With just about 7:30 remaining in the game and Cleveland doing everything in its power to hold off Golden State, Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving put his head down and went to work.
First, he laced in between Splash Brothers Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. Then, he sliced between Andre Iguodola and Thompson, before spinning, drawing the foul on the latter and kissing a shot off the glass and through the net. With the ensuing free throw, the Cavaliers’ lead was pushed to 10 -- and it looked as if their season was to be extended at least one more game.
But just for insurance, the Cleveland point guard hit another left-side banker two possessions later. And then, after nearly slipping, he regained his balance, spun on his defender’s back and sunk a twister near the left elbow the subsequent play down the court. Finally, the next time he got the rock -- off a dish from LeBron James -- he promptly drilled a 26-foot right-wing trey to complete his 41-point night and put his team up 13, thereby officially sending the series back to Cleveland for a Game 6.
Thanks to the heroics of both Irving and James, who himself poured in 41 on the night, the Cavaliers were able to withstand a bombshell of a performance from the Warriors’ Thompson, ultimately winning Monday’s contest, 112-97. It was the first time ever two teammates each had 40-plus points in the same NBA Finals game. The Warriors now lead the series, 3-2.
The level of difficulty involved in Irving’s moves and makes became downright silly as the game went on. He spun. He scooped. He slipped and skipped his way through the key seemingly at will. While James did much of his damage from straightforward jumpers, Irving carved his way across the hardwood play after play, earning every bucket and finishing the night 17-24 from the field.
James, moments after the contest ended, called Irving’s performance “special” and “spectacular,” predicting that it will go down as one of the all-time great performances in Finals history. Irving, however, attributed his success to competing alongside a player like James -- a guy who attracts so much of the defense’s attention, no matter where he is on the court, no matter who else is lighting up the scoreboard.
Even as the Warriors began the evening shorthanded -- Draymond Green spent the night away from Oracle Arena, serving his one-game suspension -- they became even more so when Andrew Bogut went down with what was called a sprained knee in the second half. Per ESPN's Marc Stein, the center will have an MRI on Tuesday, which will likely determine his status for Thursday's matchup.
The home team did, however, manage to start strong out of the gate, taking the lead in the contest’s opening minutes, However, the first half quickly shifted into a chess game, with the clubs trading offensive acrobatics every time down the floor. In fact, the teams’ combined 122 points prior to halftime was the most in a first half of a Finals contest since 1987, per ABC.
While the Warriors were led by Thompson’s long-range marksmanship -- the Splash Brother knocked in 6-of-8 threes for 26 points in the first 24 minutes alone -- Cleveland was spearheaded in the early going by, you guessed it, the James-Irving pairing, which combined for 43 points on 18-of-28 shooting before the break.
But the play of the first half undoubtedly went to Warriors back-up point guard Shaun Livingston. With 9:23 to go in the second period, Livingston, ball in his hands, curled around the top of the key and barreled through the paint, elevating for the one-handed jam and posterizing Cleveland’s Richard Jefferson.
Nevertheless, short-staffed without Green, the Warriors just couldn’t keep up with the Cavaliers’ one-three power punch, as MVP Steph Curry had another off night, shooting just 8-of-21. And even Thompson, who had a remarkable first half, couldn’t maintain the pace following intermission, finishing, yes, with 37, but also ending the evening with a team-low -21 +/- rating.
Now, we’re headed back to Cleveland. The Warriors have lost consecutive games only one time this season -- last series, against the Oklahoma City Thunder. But if the Cavaliers don’t want to play host to another Warriors champagne party later this week, they’ll have to find a way to nab that feat, Golden State’s record be damned.
And if Irving and James continue to play like they did tonight -- well, Cleveland just may have a chance.