[Follow Dunks Don't Lie on Tumblr: The best slams from all of basketball]
Despite spending two days undergoing treatment for a rolled left ankle suffered late in Sunday's win, James looked none the worse for wear on Tuesday. He scored a game-high 38 points with 12 rebounds, six assists, three steals and three blocks, leading the Cavaliers to a 106-101 win that gives Cleveland a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinals, and has a James-led crew one win from advancing to the conference finals for the fifth straight postseason, and for the seventh time in the last nine years. (The NBA history number to know: winners of Game 5 in tied best-of-seven series have gone on to win 81.7 percent of the time.)
James joins Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Gary Payton and Paul Pierce as the sixth player in the last 30 years to put up at least 35 points, 10 boards, six dimes and three steals in a postseason game, and the only one to block more than one shot while doing so. He also tied Jordan's NBA-record 51 playoff games with at least 30 points, five rebounds and five assists. Thanks in large part to his brilliant performance, the Cavs can close the Bulls out in Game 6 back at United Center on Thursday.
James was sensational, working out of the post and making aggressive moves to the basket early and often, especially after Bulls stopper Jimmy Butler went to the bench with two fouls with 4:44 remaining in the first quarter. The four-time MVP repeatedly attacked a Chicago defense that had precious little rim protection with big man Pau Gasol once again sidelined by a strained left hamstring and an injury-addled Joakim Noah often looking like a shell of his former Defensive Player of the Year self.
He shot 9-for-11 inside the paint and 7-for-8 inside the restricted area en route to a 14-for-24 performance, carrying the Cleveland offense and — crucially, after having coughed it up 15 times in the past two games and 23 times in the series — going without a turnover in his 41 minutes of work.
As great as James was, though, he didn't put the Bulls on the brink alone.
Even as he struggles through a right foot strain and left knee tendinitis, Kyrie Irving made enough shots to seem more "deadly" than "decoy." The All-Star point guard clearly seemed hobbled in the early going, especially when tasked with guarding Bulls star Derrick Rose, but he persevered, found his stroke and used what burst he could muster when he needed it, scoring 25 points on 9-for-16 shooting to go with five assists, two rebounds, a steal and a block in 39 1/2 minutes. Fifteen of Irving's points came after halftime, helping the Cavs keep the Bulls at bay and hold off a late Chicago charge.
The Cavs also got key contributions from swingmen Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith, who added playmaking juice in combining for 25 points on 21 shots. They helped fuel small-ball Cleveland lineups that flourished against the more traditional and plodding two-big Bulls units. Cleveland outscored Chicago by 13 points in 23 minutes with the former New York Knicks on the floor together in Game 5. (Shumpert also added seven rebounds, including a offensive board with 19 seconds remaining to help seal the win, with three assists and three blocks, continuing his fantastic two-way play on the wing.)
Energetic big man Tristan Thompson continued to outwork the Bulls on the boards, grabbing four offensive rebounds and 10 overall to go with 12 points and two blocks in 39 minutes of work split between the power forward and center spots. And reserve point guard Matthew Dellavedova made a major impact in minor minutes, scoring five points, dishing four assists ... and logging one apparently-unnoticed-by-officials leg lock to stoke the ire of Bulls power forward Taj Gibson, leading to the versatile big man's ejection from the game early in the fourth quarter.
And yet, despite a dominant and efficient LeBron performance, a gutty outing from Irving, and significant help from their role players, Cleveland just couldn't seem to put the Bulls away.
Chicago gave the Cavs plenty of chances, following up a strong 7-for-10 start from the field that gave them a 10-point lead after six minutes by making just seven of their next 34 shots over the next 18 minutes. But the combination of excellent free-throw shooting (16-for-18 from the stripe), persistent work on the glass (nine offensive rebounds leading to 11 second-chance points) and solid ball security (just four turnovers, though the Cavs scored eight points off them) kept Chicago within hailing distance, trailing by a 54-44 margin at intermission.
Rose torched the Bulls early, rolling up 12 quick points while mostly matched up against the steps-slow Irving, and making a fantastic left-handed finish in transition over James:
But the Game 3 star quieted down quite a bit after Shumpert started taking primary defensive responsibility, and especially after suffering what appeared to be a right shoulder injury during a mid-third-quarter scramble for a loose ball:
Though he wouldn't use it as an excuse after the game, Rose repeatedly flexed and favored that right arm down the stretch. He made just two of his final 17 field-goal attempts on Tuesday, finishing with 16 points, nine rebounds, seven assists, three steals and a block in a game-high 42 1/2 minutes.
With Rose struggling, the Bulls leaned on wings Butler and Mike Dunleavy, who combined for 18 points in the third quarter, getting Chicago within one point at 63-62 with 4:10 left in the frame. Five quick points from Irving re-established the distance, though, and a late-quarter flurry capped by a Dellavedova triple had Cleveland back up by 12 and the Quicken Loans Arena faithful rocking ... only to get quieted down some by a bonkers beyond-half-court buzzer-beater by rookie Nikola Mirotic:
Clevelanders' roars were restored following Gibson's ejection, as the Cavs ripped off a 9-2 run punctuated by a Dellavedova-to-Thompson alley-oop that gave David Blatt's team a 17-point cushion at 92-75 with 8:47 left in the fourth. But the Bulls tightened up their defense, holding the Cavs to just three made shots in a 7 1/2-minute span while generating enough good looks of their own to uncork a 24-9 run that cut Cleveland's lead to 101-99 after this Butler 3-pointer with 1:18 remaining:
After a missed 3-pointer by Irving with 53 seconds left, the Bulls got Rose racing out in transition with a chance to tie ... only to see that LeBron guy pull out one of his signature chase-down blocks to erase the opportunity:
Chicago recovered and called timeout, giving themselves another chance to tie or take the lead. Butler had a clean look at a right corner 3 after getting sprung by a solid Noah screen on James, but he seemed to fade as he rose and fired — perhaps a bit tired after having carried the Bulls offense with 21 of his 29 points after halftime, in addition to trying to deal with James all night — and came up short on the go-ahead triple attempt.
And yet, still, Chicago wasn't quite dead. Butler dug in defensively, helping force a missed fadeaway 10-footer by James with 22 seconds left that could have given the Bulls the ball back with one more shot ... had they finished the possession.
But Kirk Hinrich — who you'd imagine wouldn't have been trying to secure a late-game defensive rebound had Gibson been available — couldn't nail down his boxout of Thompson, allowing the Cavs' glass-eater to get inside and battle Noah for position. With Thompson occupying Noah's left hand, the Bulls center could only tap it out with his right; Shumpert, whom Dunleavy lost track of in the scramble, soared in and pulled down his fourth offensive board of the night, extending the possession and forcing the Bulls to foul. Irving and James would make five of six freebies in the final 16 seconds to ice the game.
Noah: "I wish I could get that back. LeBron is coming and you have to make sure he doesn’t get to the basket and then get back to Thompson."
— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) May 13, 2015
The Bulls probably wish they had more than just that final rebounding chance back — any number of plays down the stretch in Game 4 as they let an 11-point third-quarter lead slip away, any number of the 18 shots they missed in the second quarter, Gasol in general, Gibson in the fourth, etc. — but that's not the way this works. Instead, they'll have to put everything they've got into extending their season, and hope that James doesn't have an even more remarkable encore in the offing on Thursday night.
- - - - - - -