OAKLAND, Calif. – The anger of 19,000-plus poured down on LeBron James, nearly three hours worth of ugly, inspired disdain. LeBron's a b----, one section started chanting, while a smattering of others snarled out insults of their own. Klay Thompson's "hurt feelings" comment, Marreese Speights' baby bottle and the possibility of clinching a second straight title at home had whipped Oracle Arena into a frenzy, an energy channeled directly at the NBA's most dominant player.
Good job, good effort, Oakland, but, this is what great players do: 41 points, 16 rebounds, seven assists for James in Cleveland's series-extending 112-97 win, the Cavs beating back Golden State's bid to be recognized as the greatest team in NBA history. Backed by a similarly brilliant effort from Kyrie Irving (41 points), and the Cavaliers have suddenly made this series interesting. Headed back to Cleveland, the Cavs have given the Warriors something to worry about.
Draymond Green's suspension left the Warriors a man down, and they haven't been shy about grumbling about it. Green's crotch shot knocked him out of Game 5, but you won't find many in the Bay Area who don't think James' step-over provoked it and his griping afterward sealed it. James vowed he didn't hear much of the talk – "I'm not on social media right now," he reiterated – and teammates back it up. "All that stuff has no effect on him," Richard Jefferson told The Vertical. "He was locked in all day." Added James Jones, "LeBron has seen too much to let that stuff bother him."
"He has become a lot more emotionally stable the last few years," Jones told The Vertical. "His mood doesn't change. He's able to compartmentalize the game. Once he gets here, once he gets on the floor, once he gets moving, then you can tell what he's feeling."
James blocked it out, ignored it, but make no mistake: Others didn't. Privately, Cavaliers officials wondered how Thompson can complain about a Timofey Mozgov screen one day and declare the NBA to be a "man's league" on another, how the toughness, mental or otherwise, of a star player who has yet to see the benefit of many whistles can be so openly questioned.
"If it's a man's game, shut up about the [illegal screen]," Jefferson told The Vertical. "Or don't say anything about LeBron. Klay, he's like my little brother. But we can't contradict ourselves."
So much pressure is on James, and let's be real: How much of it is warranted? If the Cavaliers flamed out on Monday, if they bowed out in five games, how much blame should fall on James' lap? Heavy is the head that wears the crown and all that, but championships are a team effort, and the Cavs have not offered much of one. Kevin Love – two points in Game 5 – has been a nonfactor, J.R. Smith fires as many bad shots as good and Tristan Thompson has been little more than a rebounder, albeit an effective one. Cleveland won on Tuesday, but they needed two 41-point games from James and Irving – the first time in NBA Finals history two teammates have scored 40-plus.
"We need those two guys to give us confidence early," Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said, "and they both did that."
The Cavaliers needed James on Monday, and as he often has, he showed up. With Green gone, Golden State had no answer. He matched Thompson shot for shot in the first half, then pulled away from him in the second. He overpowered Andre Iguodala, attacked Harrison Barnes and floated in threes and midrange jumpers over everyone else. The frenzied crowd might have bothered some players, but James ate it all up.
"I guess when you're done with a game of basketball and big moments like tonight and moments throughout your career, you wish you could get [them] back," James said. "No matter how loud you turn the stereo system in your house, you'll never be able to get it back. You just don't take these moments for granted, no matter if you're at home or on the road."
Five down, two to go, and the Cavaliers are still in a considerable hole. Cleveland never does anything easy, and this task is no different. The Warriors have lost two straight once in this historic season, and the Cavs now have to pull off three in a row. Golden State will get Green back, and the Warriors have the luxury of knowing a loss in Cleveland will result only in one more battle on their home floor. Down 3-2 to Boston in 2011, seconds from elimination against San Antonio in '13, and this may be LeBron James' biggest challenge yet. A great player rose to the occasion on Monday. Can he do it again?