In Sunday night’s Game 5 of the NBA Finals, LeBron James played his most efficient game of what has already been a historic performance this series. It still wasn’t enough to drag the Cleveland Cavaliers all the way to a victory over the Golden State Warriors in Oakland.
The Cavs actually did briefly hold a one-point, fourth-quarter lead in their quest to be the first team to win multiple times to win in Oracle Arena this season, thanks to a ridiculous 35-footer from James. That was the last time Cleveland would have the lead.
On the Warriors’ next possession, Curry netted a step-back three, then LeBron missed a tough layup before Klay Thompson hit another three, and suddenly, Golden State felt right at home with its ball movement and crowd in a rhythm. It was the Cavs’ worst nightmare, and after a pair of dancing, dagger three-pointers from Curry late in the game, the Warriors’ finishing run over the final 7:47––when James hit his uber-three––was 25-11, with the final tally 104-91.
As mentioned, James was magnificent again for Cleveland, notching his second triple-double of the series with an absurd 40 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists in a game-high 45 minutes. He spent most of the night playing power forward alongside Tristan Thompson at center in small lineups that David Blatt was using to counter the small-ball adjustments that Steve Kerr and Golden State had made in Game 4, and he was very effective. LeBron even played some center!
Give Blatt some credit for the decision, because Timofey Mozgov had a career game in Game 4, and it took guts to sit him down for all but about 10 minutes of the next game. However, the move allowed the Cavaliers to space the floor much better, and for a half, their offense flowed much better, with productive movement off the ball and more pick-and-rolls rather than straight isolations for James, since the latter can cause more fatigue. James was 8-15 in the first half while J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert combined to shoot 6-14 before halftime.
In the second half, pretty much every Cleveland player but James and Thompson disappeared on offense. The ball stopped moving for the most part, even when James was deferential during a four-point third quarter, and at a certain point, LeBron was the only thing keeping them in the game. Outside of he and Thompson, who were 13-28, the rest of the team shot 2-12 during the second half.
While the Cavs neglected the advantages of their small lineup on offense, their inexperience playing that style flared up in a bad way on defense, where Cleveland missed some rotations on key Golden State possessions during the second half, including a Harrison Barnes dunk that helped ignite the Oracle crowd. Thompson was once again a beast on the offensive glass during Game 5, but he didn’t offer the kind of rim protection he’d flashed recently either.
Those miscues hurt the Cavaliers when they were trying to build a lead, despite solid overall defense once again. Credit the Warriors as well: Curry played decisive and smart in the pick-and-roll, while Barnes and Draymond Green were effective making plays in 4-on-3 situations when Cleveland doubled Curry.
Even when the Cavs were able to stop the Dubs’ offense, they allowed five offensive rebounds during the decisive fourth quarter, more of the small-but-crucial types of mistakes that will undo a team during the Finals. Guys like Curry and Thompson don’t need any extra chances. Obviously Cleveland’s rotation guys are totally gassed, especially with the virtual elimination of Mozgov, but you’ve got to close out possessions.
It’ll be interesting, especially with this final stretch of three games in five nights, if Blatt digs into his bench any more after essentially just tweaking his existing rotation in Game 5.
Now, LeBron and the Cavaliers have more heavy lifting to do, down 3-2 and heading back to Cleveland for a literal must-win Game 6. Assuming James can will his team to a win at home, they’ll all head back to Oracle for Game 7.
It seems unlikely, but everything this series has been that way for LeBron; even in Game 6 he still almost managed to pull off an unimaginable road win. If anyone can pull them back from the brink, it’s him.