WASHINGTON — The NBA got what it wanted Monday night.
By removing the best defensive player in the NBA Finals, the league got the highest scoring game yet and, most importantly, a Cleveland Cavaliers victory that extended the series to at least a sixth game. Instead of a championship celebration at home in Oakland, the Golden State Warriors will need to return to Cleveland Thursday, and possibly back home Sunday for Game 7.
The first half was a barnburner, with each team notching 61 points. Cleveland scored 29 points or more through each of the first three frames, a marked improvement over the previous four games, in which the Cavs averaged fewer than 96 points per game. Kyrie Irving and LeBron James — with 41 each, few of them at the rim — became the first duo to each break the 40 point plateau in the same NBA Finals game.
For their part, the Warriors looked disjointed and out of sync without their emotional leader. They played lineup combinations barely if at all featured during the regular season, leaning on deep bench players like James Michael McAdoo and Anderson Varejao in critical minutes. And it all came back to a postgame press conference featuring a passive-aggressive superstar clawing desperately for any advantage while trying to dig out of a seemingly insurmountable hole.
You can think Draymond Green’s a dirty player. He’s certainly earned the ire he’s drawn this postseason, particularly after a pair of low blows to Oklahoma City’s Stephen Adams. But after not receiving a suspension for either of those, he picked up a flagrant foul “upon review” on Sunday for a reactive swipe after James knocked him to the floor and stepped over him.
To ensure his plea would be heard, James insinuated that Green had grossly violated the unwritten lines of trash talking on the court, invoking his family in defense. As it turned out, that wasn’t true at all, Green had merely called LeBron the same things countless opponents have in his career. Through James’ actions at the podium after Game 4, the sentiment seemed pretty understandable.
James received a technical foul for the incident. So why did Green not receive the same, but a flagrant instead, a foul intended to legislate against excessive contact? Simply, the result wouldn’t have been the same. The way the NBA counts points against players for technicals and flagrants, Green would have played.
Klay Thompson was great on offense, pouring in 37 on just 20 shots, but managed to rack up a game-worst -21 plus/minus. That happened largely as a result of what happened in every possession he was on the floor in which he didn’t get the ball, when the Warriors’ legendarily quick-flowing offense ground to a halt and deteriorated into one-on-one play. Without a playmaker like Green able to play off traps on Steph Curry and facilitate the four-on-three chances that have crushed opponents all year, the Warriors weren’t the Warriors at all.
The extension of the series also led to an injury, as Warriors center Andrew Bogut had his knee bent backward awkwardly by JR Smith in the third quarter. Bogut was scheduled for an MRI late Monday night, but his status is uncertain moving forward. As a great passing big man and shot blocking presence at the rim, if he can’t go in Game 6 it will be a loss for Golden State, but not as much of a gain as getting Green back will be.
The Warriors have outscored opponents by 153 points in the minutes he’s been on the floor this postseason. After Monday night, they’ve been outscored by 30 in the rest of the playoffs.
James and Irving almost certainly won’t each go for 40 again, if only because of the fact that nobody’s ever done it before. They won’t because Irving, who shot 42.7 percent through the first four games, went an absurd 17-24 from the floor, including a ton of off balance and contested jumpers. But mostly they won’t because Green will be back, disrupting on defense, playmaking on offense, serving as the linchpin for the small ball death squad, and providing the heartbeat that drives the Warriors.
Warriors head coach Steve Kerr was understandably disappointed, but levelheaded as ever in the postgame press conference, delivering the most telling assessment of anyone.
“I like our position a lot better than theirs,” he said with a wry smile.
And he should. With Green back, the Warriors are an entirely different team, Which is exactly why it was best for everyone other than Golden State that he not be on the floor Monday night.