OAKLAND, California: LeBron James and Kyrie Irving unleashed two of the greatest do-or-die performances in NBA Finals history on Monday (Tuesday in Manila), sustaining the Cleveland Cavaliers’ title dreams and denying Golden State a home championship celebration.
James and Irving each scored 41 points to power the Cavaliers over the defending NBA champions 112-97, pulling Cleveland within 3-2 in the best-of-seven series.
Irving scored a career playoff high, making 17-of-24 shots from the floor, including 5-of-7 3-pointers, and ran off seven decisive points in a row late in the fourth quarter.
“It’s probably one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen live, to put on the show that he did,” said James, who also called Irving’s effort “spectacular.”
But it came while the Warriors were playing without suspended forward Draymond Green, out for accumulated playoff flagrant fouls, and when a left knee injury sidelined Australian center Andrew Bogut early in the third quarter.
“It’s too simple to say that,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “We didn’t play well enough to win. We weren’t very good defensively. We had to play better and we didn’t.”
Golden State has another chance to claim the crown in Game 6 on Thursday at Cleveland while a seventh game, if needed, would be Sunday back in California.
No team has ever recovered from a 3-1 deficit to win the NBA Finals, and only the 1951 New York Knicks and 1966 Los Angeles Lakers even forced a seventh game.
“It’s frustrating. But you just suck it up and move on,” Golden State’s Klay Thompson said. “We’re still in a great position. It stings real bad, but we’ll come back stronger.”
Faced with a must-win contest, Cleveland’s star duo became the first teammates to crack 40 points in the same finals game, scoring more than any players facing NBA Finals elimination in 20 years.
James added game highs of 16 rebounds and seven assists, while Irving had six assists and Tristan Thompson grabbed 15 rebounds for the Cavaliers.
“To repeat a performance like this would definitely be tough, but whatever it takes to win,” Irving said. “I know myself and [LeBron] and our teammates are willing. We’ll be very well prepared for Game 6.”
James, who became the ninth player with 1,000 career NBA Finals points, and Irving each scored 11 points in the third quarter. Irving netted 12 more in the fourth. James had 25 in the first half.
“They had two great games, two breakout games,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said. “We need those two guys to give us confidence early and they both did that.”
Golden State trimmed an 11-point deficit to 102-96 on a Curry basket with 6:39 to play, but Irving hit the next seven points, James added a 3-pointer and the Warriors went more than five minutes without scoring to seal their fate.
Klay Thompson led Golden State with 37 points, 26 in the first half, while NBA Most Valuable Player Stephen Curry added 25.
“Tip your hat to them,” Curry said. “They had a great night, made some tough shots.”
But the Warriors, who led the NBA in 3-pointers this season, went only 3-for-21 from 3-point range in the second-half.
“In the second half I settled for too many bad shots,” Klay Thompson said. “You don’t want to force up bad shots and there’s three or four shots now that I wish I could get back.”
‘King’ of the road
“King” James, in his sixth consecutive NBA Finals and seventh overall, extended a personal streak with at least one road win in an NBA record 26 consecutive playoff series.
“The main thing is that we were able to give ourselves another chance,” James said. “I know my teammates trust me, I trust them, and that was the result.”
The Warriors were without Green after the NBA issued a one-game ban to the forward on Sunday. The league assessed Green a flagrant foul for striking James in the groin with a flailing hand in Game 4.
“He’s their best defender,” Lue said. “So that definitely hurt their defense.”
Green was the only Warrior to play in every Golden State regular season and playoff victory this season.
Bogut was struck by Cleveland’s J.R. Smith and the Aussie landed awkwardly on his left leg, writhing in pain on the court. He was helped to the locker room with what appeared to be a severe left knee injury. An MRI exam is set for Tuesday.
“Hopefully he’s OK,” Kerr said. “We need him.”