The Warriors lost a chance to clinch an NBA title at home last night thanks to not one, but two all-time performances by members of the Cavaliers. LeBron James and Kyrie Irving each scored 41 points in Cleveland's win to keep its season alive.
James shot the ball better than he seemingly has all season. His jumper looked fluid as he was able to get rhythm shot after rhythm shot combined with bullish drives to the basket. The best player on earth was that in all facets. Most of LeBron's most epic playoff games also include extremely high rebounding totals. He's scored 35+ points 36 times in his career. He's had 12+ rebounds fifteen of those times. It's a good measure of his tenacity and activity. He had 16 last night.
The ability to get rhythm shots, drive uncontested at the rim and rebound all come back on some level to Draymond Green's absence.
I never really commented on Green's suspension, but I thought it was the right move. The single act he committed wasn't suspension worthy, but he was suspended for his cumulative actions throughout the playoffs on flagrant points. In many ways this is the suspension for his kick to Steven Adams' groin which cost him two points on that total. He needs to stop flailing and be more in control of his body to stop hitting people in the groin. He wasn't. He sat.
"We obviously knew we were without Draymond," Steve Kerr said after. "So there's no point in harping on that. We had to play better, and we didn't. Both those guys played terrific games, shot the ball well. I thought our defensive communication was lacking."
When Ros Gold-Onwude was on The Hoffman Show last week, she pointed out that the Warriors defensive communication was a major part of their success and Green was at the center of it. Their other best communicator is Andrew Bogut. By the end of last night's game, both were not options for Kerr. He can say he's not harping on Draymond, but let's not pretend that's not a coincidence.
Green's absence was about far more than his mouth though. The Warriors lost their trademark ability to switch on defense and there's a direct link to that and James' shooting success. The Warriors had to play more traditional pick and roll defense instead of switching. Green can switch on to LeBron seamlessly. Most humans can't. This created more typical shooting pockets coming off screens that James confidently stepped into. He also was able to shoot over players who weren't comfortable defending him and responded by giving him massive amounts of space. Green would've stayed closer to his body and the result would've been a better contest.
The Warriors also missed Green's ability as a help-side defender horribly. Green has met LeBron at the rim multiple times in this series resulting in blocked shots and misses. James comfort level driving to the basket without Green on the floor has been evident even when he's been on the bench in this series. Last night he didn't have to worry about Green at all (worry as in physically, not necessarily mentally) and the results showed the power of that.
LeBron's 16 rebounds also would've been lessened by Green. He's been their best rebounder in the playoffs, averaging almost 10 per game and has been for the past two seasons. Fun fact: Steph Curry is the Dubs' second leading rebounder at nearly 6 per game.
Where Green's absence hurt the most though is the the Warriors lost the ability to play their small ball lineups. Golden State's death lineup isn't some magic trick that Kerr pulls out in times of need. It's part of their rotation. Not having Green put an immense strain on players to be in unusual roles and play a higher than constructive volume of minutes.
Those more traditional lineups and ultra-small lineups (with Harrison Barnes as the de facto center) just didn't create the matchup nightmares the Warriors create with Green on the floor. The death lineup has earned that nickname by being the most productive in basketball the last two years. It produces massive point swings in a short amount of time. That never happened to the Warriors last night, even when Klay Thompson was going bananas in the second quarter. They just couldn't get stops.
That is because Irving and James were absolutely brilliant. Were more opportunities available because of Green's absence? Sure, but they had to take advantage. James had to hit those shots that he seemingly hasn't hit all year. He did.
The "why can't he do this every night?" narrative is lazy and frankly stupid. He put on one of the greatest shows in NBA Finals history. Of course he can't do that every night. His tenacity was high, but James always plays hard. He's just smart. It's sad that some people would be happier if he drove into the teeth of the defense and the results be damned. That's just not who LeBron is. He thinks the game at an Einstein-level of genius. Last night there was opportunity and he took it.
As for Irving, it was simply a spectacular performance. He was calculated in attacking the switches that Kerr mentioned and incredibly opportunistic in transition. Think of all the step-in threes he made after simply coming up the court.
Irving was ruthless in attacking when he knew he was on some other worldly level in the fourth quarter, and hit some absolutely dreadful shots from a selection stand point. In many ways, Irving didn't play that much differently than he has in previous games. He just made the shots, but that shouldn't be dismissed as luck.
He does this from time to time and for all the questions about his defense, it's not for a lack of competitiveness. This guy wants big moments and has performed well in them in limited opportunity over his career, at least from an offensive standpoint. Last year against the Spurs in a primetime TV game, Irving dropped 57 in one of the most absurd offensive displays I've ever seen. He just didn't stop, and no one could stop him. He was in that zone last night and it was a joy to watch.
The problem for Cleveland is that's not something he's likely to do again in Game 6 even if Green wasn't coming back. He wouldn't be likely to do it again if they were playing the 76ers. Frankly, neither is James from a shooting standpoint. They had abnormally good nights based on the law of averages.
The Warriors were on the other end of that spectrum. Golden State missed a ton of open shots, including Steph Curry. Curry missed wide open three after wide open three in the second half. Steph Curry won't miss wide open shots on consecutive game nights.
Bogut's injury likely forces Kerr to start the death lineup in Game 6. He could start Festus Ezili or Anderson Varejao (which would basically be a pro wrestling heel move to start Varejao in Cleveland), but my bet would be that Green starts the game at center. The Warriors are a +51 with Green at center in this series and are being outscored when he is not.
Last night was a basketball night we won't soon forget. Instead of crowing a champion, we witnessed two of the greatest individual performances in NBA history. That's fine with me. Now we get more hoops!