Well, who saw this coming? The streets and the freeways outside Oracle Arena were already – almost – paved with gold. The defending champion Warriors were ticked off and playing at home with a roster as deep as the Pacific Ocean.
But Kyrie Irving was sensational, and LeBron James was, well, even more sensational.
The two Cavaliers became the first two players in NBA history to each score 41 points in a championship-series matchup. This was bad news for the Warriors, who were without the suspended Draymond Green, and who lost starting center Andrew Bogut to a left knee injury early in the second half.
“We’re in the same place we were in last year, up 3-2 heading back to Cleveland,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said afterward. “It just wasn’t our night. Our defense wasn’t nearly as good as it’s been, and when you don’t play great defense for the first three quarters, your opponent isn’t going to be worn down in the fourth.”
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If the Warriors’ struggles on their normally advantageous home court were surprising – Steph Curry missing open threes, Andre Iguodala fumbling away no-look passes, the Cavs streaking for transition baskets and dominating the interior – it wasn’t attributable to lack of energy or intensity.
They missed Green. Oh, yeah, they missed Green. But as Cavs babyfaced coach Tyronn Lue said with a bit of an edge when asked his thoughts on the missing Warrior, “I don’t care about Golden State. I mean, we’ve got a fire lit, too. We’re down 3-1. I mean, that’s a big decision the league made, and it’s unfortunate on a big stage like this. But we’ve got to come out and play and take the game.”
Lue, who enjoyed a long career as a journeyman, was talking old school, asking the real question: Who got game?
Would it be Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, the Warriors’ two best players? Would Irving give James the backing to force this best-of-seven series back to Cleveland for a Game 6? Would LeBron command and control the night as he has done on so many occasions?
LeBron saved the Cavs, extended the series. It wasn’t just about his stat line – 41 points, 16 rebounds, seven assists, three steals, three blocks – but the totality of his grandiose performance. He was a playmaker who tossed lobs, found open teammates for threes and overpowered his defenders en route to the basket for dunks, layups and follow shots.
And from beyond the arc?
When the 6-foot-8, 250-pound Hummer is converting 4 of his 8 three-point attempts, stepping back and stroking 20-footers, in essence, placing his entire skill set on display, it is not going to be a Warriors championship night.
Not tonight. Not yet.
If nothing else, the Cavs’ effort delayed what figures to be a very interesting offseason. A loss Monday night would have left GM David Griffin addressing the following questions: Is the ball-dominant, defensively challenged Irving a premier scorer some nights, the right fit with James? Can Kevin Love ever be compatible with the James/Irving tandem? Was David Blatt really the problem or just a convenient excuse?
All the Cavs’ issues – real or otherwise – are tabled for the moment. For the next few days, anyway, the Warriors have their own matters to address, mainly, Bogut’s health, Green’s emotional equilibrium and Curry’s ongoing inconsistency.
The two-time MVP scored 25 points but lacked his usual, forceful impact. Instead, it was Thompson who kept the Warriors close with 37 points, including 26 in the opening half.
“Shots didn’t go down,” added Kerr, whose club converted only 36 percent of its shots. “One of those nights. We’ve got to play better, obviously.”
Ailene Voisin: 916-321-1208, firstname.lastname@example.org, @ailene_voisin