CLEVELAND — LeBron James wasn’t going out without a fight or the ball in his hands. That adjustment led to a historic game for James and Kyrie Irving, and has the Cavaliers believing they can make history.
James and Irving became the first teammates to each score 40 points in an NBA Finals game when they poured in 41 apiece in Monday’s 112-97 win over the Warriors that forced a sixth game. The Warriors lead 3-2 with Game 6 on tap for Thursday.
The other 32 NBA teams who fell behind 3-1 in the NBA Finals lost the championship, but the Cavaliers are going home confident they can extend to a Game 7, where anything is possible.
“To repeat a performance like that would definitely be tough,” Irving said, “but whatever it takes to win. I know myself, (James) and my teammates are willing to do (that), and we’ll be very well prepared for Game 6. That’s the only thing on our mind right now. We’re not satisfied.”
Irving was brilliant, knocking down 17 of 24 shots and many of them with a hand in his face. James called it “one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen live.” It was a night the Cavaliers didn’t mind watching Irving operate.
In this series, Irving has taken some heat for dribbling the air out of the ball and not moving it as much. He may have the best handle in the league, but Irving falls in love with it, and it works to the Cavaliers’ detriment sometimes.
Irving, more of a shooting guard than point guard, gives the Warriors’ defense a chance to set when he gets the ball at the start of a possession and the trip ends with no other Cavalier touching it.
But in Game 5, James had the ball more than at any point in this series, and Irving did more with less. He was able to pick his spots, played within the flow of the offense, and had six assists.
James controlled the offense and dominated the game with an all-time all-around performance. He finished with 16 rebounds, seven assists, three steals, three blocks and only two turnovers. James joined Cliff Hagan, Magic Johnson and Shaquille O’Neal as the only players to record at least 40 points, 15 rebounds and five assists in a Finals game.
“I finally did a great job of not turning the ball over, and got to my spots, and got my teammates involved,” James said. “I just tried to put us in a position to be successful. That’s something I’m very comfortable with and have been comfortable with before.
“Coach (Tyronn Lue) wanted to make that adjustment and I was able to take advantage of it when I had the ball in my hands.”
The Warriors’ major adjustment in Game 6 will be the return of their best defender Draymond Green.
The versatile All-Star forward was suspended after the league assessed him a Flagrant Foul 1 for hitting James in the groin late in Game 4. Green had accrued four flagrant foul points, resulting in an automatic one-game ban.
The Warriors missed not only his presence, but his voice as a lack of communication on defense was mentioned by coach Steve Kerr and Golden State’s players. Their defense was lacking, especially on the interior, but Irving hit many contested shots with Thompson all over him.
“He’s just that special kid who doesn’t know how good he can be,” said Richard Jefferson, who defended Irving against critics who says he doesn’t move the ball enough.
“If they never played basketball, then I have no desire to really talk to them,” Jefferson said. “That’s who he (Irving) is for us. He’s a scorer. LeBron is more of a playmaker and runs the team, almost from the point guard position. Steph is probably never going to lead the league in assists, but boy that boy can put points up; same with Klay.
“So don’t judge guys on what they do; judge them on whether or not they win games.”
The Cavaliers won a game they had to win with James controlling the offense and Irving doing more with less dribbling.