Following the Cleveland Cavaliers' disappointing Game 4 loss in Cleveland, LeBron James sat in his locker for an extra long amount of time. It wasn't like Game 6 in last season's NBA Finals where the four-time MVP attempted to put an entire city on his shoulders and carry them through the series—that extra-long stay was due to exhaustion and defeat. On Friday, James sat in his locker, legs submerged in an ice bucket, eating a post-game meal—a quesadilla, maybe. The look on his face was one part confusion from the bizarre officiating that littered the second half, but also one of acceptance that on that very night, the Golden State Warriors were the better team. There was no anger. No dejection. James, who began imposing his physical will against the league's defending champions as his team's lead was slipping away, looked like a man who accepted what just happened, knowing he would have another chance to prove who the best player in the world truly was.
Then there was Kyrie Irving. A casual observer of the Game 4 loss would have surmised that he and James were at odds, not passing the ball to anyone—let alone each other—as they took turns attempting to Hero Ball the Cavs out of a deficit that slowly reached double figures. The isolation ball would not work as the Warriors defense proved to be too athletic and too long, beating both James and Irving to their spots as they attempted a bevy of mid-range jump shots and off-balance lay-ups. Irving would get dressed much quicker than James, but stop by No. 23's locker on the way to the trainer's room. 1 The two exchanged a handshake, James sitting and Irving leaning against the wall, the conversation one that could be summed up by a mutual shrug of the shoulders.
The Cavaliers were down three games to one in the NBA Finals, a deficit that had never been topped, but the team was told by their head coach that anyone who did not believe they could be the first to do so should not even board the plane back to Oakland for Game 5.
"My mindset is get one," said James following the game. "You know, we've got to go out there and play obviously better than we played tonight. Better than even we played in Game 3. But we've got to get one. It's not about overlooking this. It's about getting one on their home floor where they've been very successful. So, you know, we've got to come in with the mindset that our coaching staff is going to give us a great game plan and we've got to execute that. We're about the results."
And get one they did, becoming the first pair of teammates in the history of the league to each go for 40-plus points in the same NBA Finals game, extending the series to what will be at least six games with a final score of 112-97. And those results? When it wasn't James driving to the rim or harnessing some of the best mid-range shooting of his career (finishing with 41 points, 16 rebounds, seven assists, three steals and three blocked shots), it was Irving, putting the entire Golden State Warriors defense on ice skates, draining step-back threes or tough-angle shots in the paint for 41 points of his own on 17-of-24 shooting. This Cavaliers unit, the same one that missed 28 shots in the paint in a Game 1 loss, scored 46 points in the paint. With Golden State's Draymond Green serving a suspension for an accumulation of numbskullery, the leftovers were helpless as players like James Michael McAdoo, Brandon Rush, Mareese Speights and Anderson Varejao were left to contend with Cleveland's incendiary duo.
Without Green there as a defensive stopper, the Cavaliers abused the Warrior frontcourt. There was a moment in the fourth quarter of the Cavs' Game 5 win when the Warriors had little choice but to put the 6-foot-7-inch Klay Thompson on Irving. It was Thompson who has been in the media much of the last two weeks, claiming that he begrudged the Cavs for passing on him twice in the 2010 NBA Draft 2, then later in questioning the manhood of James in the wake of the Green suspension. It was also Thompson who disappeared offensively in the second half, and was roasted by Irving with a little less than six minutes to go as the shifty point guard drained a turnaround jumper from the left block, a play set up by a flurry of NBA2K-like dribble moves. 3
"At this point, it's whatever it takes," said James of the two-man wrecking crew. "Obviously making shots and things of that nature are something that you sometimes really can't control. Sometimes the ball go in; sometimes it don't. How hard you play, how locked in you are on the keys to get a victory, what the coaching staff put out for us. But he was -- obviously this guy [Irving] was special, and we rode him."
Much will be made about the style of play in which the Cavaliers—specifically LeBron James and Kyrie Irving—used to win Game 5, an isolation-heavy back-and-forth between two of the best one-on-one players in the league. It could be argued that the Warriors' game plan, in lieu of missing Green, was to allow James and Irving to go iso-heavy, forcing them into mid-range shots. But much like Game 1 where the Cavs and Tyronn Lue aimed to eliminate Steph Curry and Klay Thompson only to have the Golden State bench take over late in the game, the results in Game 5 gave a giant middle finger to the process. Both Irving and James not only took tough shots, but sank them in the most cinematic fashions. What James and Irving provided in Oakland was a case study in two players having faith in their teammates, but having much more faith in themselves with their season on the line.
"We talked about it all series that he is one of the guys when they switch one-through-five and try to make us stagnant, he is one of the guys who can create his own shot," Lue said of Irving postgame. "We just took advantage of mismatches, told him to continue to stay aggressive and he had a great game for us."
Lue would not get into specifics on the mismatches, but given the performance by Curry, one could say that the initial assignment was a mismatch in and of itself. Following the game, Curry was seen spending a longer than usual time sitting in his locker, still in his jersey, soaking in the 48 minutes of basketball that just unfolded, one point guard dominating and the other looking mediocre at best. The Warriors made 14 three-pointers on the night, but took 42 of them, with some of the late misses effectively equating to turnovers with Irving and James running downhill after the rebound. Much like the scene following Game 4 in Cleveland, the tables were turned onto the Warriors with their stars left to answer questions regarding suspect defense and losing in front of the home crowd. The only difference: Golden State's stars appeared shell-shocked.
A 3-1 lead in an NBA Finals series has never been topped in the history of the NBA. But prior to last night, there had never been a pair of teammates to score 40-plus points, never mind doing so in an old-school, isolation-based fashion. The process may not be ideal, but much like James said, they're about the results, and the result of Monday night's Game 5 is a Game 6 in Cleveland this Thursday.
1 Irving and James were to take to the podium together for their post-game media session. Regardless of how quickly Kyrie was showered, he was going to be waiting for LeBron.
2 The Cavs selected Irving No. 1 overall and forward Tristan Thompson with the No. 4 pick.
3 ESPN.com's Ethan Sherwood Strauss categorized it as "taunting physics."