Channing Frye has waited 11 years for this moment. Richard Jefferson has waited 13 years to get back. Together, the close friends are perhaps two of the more unlikely teammates to be playing in the NBA Finals together.
Frye and Jefferson celebrated the Cavaliers’ Eastern Conference championship together in the visiting locker room at Air Canada Centre early Saturday morning. Neither started the season here. Jefferson was expected to play for the Dallas Mavericks while Frye began the year with the Orlando Magic.
Jefferson is returning to the Finals for the first time in 13 years, matching the longest gap between Finals appearances, according to Elias Sports Bureau. Frye is making his first trip after 11 years in the league and a heart condition that forced him to miss a full season.
“God has always put me where I’m supposed to be. I’m a firm believer in that,” Jefferson said. “Yeah, I was supposed to be in Dallas. If DeAndre Jordan doesn’t leave, then I’m in Dallas 100 percent. And who knows? Who knows what goes on? But this is where I was supposed to be.”
Jefferson agreed to return to the Mavericks after Jordan agreed to join them, but neither of them signed deals last summer. When Jordan backed out of his verbal agreement to return to the Los Angeles Clippers, Jefferson went to Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and asked to be let out of his deal. Cuban gave him his blessing and sent him on his way to Cleveland.
“This is where I’m supposed to be right now,” Jefferson said. “I’m just enjoying it.”
Jefferson was a rookie when the New Jersey Nets were swept by the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2002 NBA Finals. He returned again the next season when the Nets lost to the San Antonio Spurs in six games and has spent the last 13 years trying to get back.
“It’s like having a boy on your first try,” Jefferson said. “If you get it done early, it takes a lot of pressure off the rest of your career.”
Jefferson and Frye have evolved into two important pieces on the Cavs’ second unit that has enjoyed so much success in this postseason. Jefferson is shooting 46 percent from 3-point range while Frye is shooting a team-best 58 percent from deep this postseason. His 26 3-pointers rank fourth behind J.R. Smith, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving despite playing a fraction of the minutes.
Frye missed the 2012-13 season with an enlarged heart while a member of the Phoenix Suns. He returned the following season and has not had any further complications. Now he’s finally headed to the Finals for the first time in his career, although he never spent much time wondering if it would ever happen for him.
“I don’t really think about it like that,” Frye said. “I’ll think about it maybe at the end of my career. But for me, I’m just out there playing, trying to play the right way.”
While Frye is under contract for two more years, Jefferson is on a one-year deal and acknowledges he isn’t sure how much longer he’ll play. He turns 36 a couple of days after the Finals end, meaning this could be the last Finals trip of his career.
While Finals appearances could make nice bookends to his career, he isn’t happy just getting there.
“This is the most talented team I’ve ever been on, and just really built for what you need,” Jefferson said. “I’m the one guy that probably didn’t have the biggest smile on my face. I’ve been here before. I’m definitely having fun, I’m relaxed. But you want to see a smile on my face and tears in my eyes? Talk to me after four more wins.”