 1984-85 it was good enough, and Cleveland -- the Cavaliers of World B. Free, Roy Hinson, Ben Poquette, John Bagley, etc. -- faced a best-of-five first-round match-up with the juggernaut Boston Celtics - the Celtics of Bird, McHale and Parrish - who had finished as the top seed in the East and with the best record in the NBA at 63-19. Although winners of 34 of their final 61 games, the Cavs were given absolutely no chance to win even one game against the Celts.
True to form, Boston won the first game in the Garden, but it was much closer than it was thought it could be. Boston prevailed 126-123, but there was consolation to be had in at least playing Boston tough once, yes?
Game Two, far from being a letdown, was even closer. The Celtics barely escaped the Cavaliers, winning 108-106 to take a two-games-to-none lead in the series. And it was a series, even if it was unexpected. The Celtics had their work cut out for them to go to Cleveland to win one more game and end things.
The Cavaliers gave the home folks the thrill of the season by winning Game Three and staying alive. When the roars subsided and the scoreboard was shut off for the night, that scoreboard read Cleveland 105-Boston 98, and there would be at least one more home game in this startling and electrifying playoff dash.
Boston won Game Four. Cleveland winning would have been too much, perhaps, too supernatural. But even in defeat, the Cavs gave Boston all that they had, and once again Boston won by a mere two points, at 117-115, and it was all over. Boston had won the series three games to one...and yet both teams had scored exactly 449 points.
What will be remembered about that season? The 36-46 record? No, that would not be remembered. What would be was the fact that, even in a seemingly moribund basketball town, if a contender showed up, the people would show up too, and they would show up ready to party, and ready to roar.
Thanks, World B. Free and the rest of the 1984-85 Cavaliers for one hell of a ride.