You could see the play start to form as soon as LeBron James grabbed the defensive board late in the fourth quarter. Instinctively, teammate Matthew Dellavedova began running towards mid-court. James, never putting his head down, spotted the Australian, gave up the ball and immediately signaled for Delly to throw it right back.
In Miami, James was on the receiving end of plays like this from Dwyane Wade for four years. On this occasion, back home in Cleveland, it was a scrappy kid from Down Under who knew exactly when – and where – to throw the ball to a rampaging James. Delly has developed a comfort level with the game’s best player that makes it seem like they’ve played together for years.
“I would say it [chemistry] developed over the season,” says teammate J.R. Smith, “but at the same time, when you’re playing with someone like LeBron, all he needs is someone to play extremely hard and that’s what Delly is doing.”
Dellavedova has forged a reputation during these playoffs; the home crowd treats him like a favorite son, chanting his name with a vigor unheard of for any player not named LeBron. Opposing fans boo him, but ask any one of them if they’d like a player like him on their team and the answer would be yes.
Along the way Dellavedova earned the respect of his teammates, including James, who has praised the Aussie every chance he gets. Dellavedova says, although James spoke to all the players at the start of the season about what he expected from them, the on-court synergy between he and James grew organically.
“He talked to everybody a little bit about what he expected out of the players, and things like that,” said Dellavedova. “Then I think it [chemistry] has kind of grown as the season has gone on, especially in the playoffs. But, yeah, I think most connections on the court happen organically, and just through the experience and playing together.”
During these Finals, the two-man combination of James/Dellavedova had logged more minutes than anyone else on the Cavs’ roster (332 minutes, more than 30 more than any other combo). In Tuesday night’s Game 3 win, James and Dellavedova scored or assisted on 78 of the Cavs’ 96 points.
“He’s made of steel, or something,” James said post-game during his on-court interview with ESPN’s Doris Burke. “If there’s a ball on the ground, he’s going to be the first guy to the ground. He showed up multiple times tonight. He’s huge. He’s huge for our team. He gives us that grit, that grit that we need. He gives us everything until the tank is empty, and he has a small little reserve tank that he continues to work through. He’s huge for us.”
It’s amazing the difference a few months make. The notion of Dellavedova as a cult hero during the regular season seemed far-fetched. He was serviceable as a back-up to Kyrie Irving, averaging just over 20 minutes a game during the season, but the Cavs entered the playoffs as favorites to win the East on the strength of play from James, Irving and Kevin Love. Delly was an afterthought.
Injuries to Love and Irving have catapulted Delly into the national spotlight, and the kid has delivered. His blue-collar approach endearing him to the workman-like attitude of the Cleveland faithful.
“He’s the most Cleveland-like Australian I’ve ever met in my life,” said coach David Blatt. “If you’re from Cleveland you’ll know just what I’m talking about. The guys love Delly because he just plays with all his heart, and his cares first about the team, and he only loves the team.
“Whether he’s playing nine minutes or 40 minutes he’s going to give you everything he has. What’s not to love about the guy? And I tell you what, his biggest fan, is sitting home right now: Kyrie Irving. [He] loves the guy.”
Delly isn’t the fastest, quickest, or most athletic, but his commitment to fundamentals and his hustle are second-to-none. Irving says Dellavedova commanded his respect from the first moment they played together.
“”I’m definitely not surprised as much as everyone else is,” said Irving. “First time I played against him, he commanded my respect. Whether that be in a pick-up game, or us playing a scrimmage in practice, it was going to be hard-fought, and I knew exactly what I was getting into.
“So once you step into that – I want to call it a ring with Delly – you better be ready to rumble. So for anyone that’s ready to go, he’s ready to go all the time.”
The Cavaliers organization and it’s fans wouldn’t have it any other way.
Feature image via: Gus Chan / The Plain Dealer