Kyrie Irving reminds LeBron James what he didn't have in Miami
LeBron has always dominated elimination games, but he's never had a wingman like Kyrie Irving.
OAKLAND, Calif. -- Sitting at his locker, LeBron James tore off the cellophane wrap that had encased his knees in ice and pondered the question.
"Off the top of my head?" James said.
He was asked if he remembered Magic Johnson's famous line when he played center for an injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the clinching game of the 1980 NBA Finals against the Philadelphia 76ers.
"Forty-two, 17 and seven?" James said.
He was close; Johnson had 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists in one of the most memorable performances in league history. Lost in all of it was a 37-point game from Jamaal Wilkes, including 25 in the second half.
Which brings us to the story of LeBron James coming through with another mammoth performance when facing playoff elimination on Monday night, and the new wrinkle that came along with it.
That wrinkle being Kyrie Irving.
James had one of the vintage performances of his career with 41 points, 16 rebounds, seven assists as the Cleveland Cavaliers avoided elimination with a 112-97 victory over the Golden State Warriors. James also had three blocks and three steals, by the way, as the Cavs forced a Game 6 Thursday night in Cleveland.
James' performance wasn't just Magic-esque; it was consistent with some of the best of his own career under these circumstances. LeBron, in fact, is the leading scorer in NBA history in elimination games (five games minimum) at more than 32 ppg -- followed by Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, Kevin Durant and Allen Iverson.
This was normal for LeBron.
But it doesn't always go his way because he rarely gets anything close to equal help. For his career, James came into Monday with a 2-4 record when facing elimination in the Finals, averaging 29.5 points, 10 rebounds and 7.5 assists. Well, he's 3-4 now -- with the potential for two more elimination games to go -- in large part because he had that help.
The kind of brilliance that Irving put on display -- one of the main reasons James wanted to return to Cleveland in the first place -- has almost never accompanied James in these moments. Irving may have officially arrived as an NBA superstar in scoring 41 points on 17-of-24 shooting to go with six assists on Monday. Together, they became the first duo to both score 40-plus points in an NBA Finals game.
"You got a guy like this who's very special," James said, gesturing toward Irving next to him at the interview table. "Probably one of the greatest performances I've ever seen live."
If James was in attack mode, Irving was in can't-miss mode. Without him, this might've been just another brilliant, yet futile performance for James with elimination bearing down on him.
"He was just calm," James said of Irving. "Just calm for 48 minutes. He played 40 minutes, but even the eight minutes he was sitting down, he was calm. Timely bucket after timely bucket he made for our team."
It's odd but true: Despite playing with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami for four years, venturing to four straight Finals with them, James has never had a Jamaal Wilkes along for the ride with elimination on the line like this.
"This guy was special," James said, "and we rode him to the victory line."
Let's look at some of James' most spectacular performances when facing elimination in the Finals:
- In Game 6 in 2013 against San Antonio, James had 32 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists. The next-highest scorer on the team was Mario Chalmers with 20. Wade had 14, and the Heat won to force a seventh game after Ray Allen's miraculous 3-pointer in the closing seconds of regulation forced overtime.
- In Game 7 in 2013 at San Antonio, James had 37 points, 12 rebounds and four assists. The next-highest scorer that night was Wade with 23 points and 10 rebounds. The Heat won to clinch their second straight title.
- In Game 5 in 2014 at San Antonio, James had 31 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. The next-highest scorer that night was Bosh with 13 points and seven rebounds. The Heat lost, and it proved to be James' final game in a Heat uniform.
Even if you venture outside the Finals in James' archive of elimination masterpieces, you see the same trend:
- In the famous Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference finals at Boston, James had 45 points, 15 rebounds and five assists. His help that night? Wade's 17 points, eight rebounds and four assists.
- In the almost equally famous Game 7 of the 2008 conference semifinals at Boston, James had 45 points, five rebounds and six assists. He got some help from a teammate with the initials "D.W." that night, but not much: 15 points, three rebounds and five assists from Delonte West.
And it wasn't as though James and Irving took turns, either, the way James and Wade used to do in Miami. In the first quarter, James scored 12 and Irving seven. In the second quarter, James had 13 and Irving 11. They each had 11 in the third, and Irving had 12 to LeBron's five in the fourth.
It was the kind of synergy that James imagined when he left Wade behind and returned home in 2014 to team with Irving -- the kind that they've rarely been able to harness at the same time.
"How did it click?" Irving was asked.
"When we stopped caring about what everyone else said," Irving said. "... As long as we're taking care of what's going on in our locker room internally, we can power through anything."
They powered through the defending champs on Monday night, and James powered through another elimination game. He did it with help this time, and yes, with some good fortune. The looks won't be as easy for James or Irving in Game 6 on Thursday night with Draymond Green back on the floor.
But for one night, it was something for James to savor -- not because of his own epic performance, but because for once, he got one to go along with it.
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