OAKLAND — With the Cavaliers’ backs against the wall down 3-1, coach Tyrone Lue tweaked his game plan in one key way early:
He put the ball in LeBron James hands more. If the Cavaliers were going down, it was going to be with an all-time great player at the helm.
The Golden State Warriors didn’t change their defensive plan on LeBron, they laid off him and dared him to shoot jump shots. They switched on picks and tried to make him indecisive. Things they have done all series. Through the first four Games LeBron was 5-of-16 from three and 4-of-12 from the midrange.
Lue’s plan worked. LeBron’s jump shot started falling, and the threat of a jumper meant he could be aggressive attacking the rim.
“He was hitting his shots we were giving him the first three games,” Klay Thompson said.
LeBron set a tone. A tone Kyrie Irving and the other Cavaliers followed.
In the second half he was dishing (6 assists in the third quarter), defending Stephen Curry for stretches, and doing whatever it took to get the Cavaliers the 112-97 win that sends the NBA Finals back to Cleveland for a Game 6.
“I mean, obviously, it’s do or die for us. Coach Lue said he wanted the ball in my hands a little bit more. I finally did a great job of not turning the ball over and got to my spots, got my teammates involved,” LeBron said. “Just tried to put us in position to be successful. Obviously, it’s not always a bed of roses on the court for 48 minutes, but you just try to go out there and trust your keys. That’s something I’m very comfortable with, and I’ve been comfortable with before in the past. Coach wanted to make that adjustment, and I was able to take advantage of it when I had the ball in my hands.”
LeBron was more comfortable with his jump shot Monday night — in Game 5 he was 4-of-8 from three and hit a respectable 4-of-10 from the midrange. When his jumper is falling, it opens everything else up.
It also helped that the suspended Draymond Green wasn’t there on the switches and protecting the rim.
“I think from a mental standpoint it wasn’t about anybody that was on the floor,” LeBron said, trying to play Green’s absence down. “We just had a mindset that we wanted to come in here and just try to extend our period and have another opportunity to fight for another day.”
“He’s their best defender,” Lue said, being honest about Green’s absence. “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. He’s an underrated shot blocker, and he can guard one through five, so that definitely help hurt their defense.”
The way LeBron controlled the game and was more aggressive reminded people of 2012, when his Heat were down 3-2 to Boston and he came up with a performance that saved the Heat season. If Boston beat Miami, if the Heat had regressed after reaching the Finals the year before, that history of a couple of titles in South Beach might feel very different. He changed Miami’s legacy with that game, did he do it again with the Cavaliers?
“Going into Boston, being down 3-2, you know, we understood that, hey, listen, the season is over if we don’t go out and try to take care of business,” LeBron said. “Being a big part of our success, I had to come out and do some things to help us win that ballgame, and tonight was just another example of that. Understood the magnitude of this game. I knew how great of a team we were playing, but I just had to come out and just — I know my teammates trust me, I trust them, and that was the result of it.”
LeBron now has to do it again.
Cleveland is going home but Golden State gets Green back (and rested), it’s going to take another night with LeBron setting the tone, putting up big numbers, and looking every bit like a guy not ready relinquish the “best player on the planet” card.
LeBron was a beast in Game 5, but he’s got to do it two more times to get one for the ‘Land.