James, Irving Excel as Cavs Avoid EliminationWhat is the difference between LeBron James attacking aggressively and LeBron James playing passively? The answer to that question is not found in the boxscore but rather via the eye test: watch game five of the 2016 NBA Finals to see what it looks like when James attacks aggressively and watch game four of the 2016 NBA Finals to see what it looks like when James plays passively.
Facing elimination on the road, James delivered an outstanding performance in game five as his Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the reigning NBA champion Golden State Warriors 112-97. James finished with 41 points on 16-30 field goal shooting. He also had 16 rebounds, seven assists and just two turnovers. Kyrie Irving matched James' point total while shooting 17-24 from the field to become just the second player (Wilt Chamberlain is the other one) to score at least 40 points in an NBA Finals game while shooting .700 or better from the field. It is rare for two teammates to each score at least 40 points in the same NBA game and this is the first time that two teammates each scored 40 points in the same NBA Finals game.
As Isiah Thomas, Vince Carter and Tim Legler noted after the game, James set the tone from the start: he aggressively attacked the paint and when defenders played off of him to discourage him from driving he unhesitatingly took and made jump shots from both midrange and beyond the three point line. Thomas said that when the best player sets the tone then everyone else follows. Thomas stressed how important it is for the best player to look to score early in the game.
Doug Collins made the same point before game five when he reviewed what happened in game four. Collins cited James' gaudy looking game four statistics but said, "These aren't winning numbers...It׳s not about looking at the statistics afterward." Collins declared that for the Cavaliers to win this series they need for James to be the best player on the court at least four times but that after four games in the series he had only done it once.
James scored 25 points on 10-18 field goal shooting in the first half of game five. He had nine rebounds and no assists. He was the first player to attempt 18 field goals in one half of a Finals game since Kobe Bryant in the 2009 Finals. Any time Bryant had a half like that, guys like Mike Wilbon would wrongly blast Bryant for shooting so much and not having any assists but at halftime Mark Jackson correctly praised James: "We've been waiting to see this LeBron James all series long." Jackson pointed out that the lack of assists did not mean anything because the Cavaliers were utilizing actions that created scoring opportunities for James and that James was rightly attacking to score instead of looking to pass. James was taking good shots, so it did not matter that he was not accumulating assists.
Jeff Van Gundy's halftime analysis was also right on point. He said that the analytics guys (who I call "stat gurus") would not approve of James' shot selection because he took several midrange jump shots (the dreaded "long twos" that the "stat gurus" are trying to eliminate from basketball) but that James was right to take such shots when the defense gave him so much space. This is exactly the point that I made several years ago when I compared James and Bryant: Bryant was more valuable (and more successful in terms of winning championships) than James because Bryant consistently took and made midrange shots; Bryant's willingness and ability to do this opened up the entire floor for Bryant and his teammates. The San Antonio Spurs have had a great defensive team for almost 20 years but they struggled to deal with Bryant because of his mastery of the midrange game. In contrast, the Spurs went 2-1 in the NBA Finals versus James in large part because James could not or would not take and make such shots.
Overall, the first half of game five was some of the best and most enjoyable NBA basketball I have watched in quite some time. The 61-61 score was the highest halftime point total in the Finals since Magic Johnson led the Lakers to five titles during the Showtime era. I remember when NBA Finals games routinely had halftime scores with both teams scoring more than 50 points. Those games were so much fun to watch.
In addition to James' fine first half production, Irving blistered the nets with 18 points on 8-10 field goal shooting, while Klay Thompson shot 6-8 from three point range and led the Warriors with 26 points.
A key moment in the game happened early in the third quarter, when Golden State center Andrew Bogut injured his left knee while blocking a shot. After Golden State failed to score in transition, Cleveland enjoyed a 5 on 4 advantage as Bogut writhed in pain just off of the court behind the Warriors' basket. Instead of attacking the hoop, James passed the ball and Kevin Love missed a long three pointer. Bogut left the game after the ensuing stoppage of play and he did not return to action. Golden State Coach Steve Kerr elected to go small for most of the rest of the way but Cleveland Coach Tyronn Lue rightly avoided the temptation to go small as well. Lue kept Love and/or Tristan Thompson on the court and the Cavaliers used their overall size plus the driving abilities of James and Irving to good effect to punish the Warriors in the paint.
The Cavaliers built a double digit lead and were ahead 93-84 entering the fourth quarter. At that point, James had scored 36 points on 14-23 field goal shooting, while Irving had scored 29 points on 12-15 field goal shooting. As mentioned above, James set the tone for Cleveland's attack and Cleveland would not have won without him performing in that fashion but it is interesting that in this do or die game Irving, not James, turned out to be Cleveland's closer. Irving pumped in 12 points on 5-9 field goal shooting in the fourth quarter, while James limped to the finish (metaphorically speaking, not literally) with just five points on 2-7 field goal shooting in the final stanza.
Van Gundy often states that shot selection should be judged on quality not outcome (i.e., it is possible to make a bad shot or miss a good shot). Irving took the same kinds of shots in game five that he took in game four. Irving is demonstrating during this series that he is not afraid of the moment and that he is willing to attack offensively on a consistent basis, providing more proof that Mike Wilbon's criticism of Irving's game four performance/shot selection was misguided and ill-informed. James' commitment to attack wavers from game to game--and even within a single game, as we saw last night--but Irving consistently has an attacking mindset. Irving reminds me a little of Andrew Toney. Irving is flashier than Toney (though Toney had a devastating crossover move) but otherwise they are very similar: both attack to score, both are deadly at the hoop, in the midrange and beyond the arc (though the three point shot was not a big weapon during Toney's era) and both are very capable passers despite not having a pass-first mentality. Toney was physically stronger than Irving and Toney was a more consistent defender who could, at times, be relied upon even to defend larger players.
While it is tempting focus primarily on James, Irving and Thompson (who finished with 37 points), it must be noted that Stephen Curry--winner of the past two regular season MVP awards--has yet to put his stamp on this series. Curry finished game five with 25 points on 8-21 field goal shooting. Curry's defense during the Finals has been inconsistent at best and while his commendable movement off of the ball has created shot opportunities for his teammates it is not enough for an MVP to just be a decoy. Golden State had an opportunity to clinch the championship at home and instead of taking over the game Curry was, at best, the fourth best player on the court. Unlike James, Curry does not have a problem with being aggressive; Curry is not playing differently than usual but his effectiveness has dropped and he should not get a free pass either because his team is still leading the series or because the dominant narrative is that in terms of individual legacies this series is mostly about LeBron James. Curry should be expected to perform at an MVP level and he should be held accountable when he fails to do so.
The Cavaliers still face an uphill struggle to win this series; they must beat Golden State at home in Cleveland and then win game seven on the road. Bogut's availability is unknown at this time but Draymond Green will return to action after serving a one game suspension in game five. Green's suspension is a polarizing issue but my take is that the NBA has two choices regarding Green's repeated karate chops and karate kicks to the groin area and his assorted other dirty plays: the NBA can either go the NHL route by letting players "police" such activity (which would mean that Green's victims would be permitted to retaliate in kind) or the NBA has to punish Green in escalating fashion until he decides to control his behavior. Green should have been ejected and suspended for his kick to Steven Adams' groin during the Western Conference Finals; there is no way that was an accident and even if it was an accident I agree with Frank Isola's point that such contact is still unnecessary and excessive to the extent that it should be punished. In other words, if it was not on purpose then it was dangerously reckless.
Kenny Smith once said that if you do something bad once that does not make you a bad person but if you do bad things repeatedly then maybe those actions represent who you are. I have not heard Smith's take on the Green issue specifically but I think that Smith's general observation is correct. Regarding Green, he has done multiple actions on the court that are flagrant and/or dirty, including repeatedly delivering blows to opposing players' groins. Green's conduct is unacceptable. If he had done this in the 1980s, he would have gotten his butt kicked. Rick Mahorn said if Green had done that to him once he would have cracked Green upside the head as hard as he could and taken whatever punishment the league dished out. Green's conduct is dangerous and inexcusable because (1) hitting someone in that area could cause permanent damage and (2) if the NBA does not get this conduct under control someone is going to go the Mahorn rout and crack Green upside the head, which could rapidly degenerate into a full-fledged fight/riot the likes of which the NBA has not seen since the infamous Malice in the Palace.
Some people say that LeBron James instigated the incident by pushing Green down and then stepping over him. James was appropriately punished for his conduct: he received a foul and a technical foul on the play. There is no excuse for Green targeting James' groin, regardless of how much or how little contact Green actually made. It is ironic that Green allegedly called James a word that rhymes with "itch," because I cannot think of a move that is more "itch"-like than repeatedly hitting other men in their genitals. Such actions do not prove Green's toughness and I am sure that he would not act this way outside of an NBA arena where he has referees and security personnel to protect him.
Green's absence does not in any way tarnish Cleveland's win. Green took himself out of action by repeatedly committing flagrant fouls, so his unavailability is no different than a player fouling out or getting injured. Those things are part of the game and if the Warriors or their fans are angry then they should direct their anger at Green, whose conduct could potentially cost the Warriors the championship. A big part of winning a championship is staying poised. If all it takes to get Green to lose his poise is to "disrespect" him by stepping over him then if I were an opposing coach I'd send my 12th man in the game to "disrespect" Green in the first quarter. If Green felt the need to be macho when James stepped over him then Green could have just said the magic word to James--"scoreboard"--and pointed to the numbers showing that Golden State was about to take a 3-1 series lead. Or, Green could have done what so many other "macho" NBA players do: he could have pointed his finger at James and acted like he wanted to fight while making sure that 10 other people stood between them. Green knew exactly what he was doing when he took aim at James' groin and Green felt comfortable doing this because he has gotten away with it before (or because he is so mentally weak that he got caught up in the moment instead of putting his team first).
Green's teammates predictably rallied behind him publicly but I would be willing to bet that the coaching staff--if not the players--has told Green in no uncertain terms to not take any other actions that could potentially rewrite the ending to Golden State's dream season.
Golden State is a tremendous team that likely will eventually win this series but at this point no one can honestly say that James does not have enough help. The Cavaliers won both games during which he was fully engaged and played in attack mode and the Cavaliers would likely be leading the series if he had been fully engaged from the start of the series, as Collins suggested. This is not about James scoring a certain number of points or taking a certain number of shots. This is about James driving to score (not pass) and about James unhesitatingly taking midrange shots when the defense completely shuts off his driving lanes by clogging the paint. Cleveland has no chance to win if James spends most of the game driving to pass and if he refuses to shoot in favor of giving the ball to teammates who are less open than he is. How James plays the rest of the way will give some indication if his game five performance was more about winning a championship or simply about making a one game statement. Is James content to show the world what he is capable of doing or will James accept nothing less than winning the championship? To win the championship, James might have to shoot 10-30 from the field, if by being aggressive James changes Golden State's defense and tilts the floor in a way that creates offensive rebounding opportunities and other open shots for his teammates. This is not about being "efficient"; this is about a superstar's willingness to be consistently aggressive and live with the results.
posted by David Friedman @ 7:10 PM