OAKLAND, Calif. -- Say what you want on the court. Call a man whatever words you think will get under his skin, derail his focus, impair his greatness.
It's sports. Do your thing. But you best be absolutely certain -- particularly at the level of the game where LeBron James prowls -- that you know what you're doing.
Turns out Klay Thompson was right when he said something about LeBron James' feelings being hurt when words flew and tempers flared in Game 4 of this wild, unpredictable NBA Finals.
But based on what happened in Game 5 -- and how LeBron responded -- Klay and the Golden State Warriors got the most important detail wrong: It wasn't LeBron's feelings that got damaged. It was his pride. And wounding that, even for a team on the verge of being the greatest of all time, turned out to be a very dumb thing for the Warriors to do.
In the Cleveland Cavaliers' 112-97 win at Oracle Arena Monday night, LeBron James was a maestro. I've covered a lot of LeBron James' games and, with all due respect to Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals in 2012, this was different.
This was against the 73-win Warriors. This was with the doubt circling, down 3-1, and in the face of more ridicule and criticism than he's faced in some time. This was without Dwyane Wade and against a much, much more dangerous foe. And this wasn't just about winning a first championship; it was about LeBron staving off a transfer of power in this league from himself to Steph Curry, and about trying to carve even more of the legacy he craves in the face of such a daunting opponent and such crippling expectations.
LeBron James, the subject of the reigning champs' derision, the source of so much blame and hope and differences of basketball opinions, and a star whose claim to the title "Best Player On Earth" is under challenge, responded with 41 points, 16 rebounds, seven assists, three steals and three blocked shots.
Watching LeBron play like this again -- as he did last season -- was something to see.
He may have chafed at the terminology, but he was a man possessed all the same. If you closed your eyes and listened closely enough, or let the crowd's chants reach you over the din of Oracle, those words "you're a b----" perhaps rang through him, helping marshal such beautiful basketball fury.
Mind games are a fascinating thing and a part of this league. But, as with all things unpredictable and emotional, those kind of games can turn on the sender.
That's what happened Monday night. The passivity we'd seen at times this series from LeBron vanished. He attacked, he scored, he pummeled, he yelled at teammates, he mean mugged his opponents, he took over. LeBron didn't bother with assists until the third quarter, when he rattled off his first six. It was takeover time. He was so good he didn't have to bother with much in the fourth quarter.
His rage, and his determination, seemed to bring out even more greatness in Kyrie Irving. Sometimes stars need to rage together, to bond over not just their respect and friendship but a mutual hatred. This was certainly true of Wade and LeBron when they were teammates in Miami. On Monday that got passed on to a different teammate.
In that crucible that powered LeBron, Irving too was a force. He had 41 points, making them the first teammates in Finals history to each score 40 or more points.
That was one hell of a response.
And let's dispense with the this-doesn't-mean-as-much-because-Draymond-was-gone talk. Draymond Green missed this game, after striking LeBron in the groin in Game 4, in part because LeBron stepped over him, got Green to react, and earned a game without Green's defense as an impediment.
Turns out LeBron helped win Game 5 toward the end of that loss in Game 4.
And while Klay Thompson backed up his own words -- he had 37 points -- his teammates were less effective or unable to help. Andrew Bogut left in the third quarter with a knee injury, Steph Curry scored 25 points on 21 shots and just 5-of-14 shooting from the three-point line, and after a strong start Andre Iguodala was, well, simply not very good in place of Green. The vaunted Warriors bench, depleted, scored just 15 points.
To misquote The Wire: You call the King a b----, you best not miss.
And how the Warriors missed.
Because now, with Bogut possibly out for the series, this crazy circus that has been this series returns to Cleveland. If LeBron James remains a man on fire, and we find ourselves back at Oracle for a Game 7 -- well, as they say, anything can happen.
The Warriors are as formidable an opponent as we've ever seen, so it's very likely they'll win Game 6 or, short of that, get it done by here for a possible Game 7. They just have to win one more game.
But this is true, too: When someone like LeBron James stands between you and all-time greatness, maybe wait to chirp until after you've taken his crown.