OAKLAND, Calif. — The Warriors may have been upset with LeBron James for his role in Draymond Green’s suspension, but their players and family members made a big mistake: They angered the best all-around player in the NBA.
In what could be a defining moment in a career marked by greatness but littered with many more losses than wins on the big stage, James showed it’s not wise to tug on Superman’s cape.
Facing elimination and perhaps more criticism than ever if Cleveland lost, James did it all and got a huge assist from Kyrie Irving. Each scored 41 points to lead Cleveland to a 112-97 victory over the Warriors in Game 5 on Monday night at Oracle Arena, keeping the Cavaliers alive in the NBA Finals. James added 16 rebounds, seven assists, three blocked shots and three steals.
Golden State leads the series 3-2, but the scene shifts to Cleveland for Game 6 Thursday night.
“We just had a mindset that we were going to come in here and just try to extend our period and have an opportunity to fight another day,” James said. “We were able to do that.”
No team has come back from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals and won the title. Thirty-two teams have tried and failed. Unless the Cavaliers make history, the Warriors will win their second straight championship and James will fall to 2-5 in the NBA Finals. But this could be a series-changing moment.
The Warriors will have Green back for Game 6 but might be without starting center Andrew Bogut, who left in the third quarter with a sprained left knee. Cleveland exploited its size advantage throughout.
“We’re in the same place we were last year, up 3-2 going back to Cleveland,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “If you told me this before the series, I would take it. We’re in a good spot. I like our position a lot better than theirs.”
Irving hit a number of difficult shots in going 17-for-24 from the field and added six assists. He scored 10 consecutive Cleveland points in the fourth, including a three-pointer to make it 109-96 with 5:33 left. It stayed that way until James’ three-point play gave the Cavs a 16-point cushion with 3:22 to go. “You have a guy like [Irving] who’s very special,” James said. “It’s probably one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen live.”
Klay Thompson scored 37 points and Stephen Curry had 25, but it was obvious that the Warriors missed Green on both ends of the floor. They couldn’t stop the Cavs, and their offense sputtered in the second half.
Golden State shot 12-for-45 and scored 36 points after halftime. After getting within 102-96 with 7:10 left, the Warriors didn’t make a shot the rest of the way and scored only one point.
Green wasn’t allowed in the building for the game. He watched it from a suite at the A’s game in the stadium next door. Fans chanted “Free Dray-mond” during the game. Andre Iguodala, last year’s Finals MVP, started in his place and had 15 points, 11 rebounds and six assists.
The spotlight was squarely on James after all the criticism he received from the Warriors’ players, their family members and his peers as a result of Green’s suspension. James was booed every time he touched the ball. But he quieted everyone. “My only motivation is how can I be there for my teammates and my coaching staff?” James said. “Nothing else really matters.”
Late in Game 4, James knocked down Green and then stepped over him. Green flailed his arms as he was getting up and hit James in the groin.
The league reviewed the heated exchange between Green and James and assessed Green a flagrant foul 1. It resulted in an automatic one-game ban because Green had accrued four flagrant-foul points this postseason.
James, who didn’t like what Green said to him, got angry and needed to be restrained. The Warriors said James provoked Green by walking over him. Thompson said James’ “feelings just got hurt” by Green’s words. Marreese Speights tweeted a picture of a baby’s bottle.
Former NBA player Mychal Thompson, Klay’s dad, said James “acts too entitled” and that he couldn’t believe he complained to the media “about being called a name.” Ayesha Curry, Stephen’s wife, took a swipe at James on Twitter. Other NBA players tweeted that James disrespected Green by stepping over him.
James and the Cavaliers came out and were all business. They weathered a shaky start that included five turnovers in the first four minutes and withstood a 26-point first half from Thompson. James had 25.
James attacked the basket and hit his outside shots, and Irving played the perfect sidekick. They were an unstoppable duo. They totaled 18 of the Cavs’ first 19 points of the third quarter and Cleveland led by 11 late in the third. The Warriors never got closer than six.
“They’re two talented players that are capable of big games like that,” Curry said. “It [stinks] that it happened tonight with the opportunity we had in front of us to close out a series at home.”