Fundamental flaw mars brilliant LeBron performance

ByDave McMenamin ESPN logo
Monday, June 15, 2015

OAKLAND, Calif. -- As if LeBron James needed any supporting evidence for his postgame claim Sunday that he still feels confident trailing 3-2 in the NBA Finals because he is "the best player in the world," he posted 40 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists. The first triple-double in the Finals of that statistical magnitude since Jerry West did it in 1969 was surely testament to his declaration.

Yet just as West's performance came in the Los Angeles Lakers' Game 7 loss to the Boston Celtics that year, James' night also was spoiled in the Cleveland Cavaliers' 104-91 Game 5 defeat at the hands of the Golden State Warriors.

It would be easy to say that James, without his All-Star teammates in Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving by his side, couldn't have done anything more to affect the outcome, but it also would be wrong.

The truth is, James, along with the rest of his teammates down the stretch in the fourth quarter, failed to manage the defensive glass, and a handful of backbreaking offensive rebounds by the Warriors kept the game out of reach.

Golden State had five offensive rebounds in the fourth quarter, fueling the league's most potent offense with extra possessions as a two-point game with 4 minutes, 52 seconds remaining turned into a double-digit rout.

"When you're going up against a high-offensive power team like this, to get them to miss, it's very deflating when they get a second-chance crack," James said.

As strong of a performance as James put up overall, he was guilty of not executing one of the most basic plays in the sport when he didn't box out Harrison Barnes with 3:45 left and the Cavs down by five. Andre Iguodala ended up with a layup as a result, putting Golden State up seven, and he was fouled on the play.

Iguodala missed the free throw, but there was Stephen Curry to grab the offensive board, keeping the Warriors' offense going, keeping the Cavs' defense scrambling and keeping the energy level at Oracle Arena soaring because their fans love nothing more than to see Curry and Klay Thompson splash away.

The sequence repeated itself less than two minutes later. Again, Iguodala was on the line. Again, Iguodala missed. And again, the Warriors came up with the board, thanks to Barnes, with 2:14 remaining and their lead at seven.

Sure, the Cavs went small for most of the game with Timofey Mozgov playing only nine minutes, but it wasn't as if the Warriors weren't working with a small lineup too.

"At the end of the day, no matter who is on the floor, we have to come up with that rebound," James said. "That's what it is. We just have to come up with the rebound no matter if Double T [Tristan Thompson] or Mozzy are not in the game. We've got to come up with those rebounds. That just can't happen at the free throw line."

The irony of the situation is the Cavs are 13-1 this postseason when tying or outrebounding their opponent. What the Warriors did to them is exactly what they have been doing to every team they've gone up against in the playoffs.

"I thought all game we needed to rebound better, not just the last minutes, to be honest with you," Cavs coach David Blatt said, alluding to the Warriors' 43-37 control of the boards for the game. "No question that we needed to rebound the ball better."

It stings for Cleveland because it was beaten at its own game. The Cavs built a 2-1 lead in the Finals by doing all the little things, by outworking the Warriors. They saw a chance to go up 3-2 slip away because Golden State did the same thing to them.

"We were completely getting outworked, outhustled, outdogged, however you want to put it," Draymond Green said when asked about the first three games of the series. "They were doing that. In order to win games at this level in the NBA Finals, that can't happen."

With every one of those five offensive rebounds the Warriors grabbed in the fourth quarter, they claimed the "Grit Squad" label as their own for the night.

"I don't know if it takes the wind out of your sails, but it makes you defend for more than 24 seconds and when we're on the other end of it, usually it's Tristan and Moz getting all those offensive rebounds," Matthew Dellavedova said.

If there is any solace to be had for the Cavs, it's the fact that they were undone by the one area they have proved to be consistently sufficient in this postseason. Yes, they were beaten to 50-50 balls in Game 5, but if you look at their track record, that's unlikely to continue in Game 6.

James was confident he will make that adjustment and be even better come Tuesday.

"I don't put a ceiling on what I can do," James said. "I mean tonight I gave up two offensive rebounds. ... I had a couple turnovers, a couple miscues defensively, and I've got to do better.

"Like I said, I don't put a ceiling on what I'm capable of doing."

James and his teammates better put a body on someone when a shot goes up the rest of the series, though.

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