Cleveland Cavaliers - 112
Golden State Warriors - 97
Warriors lead series 3-2
Friday's Game 4 loss at home to the Golden State Warriors was a tough, horse suppository-sized pill to swallow for fans of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Instead of evening the series at home and heading to Oakland with a plausible shot at winning the series, the Cavaliers went down 3-1 in the series after a lame fourth quarter in which their two best ball-players got awfully ball-hoggy.
Yeah, so about those two guys. Their names are [googles "Cleveland Cavaliers point guard"] Kyrie Irving and [scans box score with finger, peering over the top of reading glasses employed for comedic effect] LeBron James. They played well on Monday night. But more on that in a moment.
It was an all-around bizarre 30-some hours leading up to Game 5, in which throngs of fans, players both former and current, and broadcasters on our nation's most prominent sports networks took to the mic and the web to defend a man who intentionally hit another man in the testicles. What a time to be alive. But it culminated in a magnificent basketball game — let's go behind the curtain of the magic act that was the Game 5 box score.
41 & 41 - LeBron James and Kyrie Irving each scored 41 points in Game 5, the first two teammates to surpass 40 points in a Finals game, according to the ABC/ESPN broadcast. With the Warriors being the Warriors and Oracle being Oracle (the Warriors are 50-4 at Oracle between the regular season and playoffs), it was clear that one of Cavalier stars needed to have an otherworldly performance. Make the Warrior crowd a little frothier in defense of their nut-tapping martyr, and it was clear both the Cavalier stars (no Kevin Love, not you) were going to have otherworldly performances. Both James and Irving answered the call.
James started things early, scoring 12 points in the opening quarter, even hitting two threes (a rarity this season). He added 13 in the second quarter, finishing the first half with 25 points. Meanwhile, Irving — who scored 18 points in the first half on only ten field goal attempts — had only given fans a taste of what he would do in the second half. Both James and Irving scored 11 points in the third, and Irving put a fork in the Warriors with a mesmerizing 12 point fourth quarter. When it was all said and done, James finished with a decadent 41/16(!)/7, and Kyrie Irving finished with 41 points on 17-of-24 shooting, which thanks to his 5-of-7 threes made for an effective field goal percentage of 81.3.
For James, it was the only the sixth 40/15/7 playoff game Basketball-Reference has on record (first in the Finals), and James is the only player to do it twice now (his first being a May 2012 game against the Indiana Pacers). For Irving, it's only the 11th 40+ point, 5+ assist, 70.0+ field goal percentage game in Basketball-Reference's playoff records (joining James and a host of greats), and the first in the Finals. So there's some historical context for you.
In the end, we were left with two performances for the ages. For James, it was one of the best all-around "I'm not effing losing this" elimination games ever. Not only did he score 41 points, he orchestrated the offense when Irving wasn't torturing defenders, dominated the boards in the second half, and looked downright un-guardable when his jumper was falling. He's 31 years old! Irving put on one of the most dazzling offensive exhibitions ever, making impossible contested shot after impossible contested shot. He's 24 years old! Even with two 50-point games already on his resume, this was clearly the best game of Irving's career, given the stage and the devastating efficiency of it.
The mixture of adrenaline, caffeine, and anxiety-induced nausea (and that the Cavs kept the Warriors at arm's length in the fourth quarter), it's hard to pick a defining moment for either. What sticks out from James' (over the dagger jumpers, devastating blow-bys, and Godzilla-knocking-fighter-jets-out-of-the-sky rebounds) were the two chase down blocks — one on Stephen Curry in the first half, and one on Andre Iguodala in the second half. No one else in the league can make either of those plays — not even Kawhi Leonard or Paul George or Russell Westbrook (OK, maybe Westbrook).
What stuck out for Irving were three fourth quarter possessions. The first, a difficult baseline attack in which he was nearly forced out-of-bounds, but somehow found a cutting Iman Shumpert for a dunk. That's not a play Irving always makes. Then there were two inconceivable makes, one on Curry on the left baseline in which Curry fouled Irving no less than three times, which Irving somehow made despite taking contact on his shooting arm; and a make over Klay Thompson (the Warriors' best perimeter defender) after slipping and sliding to the left and right to get an inch of space. Irving made no less than a dozen incredible shots — conjuring the smallest separation with his ball-handling wizardry.
We don't know how this series will end. If history serves any guide: badly. But the Cavs season didn't end Monday night — and fans of both sides were treated to two of the best individual performances anyone's ever seen on a basketball court. This was one to file away in the Sports Tales for the Grandkids/"Back In My Day!" category. It wasn't merely hope for now, it was hope for what may come in the upcoming years. Outside of a championship, that's about as much a fan could ask for.
37 - It's funny how these things work. Some sub-historical performances from LeBron James or Kyrie Irving in Game 5, and the series is over, the Warriors are drinking champagne as I write this, and Klay Thompson is crowned as the league's greatest assassin. Thompson was video-game good in Game 5, scoring 37 points on 11-of-20 shooting (with six threes) in 40 minutes. He also was the only defender to remotely slow Irving in the game. Late in the second half, it seemed like a given that James and Irving were going to fall tragically short, because Thompson could not miss early — he shot 8-of-12 with 6-of-8 threes in the first half. Thompson hit a few open ones early, then started taking some deep wtf shots.
But, somehow, even when the Warriors felt like they were in the middle of one of their trademark blitzkrieg runs, the Cavs traded them punch-for-punch. That the Cavs stayed right with the Warriors during that second quarter barrage was as impressive as anything they've done the entire series. Then Thompson finally trailed off in the second half (0-of-3 from three) the other Warriors missed some open looks, the Cavs contested more shots, and the Cavs were able to build up an improbable lead.
38.1 - Stephen Curry finished with 25 points, but it was an awfully quiet 25, as he shot only 8-of-21 (38.1 percent) from the field. During that first half barrage (4-of-8, 13 points), the Cavs' future looked grim. But Curry missed a few open shots in the second half (4-of-13 total, a somber 2-of-8 from three), and the Cavs took advantage. I don't say this to disparage Curry, who is the best (regular season) player in the league, but he has quite a luxury playing next to Thompson. Not only does he somehow evade criticisms bestowed on other great players (he's surpassing neither James nor Irving in points or assists) but he has more space than other great shooting point guards because no one can give Thompson an inch of space. Furthermore, Thompson often defends the other team's best perimeter player. This may all seem moot if Curry hits eight threes on Thursday, but I don't think it's fair to Thompson not to mention his greatness in the same breath when marveling over Curry's. Curry was not the best point guard on the floor on Monday night.
+18 - The hot take du jour will be that Kevin Love is awful and shouldn't play in place of Timofey Mozgov or Channing Frye or a cardboard cutout of Jack Sikma. He did score two points. But Love wasn't asked to do anything on offense other than space the floor (he attempted only five shots). I won't totally defend Love (the Cavs needed him to be a little more assertive on the defensive glass), but he actually (and surprisingly) played some good defense on Monday, blitzing the pick-and-roll, recovering quickly, and contesting Warriors shots near the hoop (even defending Thompson and Curry well in some situations). As a result, Love finished with a plus/minus of +18 (second only to Irving on the night). More than numbers, I felt during the third and fourth quarters that the Cavs I trusted the most were the starters. So, you can swap in whomever you want with James and Irving, but Love belongs out there for a large chunk of that time. (Though I would like to see Channing Frye get some playing time).
15 - Tristan Thompson finished with 15 rebounds on the night. Only three of those rebounds were offensive (a low number for the hellion Thompson), so the Cavs were outscored 19 to nine on second chance points. Thompson got several looks from driving Cavaliers or in the pick-and-roll game (such as when they blitzed Irving or James), and it could really open up the offense if he could convert a few of them. Thompson's biggest contribution of Game 4, though, may have been his poor free throw shooting (hold on, let me explain myself). He made only 4-of-10, but when Warriors coach Steve Kerr went to hack Thompson in the third quarter, I felt it gave James and Irving some much-needed R&R time. I'd be surprised to see Kerr do that in the third quarter of Game 6.
36 - The Cavaliers only allowed 36 points in the second half on Monday, holding the Warriors to 12 field goals on 26.7 percent shooting, including only one point in the last six minutes. The Cavalier defense was not great — but it was persistent and full of vigor. The Cavaliers still need to communicate better, and figure out what the hell to do when Klay Thompson comes to set a screen (which, as Jeff Van Gundy pointed out during the broadcast, is usually slip it). Draymond Green's return in Game 6 will give them even less margin for error. The Cavaliers were content to let the Warriors' secondary characters beat them on Monday, and Harrison Barnes did not (a dismal 1-of-9 in the second half). That's kind of what needs to happen to beat the Warriors, though. The thing is, more often than not, the non-Stephs and non-Klays make enough shots to bust the floodgates open. They did not on Monday.
Still, there is a path to victory in Games 6 and 7. The Cavs need to clean up the defensive communication, have some lackluster games from either Curry or Thompson, continue to have the Harrison Barneses of the world miss shots, and have LeBron James and Kyrie Irving continue to be ... well, amazing. If James is making his midrange jumper, anything is possible. Let's see if the Cavaliers have a movie ending in them after all. But they won't have the luxury of Warriors' Chief Instigator being sidelined in Game 6.