OAKLAND, Calif. – As the players shuffled onto the floor, moments after a raucous, gold-clad crowd welcomed the Warriors back to Oracle Arena during pregame introductions, a chant began to echo from the upper bowl: Free Draymond. Yes, Golden State was without Draymond Green, its versatile star suspended for Game 5 for accumulating four flagrant foul points in the postseason, and, boy, was he missed. Backed by 82 total points from LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, Cleveland stormed into Oakland and seized a 112-97 win Monday night in Game 5 of the NBA Finals.
The Warriors lead the best-of-seven series 3-2.
After exchanging public barbs Sunday, James and Klay Thompson threw basketball haymakers on Monday. Thompson — who suggested Green’s trash talk hurt LeBron’s feelings — came out firing, connecting on six of his eight 3-point attempts in the first half, totaling 26 points. He was matched by James, who scored 25 points while pulling down nine rebounds in the first two quarters.
With Green out, the Warriors went small, plugging Andre Iguodala into the starting lineup. But the effect of Green’s absence was measurable. Through four games, the Warriors held a slight rebounding edge over the Cavaliers; in the first half, the Cavs held a 19-17 advantage. Those problems got worse in the third quarter, when Andrew Bogut went down with a knee injury and could not return.
“I’ve said it all along that [Green] 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,” Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said. “He's an underrated shot-blocker, and he can guard one through five, so that definitely help hurt their defense.”
With Bogut out, Golden State went even smaller, plugging 6-foot-9 James McAdoo into the lineup. Cleveland responded by relentlessly attacking the paint, piling up a 46-30 points advantage. The Cavs’ perimeter players did most of the damage, with James and Irving driving fearlessly. After struggling mightily the first two games in Golden State, Irving responded with a brilliant performance, pumping in 41 points (on 17-of-24 shooting) and handing out six assists.
“Kyrie was great tonight and had my number,” Thompson said. “Hit some tough shots, but there's nothing you can do about it. Sometimes you put your hand up and it just goes in.”
It was an effort matched only by James. With the Cavaliers’ season on the line — and faced with an offseason filled with uncertainty — the four-time MVP submitted a series-defining performance. With Kevin Love (two points) struggling and J.R. Smith (10) proving unreliable, James took over. He overpowered Iguodala, drove past Harrison Barnes and shot over every defender the Warriors sent at him. James finished with 41 points, 16 rebounds and seven assists in a game that will rank among his finest.
“We tried a lot of different things, and nothing seemed to work,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “It was one of those nights. But give them credit. They played a great game, and they earned it.”
Yet even with James’s brilliance, Golden State stayed within striking distance. A nine-point fourth quarter lead was whittled to six, and Cleveland’s clock-draining offense opened the door for the Warriors to close the gap. But Stephen Curry (25 points, 8-of-21 shooting) struggled with his shot while Thompson cooled off considerably in the second half. Without Green, Golden State struggled to find offensive options; only Iguodala (15 points) joined Curry and Thompson in double-figures, and the Warriors superstars couldn’t make up the difference as Irving kept producing.
"You've got a guy [Irving] like this who is very special, it's probably one of the greatest performances I've ever seen live," James said.
As the clock wound down, a frustrated Golden State crowd grew angry. Insults at James were followed by shots at Love, until a familiar refrain emerged: Free Draymond. Yes, Green will be back for Game 6 on Thursday, and after what happened on Monday, the Warriors sure will need him.