Rather than becoming history, Kyrie and LeBron unleash historic effort

ByJ.A. Adande ESPN logo
Tuesday, June 14, 2016

OAKLAND, Calif -- On the campus of the Old School, they will pass out mimeographed copies of the box score from Game 5 of the 2016 NBA Finals and point to this as a moment that the tried-and-true ways prevailed, that inside beat outside and that the star system stayed intact.

The Golden State Warriors spent most of the past two years subverting all of those steadfast NBA truths, raining in 3-pointers and sending LeBron James to defeat after defeat on many nights when he was the best player on the court. Not in Game 5. Not when James controlled the floor with 41 points, 16 rebounds, seven assists, three steals and three blocked shots -- owning or sharing the game-high totals in each of those categories. And not when Kyrie Irving was the next-best player -- more valuable in the fourth quarter, actually -- with 41 points of his own.

James called Irving's game "probably one of the greatest performances I've ever seen live." LeBron's visual history would have to include his own 45-point, 15-rebound, 73 percent shooting Game 6 in Boston in 2012 to keep his first championship run in Miami alive. That one still ranks higher for its singular majesty; Dwyane Wade was the Heat's next-highest scorer that night with 17 points.

Monday night was the first time a pair of teammates went for 40-plus points in the same NBA Finals game. And now the Cavaliers still have hopes of another historic achievement: becoming the first team to come back from a 3-1 deficit to win the Finals.

It helped that this wasn't exactly the same Warriors team that won three of the first four games in this series. Draymond Green served his one-game suspension for exceeding the flagrant foul points threshold in the playoffs for his whack at James near the end of Game 4. Without him, the Warriors were lost on defense and couldn't go to the lineup configuration featuring him at center that had wreaked havoc on the league since last year's Finals.

Their roster was further depleted by a left knee strain suffered by center Andrew Bogut early in the third quarter. With none of their backup centers making contributions, the Warriors went supersmall by sending Shaun Livingston in withStephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and Harrison Barnes. They couldn't provide enough offense to make up for their defensive shortcomings.

The Warriors were exploited inside throughout the game. Cleveland scored 46 points in the paint, topping the Warriors' 42 points scored on 3-pointers. Golden State clearly missed Green's ability to provide rim protection and even his yelling, with Warriors coach Steve Kerr lamenting several defensive communication breakdowns. Curry called Green the "center fielder" on defense.

As long as we're making cross-sport comparisons, let's discuss the quarterbacking job LeBron did. He surveyed the defense in the third quarter, found the mismatches against the small lineup and used the Warriors' overcompensation to his advantage.

Six of his assists came in the third quarter. He might fake the pass inside, draw the defenders and pass back to a trailing Irving for a wide-open 3-pointer. Or throw a lob to Tristan Thompson against the overmatched James Michael McAdoo for a foul and free throw.

James' jump shot was the most surprising. The Warriors left him to shoot, and he found a rhythm, to the point he even made a fallaway, contested 3-pointer. At that point, he had as many 3-point baskets as Curry at four, which was quadruple James' average for the playoffs.

Curry was below average, missing 13 of his 21 shots and 9 of 14 3-pointers. Klay Thompson made 6 of 18 3-pointers in the first half but went 0-for-5 in the second half.

James cooled off too in the fourth quarter, but that's when Irving took over, hitting 5 of 9 shots to put the Warriors away.

When the Warriors hoped to rely on their superior depth, they didn't have in mind playing Brandon Rush, Anderson Varejao, McAdoo, Leandro Barbosa and Marreese Speights to close out a game in which they'd fallen hopelessly behind.

The Warriors didn't get to treat their fans to a championship celebration at home. They didn't bail out Green for his costly lapse in judgment. They didn't avoid their privately feared scenario of suffering an injury in a now-extended series.

Every downside of the Warriors came into play in this game, from Green's occasional foray past the emotional boundary to careless ballhandling to defensive lapses.

And the feature that the old professors kept insisting would get them -- the reliance on the 3-point shot -- came to the fore, as well. The party was canceled, the revolution was paused and the future remained there.

This was a tribute to the past, right down to the pair of vintage LeBron chase-down blocks. The Cavaliers reverted, and thus, their season remains in the present tense.

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