Irving's Game 5 masterpiece leaves LeBron, Cavs in awe


Irving's Game 5 masterpiece leaves LeBron, Cavs in awe

OAKLAND - The Cavs locker room was nothing but smiles Monday night following their shocking 112-97 shellacking of the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena. Smiles, ice and more smiles.

While LeBron James stared down at his phone, half the team sat together looking like a group of kids in a middle school class, one of which who had just put a thumbtack on the teacher’s chair.

They were guilty. Guilty of walking into a hostile environment and shocking the NBA world. Guilty of making a couple of hundred reporters jump onto travel sites in hopes of landing an overpriced plane ticket back to Cleveland. Guilty of defying the odds and living to play another game.

Kyrie Irving was one of the players huddled together. He was joined by Tristan Thompson, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert, but the latter three were an afterthought.

Irving had just had the game of his life. Maybe it was necessary or maybe he was just playing to the crowd, but the 24-year-old guard had his right hand wrapped in ice. Was it there to reduce swelling? That’s possible. It’s also possible he was still on fire from his shooting performance earlier in the evening and didn’t want to set the locker room ablaze.  

While the Warriors were sending player after player to the table trying to slow the Cavaliers attack, Irving, joined by an incredible performance by James, were in survival mode. Trying to stay alive for one more game, they pounded Golden State in front of their home crowd.

“Our coaching staff gave us a great game plan, and as one of the leaders on the team, we just went out and executed,” James said. “You’ve got a guy like this (looking at Irving seated next to him) who is very special. It’s probably one of the greatest performances I’ve seen live.”

Irving was unstoppable for much of the night. Once he got it going, there was very little the Warriors could do to slow him down. He finished the night with 41 points on 17-of-24 shooting from the field and 5-for-7 from long range. He used a variety of moves to breakdown the Warriors defense and his bankshot in the key made him virtually unstoppable.

“He’s just that special kid that doesn’t know how good he can be,” veteran Richard Jefferson said. “Sometimes people are tough on him.”

No one was tough on Irving Monday at Oracle. Neither on the court or in the interview room. He was dominant on the game’s biggest stage.

"Kyrie was great tonight,” Klay Thompson said following the game. “He had my number. Nothing you can do. He was making tough shots."

With a ruckus crowd booing his every move, James matched Irving stride for stride. With Draymond Green serving a league mandated suspension, King James posted a 41-point, 16-rebound, 7-assist night in the win.

“Bron with just his steady rebounding, defense, attack, taking what they gave him - this was his probably most controlled game,” Jefferson said. “I’m not even talking about scoring, just taking what they were giving him, being aggressive when the opportunity arose, not really trying to press it.”

With his bull rush nearly unstoppable, the Warriors sagged off the former MVP. The superstar forward had been reluctant to hoist up perimeter shots all series long, but that wasn’t the case Monday night. Once he started launching and hitting from the top of the key, the game was all but over, especially without Green to slow him down.

“Well, he’s their best defender,” coach Tyronn Lue said of Green. “And I’ve said it all along that he is the best guy in the NBA as far as reading when to help, triple switches and kicking guys out of mismatches, knowing when to go, when not to go.”

One of the league’s best defenders, Green was forced to sit in the neighboring stadium watching from afar and praying his team could bring home the win in his absence so he could join the post game celebration. The call never came.

Coming into the night, James was averaging just under 25 points per game through the first four contest of the Finals. But without Green trolling the paint and with Irving running roughshod over the Warriors guards, he was able to explode for his first 40-point performance of this year’s playoffs and only his third 30-point effort in 19 postseason games.  

“You tip your hat to them,” reigning MVP Steph Curry said of the performance by Irving and James. “They had a great night, made some tough shots, made some open shots that we had miscommunication on. They did what they needed to do to help their team get a win.”

In the end, it was a two-man game for the Cavs. Their stars shined brightest in an enormous way and carried them back to Cleveland for a Game 6 on Thursday night, where Irving and James will likely need to perform in similar fashion.

“We’re not satisfied,” Irving said. “We understand the magnitude of what Game 6 means for us at home, and we know that it will be an incredible level that they’re going to play at, and we have to play at an even better level.”

It’s win and earn a trip back to Oakland for Game 7 on Sunday or lose and watch the Golden State Warriors celebrate on your home floor for the Cavs. If Cleveland can get another night like this out of their star players, we might have a epic finish to the 2016 NBA Finals.

Can Rockets replicate success Warriors had with Steph Curry, Kevin Durant?

Can Rockets replicate success Warriors had with Steph Curry, Kevin Durant?

When Kevin Durant first joined the Warriors in 2016, skeptics wondered if Golden State could make it work.

Would Durant and Steph Curry be able to co-exist? Would there be enough shots for Durant, Curry and Klay Thompson? Would everyone remain happy with their role and numbers?

Those questions were answered pretty quickly. It took a few months, but Durant, Curry and the Warriors gelled midway through their first season together. They went on to claim the 2016-17 NBA title and ran it back the next season en route to a sweep in the 2017-18 NBA Finals.

Everyone seemed happy. Everyone got their shots. The third season wasn't as smooth, but it still almost ended with a third consecutive title.

After losing the 2019 NBA Finals to the Toronto Raptors, Durant decided it was time to move on and signed with the Brooklyn Nets.

But looking back, the experiment was a success. Durant and Curry co-existed, forming one of the most dominant duos in NBA history. Thompson didn't "sacrifice" as much as people thought he would, and ended up signing a max contract with the Warriors this offseason.

Now, a new duo — James Harden and Russell Westbrook — has critics wondering if the players can co-exist.

Both are MVPs and two of the most ball-dominant players in the NBA. So, will the Houston Rockets' experiment work? Harden believes it will.

“When you have talent like that, it works itself out" Harden told The Houston Chronicle's Jonathan Feigen. "You communicate. You go out there and compete possession by possession. You figure things out. Throughout the course of the season, you figure things out. That’s just what it is. When you have talent, you have guys with IQ, you have guys willing to sacrifice, it always works itself out.”

Harden used a key word there. Sacrifice.

The players on the Warriors were willing to sacrifice for the greater good.

Are Harden and Westbrook capable of making the same sacrifice? Harden is confident their longstanding friendship will help matters.

“It works,” Harden told Feigen. “It’s that trust factor. I trust him; he trusts me. And with the group that we already have and the things we already accomplished, it should be an easy transition for him to be incorporated right in and things are going to go.”

While Harden and Westbrook went to the NBA Finals in 2012 as members of the Oklahoma City Thunder, neither has returned since. Both have reached the conference finals in recent years but have gone no further.

Other Western Conference teams have loaded up, but Houston is bringing back a team that is mostly intact from last season and swapped Westbrook for an aging and injury-prone Chris Paul.

So maybe this is finally Houston's year.

[RELATED: Warriors could be 'terrifying' in 2019]

“That’s my boy right there, since I was like 10 or 11 years old,” Harden said of Westbrook. “Obviously, we were teammates for [three] years. Now, we’re at different stages of our careers. I’m excited for the opportunity. I hear a lot of negative things: you can’t, he can’t, they can’t. But we’ll figure it out. I’m excited for the opportunity. I know the rest of the organization is. It’s time.”

The Warriors were able to turn the Curry-Durant partnership into two NBA titles. How many titles, if any, the Rockets can grab with Harden and Westbrook is to be determined. But they certainly have the talent to bring the Larry O'Brien Trophy back to H-Town.

Why this ESPN analyst thinks Warriors could be 'terrifying' next year


Why this ESPN analyst thinks Warriors could be 'terrifying' next year

The Warriors will enter the 2019-20 NBA season in unfamiliar territory.

For one, they won't enter the season as title favorites for the first time since lifting the Larry O'Brien Trophy in 2015 after significant roster turnover headlined by Kevin Durant's departure in free agency. For another, they will begin the campaign without star guard Klay Thompson in the opening-night lineup for the first time since 2010 as he recovers from a torn ACL. 

But that isn't enough to write off Golden State as an NBA title contender, according to ESPN's Kirk Goldsberry. 

"I'm not a betting man, but if I were, I'd be all over this bet," Goldsberry wrote in a Friday column, referring to the Warriors opening the season as +1,400 championship favorites according to Caesar's Palace. "Why? Call me crazy, but if Klay Thompson returns to action by March or April, and the Warriors are in the playoffs, they're terrifying."

Placing them in his third tier of championship contenders, Goldsberry noted that the Warriors' experience could give them an edge over other title contenders. He also proposed that sign-and-trade acquisition D'Angelo Russell could "take another leap" under head coach Steve Kerr. Russell, who was an All-Star last season, doesn't have the same defensive upside as Thompson, but gives Golden State another credible scoring threat while one half of the Splash Brothers sits on the sidelines. 

[RELATED: Why Mychal Thompson has MVP expectations for Steph]

That defensive drop-off is what concerns Goldsberry the most, especially with Thompson set to miss so much of the season while Durant and Andre Iguodala no longer are playing in the Bay. The Warriors finished outside of the top 10 in defensive rating in each of the last two seasons despite the presence of all three players on the roster. As NBC Sports Bay Area's Grant Liffmann observed earlier this week, those absences leave the Warriors with a lot of question marks on the defensive end of the court. 

The best-case scenarios for the Warriors next season involve a lot of "ifs." If Russell can effectively fill in for Thompson and if Thompson can return healthy and if the Warriors figure out their defense, then Golden State could be a force in the postseason. The Warriors will have 82 games to figure it all out, but they are still a team few would want to face if and when they do.