Kyrie Irving was not going to let the Cleveland Cavaliers go gentle into that good night. Down 3-1 to the Golden State Warriors, the Cavs had to expect that LeBron James would show up, but to beat the Warriors in Oakland – even without Draymond Green – they were going to need more than that, and Irving came with the rage. In the 112-97 win, James and Irving each notched 41 points, the first two teammates to score more than 40 in a Finals game.
And Green, the snarling wolverine heart of the Warriors, could only watch from a suite next door at O.co Coliseum, automatically suspended for Game 5 after collecting his fourth flagrant foul of the postseason when officials reviewed his impromptu hernia test of James after the two went to the floor and James stepped over him in Game 4. Of course, being a folk hero in the Bay Area, Green drew a huge crowd just for going to the bathroom during the A’s game.
— Dime Magazine (@DimeMag) June 14, 2016
Meanwhile at Oracle, the first half was just about the best half of basketball we’ve seen in these Finals. Although it perhaps involves more than its fair share of flailing arms and legs, Green’s game isn’t particularly ugly on the surface. Compared to instigators past, like Bruce Bowen and Dennis Rodman, Green’s play actually has a workman-like beauty: The hundreds of little things he does over the course of a game from helping and recovering on defense to being the fulcrum the ball moves through on the arc on offense to clawing his way into a key rebound have a way of disappearing unless you’re watching only for them.
Without him, the Warriors were mostly just as fluid and crisp on offense in that first half, but they missed Green’s defense horribly. It made you appreciate just how much Golden State’s unreal offense relies upon an almost equally unreal defense, and in turn how much that unreal defense relies specifically on Green. As such, this was high scoring basketball, and kind of beautifully symmetrical – a 32-29 first quarter in favor of the Warriors gave way to a 32-29 second quarter by the Cavaliers and a 61-61 tie at the half.
It felt like Golden State should have been up by more at the end of the first, honestly. The emotion of the crowd was on their side and the Cavaliers weren’t getting the ball moving around the floor, which was a troubling sign for them based on their last loss in Cleveland. James had 12 points, Irving had seven and J.R. Smith had 10 – no other Cavs player had any. Curry led the way with 10 for the Warriors and Andre Iguodala and Klay Thompson had eight apiece, but they shot just 42.3% from the field and 38.5% from deep while allowing Cleveland to shoot 52.6% and 57.1%, respectively. The Cavs’ big problem was turnovers – they had eight in that quarter alone and shot just 55.6% from the line.
But in the second quarter, Cleveland leapt out on a 7-0 run and in the absence of Green, the small ball got radically small. Just a few minutes in, James and Iguodala were functionally playing the center positions for their teams. The symmetry in score between the first and second quarters bore out in a similar flip of box score stats. In the second, it was the Cavaliers who were cold shooting, hitting just one of their seven 3-point attempts and only getting to the line once. But it was Golden State who turned the ball over seven times for eight Cleveland points. By the end of the half, James had 25 points and Thompson had 26, and it looked like the two of them were going to duke it out. Here was, at last, neither a blow out nor a grindfest but a well-played half of playoff basketball with some of the best players on the planet going at it hammer and tongs.
Alas, it would not last.
A minute and a half into the third quarter with Cleveland up 3, Andrew Bogut successfully blocked a J.R. Smith layup, but paid a mighty price for it when his left knee bent pretty far the wrong way. (I advise you strongly not to watch this video, but here it is. And here is a video of a Dachsund taking a bath in super slow mo to cleanse your palette.) With Bogut out of the game with a knee sprain, the Warriors were suddenly missing two of their best defensive players and a huge chunk of their frontcourt rotation. It showed. From the time Bogut left the game until the end, Cleveland shot 50% to Golden State’s 26.2%, shot 44.4% on 3-pointers to Golden State’s 10% and scored 45 points to Golden State’s 33. Thompson was the only Warriors player to crack double digits in that span while James got 13 and Irving went off for 20.
And man, did Irving go off. Without the defense of Green and the rim protection of Bogut, Irving took the ball right into the teeth of Golden State’s defense and made tough shot after tough shot after tough shot.
It was more than enough to stave off defeat and summer vacation for at least a few more days, but more than that, it was a real indication of how the Cavaliers need to proceed into next season and beyond, whether they pull off the giant upset and win the Finals or not. Irving is 24 years old, and he needs to become the focal point of the team’s offense instead of LeBron. If James is truly about building a legacy in Cleveland, he needs to do more than just rely on his teammates – he needs to prepare them for life without him.
When I first became a parent, I read something that said from the moment your child is born, what you’re doing in raising them is building an offramp from you. James may or may not win a championship in Cleveland, but his legacy there may eventually rest more squarely on how well he’s worked with Irving and other players along the way to build the kind of culture that is a perennial playoff contender.
Right now, though, they face a difficult task in Game 6, even if it’s on their home floor. Green will be back from his suspension, and if you don’t think that’s going to light a fire under him, you haven’t been paying attention. Bogut may or may not be ready, but the Cavaliers aren’t going to be able to rely on another pair of 41-point games from James and Irving. When Kerr pulled his starters for the bench toward the end, you could sense that his concession was made with a full understanding that something like that doesn’t happen often.
What can the Cavaliers get out of Love in the next game? Even facing a depleted front line, he managed just two points and three rebounds in nearly 33 minutes on the court. The Warriors looked good without Green and then rather bad when they lost Bogut. In the interim, they will develop some cagey ways to play around not having him if he’s out, and it seems like they only have to be good to beat the Cavs so long as a few key Cavs aren’t great. If Cleveland can’t get the same out of Irving and James again or find it somewhere else, this could all be over Thursday.