The LeBron and Kyrie show
LeBron James and Kyrie Irving put on a historic show to stave off elimination
Exactly a year ago today, the NBA Finals stood in the same position with the Golden State Warriors up 3-2 over the undermanned Cleveland Cavaliers. In 2015’s Game 5, Cavalier LeBron James’ 40 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists weren’t enough to keep up with the Warriors — the Cavs went down 104-91. This year, the Cavs are still down 3-2 to the high-powered Warriors, but James’ confidence heading into Game 6 has to be drastically higher, given that he was a part of history Monday night as the Cavs dramatically avoided elimination with a 112-97 victory.
James and Kyrie Irving became the first set of teammates to both score 40 points in an NBA Finals game. Oracle Arena had to feel like a snake’s pit. Warriors fans pelted the Cavs, in particular James, with boos, maybe the loudest he’s heard since Dec. 2, 2010, when he visited Cleveland for the first time as a player for the Miami Heat. Golden State Warrior Draymond Green’s suspension, allegedly baited by James (which in turn spawned a conversation that questioned James’ mental toughness … again), was the gasoline on a fire. For the Warriors, the All-NBA forward’s absence made the potential celebration of a championship at their home arena less likely.
Irving, at least for a night, kept the Warriors’ celebratory champagne on ice.
The truth is this: Irving has outplayed two-time MVP Stephen Curry this series. And on Monday night, Irving completed the signature game of his young career. Following 18 first-half points, the 24-year-old point guard left Earth in the second half. The basketball lived on a string as Irving’s signature ball-handling was on full display, toying with any defender who had the heart to try to stay in front of him, including arguably the game’s best two-way player in Golden State’s Klay Thompson.
His jumper was wet. The crossover was freshly baked. And watching Irving’s confidence continue to swell — his third consecutive 30-point game of the series — was poetic. Win or lose this series, Irving arrived Monday night. He’s now the architect of one of the greatest individual performances on the NBA’s highest-profile stage, making 17 of his 24 shots from every angle and distance imaginable, finishing with 41 points and six assists … on the road, no less. The label of “superstar” is an exclusive one, reserved for only the elitist of basketball’s elite. But he’s no doubt officially staked his claim as one of the NBA’s premier, big-game assassins.
“He was just calm,” James said, effusive in his praise of Irving following the game. “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.”
The moment had to feel especially inspiring for James. Coming into Monday night, James was the leading scorer in NBA history in elimination games and had a 2-4 record in Finals series elimination games while averaging 29.5 points, 10 rebounds and 7.5 assists. Never mind the “mental toughness” angle that’s been, for the most part, unfairly tagged to James throughout his career. The entire world knew he would have a big game. He had to, especially given the controversy with Green. Fellow stars, spouses, parents and role players had all taken shots at him in the 48 hours following Golden State’s Game 4 victory.
James’ aggression was on full display from jump street. By the end of the first half, he nearly tallied a double-double with 25 points, nine rebounds and, quite defiantly, zero assists. He finished with 41 points, 16 rebounds, seven assists, three steals and three blocks. When he needed to, he handled the scoring. His jumper looked as fluid as it has all season, allowing James to pick and choose how he wanted to dismantle a Warriors defense that clearly missed its spark plug. When he didn’t have to score, James turned to ball-hawk and facilitator mode, allowing Irving to get loose. It was a vintage James performance that, believe it or not, felt like he could elevate to yet another level if backed against the wall. His 140 points this series are second only to Kyrie’s 141. He leads all players in minutes played (203), rebounds (60) and assists (40) — turnovers, too, with 25 — while tied for first in steals (12) and blocks (10). James’ impact is undeniable.
But the euphoria is short-lived. Golden State returns Thursday with Green (though possibly without starting center Andrew Bogut, who suffered a knee injury). Thursday’s Game 6 is Cleveland’s final home game of the season regardless of the outcome, so expect the same intensity resonating out of Quicken Loans Arena that was present at Oracle Arena to begin Monday night’s game. A year ago on Thursday, the Warriors celebrated their first NBA title in 40 years on Cleveland’s home court, helping escalate a war of words that brings both parties right back to the scene of the crime.
The Warriors are confident, and why shouldn’t they be? They’re still in control of the series. They’ve still got the best-shooting backcourt in history. And now they’re getting their heart and soul and the team’s defensive anchor back.
But unlike a year ago — and this cannot be understated — James has an assassin riding shotgun. Irving is in the cut. Now that’s a scary sight.