CLEVELAND, June 18- Lebron James warned Cleveland sports fans to expect a long rebuilding process when he returned to his hometown NBA club last July, then lifted them two wins shy of a title.
So long-suffering supporters are coping somewhat well to the fact their 51-year major pro sports title drought remains ongoing after the Golden State Warriors beat the Cavaliers four games to two in the best-of-seven NBA Finals.
With two of their top players sidelined by injuries and James trying to will a reserve lineup to a crown, the Cavs made the NBA’s winningest team and best scorers sweat before finally fading.
“When you fall short it hurts and eats at you,” James said. “I wish I could have done better and done more to help us get over the hump. But it just wasn’t our time.
“You’ve got to be healthy. You’ve got to be playing great at the right time. You’ve got to have a little luck. We were playing great but we had no luck and we weren’t healthy.”
Brazilian big man Anderson Varejao suffered a torn Achilles tendon in December so the Cavaliers traded for Russian center Timofey Mozgov, who became a crucial inside force.
Cleveland obtained Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith from New York, castoffs who became key support players around James.
Then came the post-season injuries. All-Star forward Kevin Love suffered a separated shoulder in the first round of the playoffs and Kyrie Irving suffered a fractured kneecap in the finals opener.
Both should be ready for next season, when title hopes will spring anew.
“This is a process,” Cavaliers coach Dave Blatt said.
“You don’t wake up one morning and fall out of bed and expect to win the NBA championship. You hope that you can but it doesn’t always work that way and our guys did more than anyone could expect to put themselves and put our organization in this situation.
“It’s tough to lose. Not every story has a happy ending. It doesn’t mean it’s a bad story. This was not. This was a good story. And I’m appreciative to everyone that was part of this.”
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The finals had the highest US television ratings since Michael Jordan’s final championship run with the Chicago Bulls in 1998, producing excitement and electricity to see how far James could carry his team.
Had Irving and Love been healthy, a thrilling series might have been one for the ages.
“The injuries they suffered were just too much,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said.
“This would have been a different series with Kyrie and Kevin Love. They had a phenomenal year.”
Blatt, a long-time coach in Europe hired a year ago after a Euroleague title run with Maccabi Tel Aviv, made the most of his first season in the NBA but had no magic to replace lost talent.
“We would have loved to have come into the series as a whole team,” Blatt said. “I feel badly for Kevin and Kyrie because they did so much during the course of the season to help us get here.
“Having had them in this series, it would have been significant. Those guys will get healthy and we will come back after it next season.”
There’s a good chance much the same roster will be back next season.
Love could opt out of the final year of his contract and become a free agent, but this is likely his best chance at winning a title after years of frustration with losing teams at Minnesota before coming to Cleveland.
James could opt out as well, but his two-year deal expires in 2016 just as NBA clubs get huge riches under a new television contract that will boost the salary cap.
Shumpert could draw interest from other clubs but the Cavs could match any rival’s offer to keep him while Smith has a player option and would face less pressure with a full Cavs lineup.
And Australian guard Matthew Dellavedova became a fan favorite and figures to get a pay boost in a new contract.