High among the array of impressive contributors to the Golden State Warriors’ two-year run of dominance has been their ability to fade transcendent performances from opposing superstars. They have the defensive discipline to allow a big stat line without letting the carnage spill over to their overall defense, and the offensive firepower to overwhelm even the most unstoppable showings.
Two of the most dominant individual NBA Finals games in history from teammates in the same game, though? That’s a bit of a different story.
LeBron James came out like the possessed man we’ve seen on a few other notable occasions over the years, posting 41 points, 16 rebounds, seven assists, three blocks and three steals. And that probably understates his overall performance despite being replicated just five times since 1984 (none in the postseason). He was the best defensive player on the floor for either team and in addition to his blocks and steals, he saved several more buckets at the rim. His legs were clearly fresher than Game 4 after two days off in between, and it showed in his jumper (among other things). Few players in history are capable of the sort of two-way game we saw from LeBron on Monday night.
Kyrie Irving was somehow equally impressive, though. Irving put up 41 points of his own on just 24 field goal attempts and two tries from the free throw line, the first player to hit that total on so few attempts in playoff history. He roasted the Warriors’ bigs in pick-and-roll minus Draymond Green, and also hit his share of difficult looks from all over the court. He took over and propped the Cavs up during the brief moments when James tired (moments that were limited by a long game with a ton of whistles and stoppages, a low-key notable element with James again logging a mid-40s-minute count).
Green’s absence was clearly and visibly felt. The Warriors lost the transition battle 28-9, obviously missing both his rebounding and ability to initiate the break. They needed him at the rim, giving up 46 points in the paint while allowing James and Irving easier routes than they were accustomed to.
Green returns Thursday as Andrew Bogut’s status becomes uncertain following a second half collision with J.R. Smith, and it seems likely Golden State’s Death Lineup starts the game. A repeat performance from James and Irving was already unlikely, but is complicated even more by how much more difficult Green will make things for them just by being on the court.
That potential starting lineup will again place Kevin Love in the spotlight for Cleveland, with Game 5 doing him no favors in the scrutiny department. Love was nearly invisible in 33 minutes on the court, and his issues against the smaller Golden State units including Green are well documented at this point. Ty Lue will have to give real consideration to bringing Love off the bench again, and Cleveland simply won’t have a chance if Love struggles and Lue’s trigger is anything but quick.
With two days between each of the next two potential games, there’s a glimmer of hope for a fun series here. The balance of the Cavs’ roster will have to bring their game up a notch to really make things interesting. One more win at Quicken Loans Arena, a place where they’ve been nearly unbeatable this postseason, puts them in a winner-take-all situation with LeBron James on their side. Thursday night should be a wild one in Cleveland.
Game 6 Prediction: Golden State wins the title on the road.
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