LeBron James, Kyrie Irving dominate Warriors as Cavs extend NBA Finals
Golden State still leads 3-2, with Game 6 back in Cleveland on Thursday night
The Cleveland Cavaliers avoided elimination on Monday, beating the Golden State Warriors 112-97 at Oracle Arena in Game 5 of the NBA Finals. With their season on the line, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving delivered transcendent performances. Let's start there.
1. The Big 2
Sometimes stats don't tell the whole story, but James and Irving's lines say most of what needs to be said here. James scored 41 points with 16 rebounds, seven assists, three steals and three blocks in 43 minutes, shooting 16-for-30 and 4-for-8 from 3-point range. Irving equaled James' 41 points with six assists, three rebounds, two steals and one block in 40 minutes, shooting 17-for-24 and 5-for-7 from deep. This is the first time a pair of teammates went for 40-plus points in the same NBA Finals game.
So much of the discussion coming into this game was about trash talk, low blows and NBA discipline. James and Irving brought it back to basketball with one of the best combined efforts in Finals history.
All series, the Cavs have struggled to get much of anything from their bench. They have taken all sorts of criticism for reverting to isolation basketball, with James and Irving hoisting up low-percentage shots against an almost perfect defense. This time, Cleveland still didn't get much offense from its role players, but James and Irving were so great that it didn't matter.
James has been too hesitant with his jump shot against the Warriors, not making them pay for playing off of him. Irving has been too slow to attack in one-on-one and pick-and-roll situations, allowing the Cavs' offense to stagnate. These problems mostly disappeared, and it put Golden State's defense on its heels.
"You got a guy like [Irving] who's very special -- probably one of the greatest performances I've ever seen live -- put on a show that he did.," James said. "You just go out and follow the keys and play winning basketball. We did that tonight."
2. The Warriors' missing All-Star seems pretty important
It would be unfair to mention the Warriors' sloppier defense without immediately bringing up the fact they were missing their best defender. You have probably heard that Draymond Green, the man who finished as the runner-up in Defensive Player of the Year voting for two straight years, was suspended because of a flagrant foul in Game 4 (and two flagrant fouls earlier in the playoffs). Green's absence meant that Golden State's defense was not as sharp, and it was part of the reason why James and Irving could create better looks.
Golden State coach Steve Kerr hates to make excuses, though. He refused to say that the Warriors fell off just because Green was out.
"It's too simple to say that," Kerr said. "We weren't very good defensively. We obviously knew we were without Draymond, so there's no point in harping on that. We had to play better, and we didn't. Both those guys played terrific games, shot the ball well. I thought our defensive communication was lacking. We had some plays where we didn't pick up in transition and we had some crossmatches that we didn't identify and they got free. Especially Kyrie."
Green has evolved into a crucial part of Golden State's offensive game plan, too. He's the team's second-best playmaker, and he and Stephen Curry have better chemistry than any other pick-and-roll tandem in the league. The Warriors had to use James Michael McAdoo, Marreese Speights, Anderson Varejao and Festus Ezeli more than they would have otherwise, and those players cannot approximate his production. In a game where James and Irving had it going and center Andrew Bogut went down in the third quarter, there was just too much for Golden State to overcome.
3. Klay came to play
With Green out, the Warriors knew they had to get something extra from one of their regulars, and for a while it looked like Klay Thompson's effort could be enough. He scored 26 of his 37 points in the first half, draining deep 3-pointers and keeping his team even with Cleveland going into the third quarter. The Cavs did a better job on him in the second half, but he got to the free throw line and put pressure on their defense all over the court.
"We don't call a ton of plays, sets, we want to play out of motion and get the ball moving," Kerr said. "And they were doing a good job denying him. But I thought he had a great game. Klay was fantastic and obviously had a big night shooting the ball, scoring the ball."
Few will remember Thompson catching fire because of the end result. He was almost as good as James and Irving, though, and he was the main reason Golden State hung around until about halfway through the fourth quarter. If he finds his rhythm again in Game 6, Cleveland could be in trouble.
4. Where is the Love?
If the Cavs had lost this game, the hot-take machine would be overloaded because of Kevin Love. Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue elected to put him back in the starting lineup, and he was almost invisible for 33 minutes. You would think that, with Green nextdoor at the Oakland Alameda Coliseum, there would be more opportunities for Love. Instead, he took just five shots and finished with two points in 33 minutes, with more fouls (4) than rebounds (3).
Some of this is simple: James and Irving were cooking, so they took the vast majority of the shots. It was alarming, though, that Love had such little impact in an elimination game. This will certainly not quiet all the noise about his fit and future with the Cavaliers.
5. Missed opportunity for Barnes and the bench
If there is one Warrior kicking himself after this, it's probably Harrison Barnes. The soon-to-be free agent had a chance to take on a bigger offensive role in a potential championship clincher, and he did not capitalize on it. In 38 minutes, most at power forward and a few at center, he took 14 shots and made just two of them. He missed five of his six 3-point attempts, and most of them were open. He missed both of his free throws, too.
Barnes battled on defense and on the glass, but Golden State could have used a little more from him on the other end. With nine-and-a-half minutes left in the game, Barnes missed two 3-pointers that would have cut their deficit to six points. Those shots didn't decide the game, but they illustrated a bigger issue: Barnes never got in the flow at all.
The same could be said about the Warriors' other role players. Outside of Curry and Thompson, the defending champs shot 3-for-17 from 3-point range. Marreese Speights played just 11 minutes but had time to go 0-for-6, including 0-for-3 from deep. "Strength in numbers" sounds a lot better when everybody is comfortable, confident and making shots.
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