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.