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Can the Cavaliers Keep Up the Magic?

Getty Images
Getty Images

LeBron James and Kyrie Irving set fire to a discombobulated Warriors defense as Draymond Green watched from the neighboring Coliseum, and it’d be hard to cast the two events as mere coincidence. Green was the only Warriors player to appear in all 88 of their wins this season; in elimination games, Golden State doubles down on Draymond in an effort to overwhelm its opponents on both sides of the court. Game 5 illustrated the Warriors’ reality when they aren’t able to deploy their obvious trump card. Green’s value to the team was never more apparent than in his absence.

James and Irving combined for 82 points on 33-of-54 shooting, accounting for nearly three-fourths of the Cavaliers’ total output; they had 13 of the Cavaliers’ 15 assists. These would be remarkable numbers for a regular-season game in November, let alone an elimination game on the road in the NBA Finals. While Irving feasted on an array of difficult, contested shots, Cleveland’s two offensive dynamos were more readily able to get where they wanted to against the Warriors’ compromised defense.

Both James and Irving had shot below their playoff averages in the paint with Green on the floor in the first four games, but last night they established a running layup line, going 9-for-13 and entering the lane with impunity. The process of stopping a drive begins much earlier than the rim-protection stage. The Warriors had to reconfigure their personnel in the absence of both Green and Andrew Bogut, who exited the game in the third quarter with a left knee sprain. Draymond’s absence forced Andre Iguodala, by far their best defensive option on LeBron, to stay on Kevin Love when the Warriors went small. Without their two most vocal leaders on defense, and with Iguodala forced away from much of the action, the Warriors had difficulty staying on top of James and Irving at the initial point of attack.

What kept the Warriors out of the game, though, was something they did not expect to happen. LeBron’s jumper, for a night, returned, as he went 10-for-21 from outside the restricted area in Game 5. For the first time in a long while, he looked confident taking and making open shots, which was imperative, considering the way the Warriors were defending him.

It was very reminiscent of Game 7 of the 2013 Finals against the San Antonio Spurs, when LeBron finally made the Spurs pay for their strategy of going under pick-and-rolls and conceding the open jumper. There’s no real way to guard him when he’s knocking down perimeter shots, and he’s going to have to keep making them if the Cavs are going to have any chance of following through with this comeback attempt. The jumper has always been the final piece of the puzzle for LeBron. If he’s getting comfortable with the looks the Warriors are giving him, it changes the dynamic of the series, with or without Draymond.

It might go without saying, but the Cavaliers likely won’t be able to sustain the level of efficiency they managed in Game 5 going forward. Irving is unlikely to shoot 10-for-14 on contested field goal attempts again, and trusting in James’s perimeter shooting has not been a winning strategy for over a year now. It’ll be another uphill battle for Cleveland in Game 6, especially if Bogut misses time. Considering how little Steve Kerr seems to trust Golden State’s other centers, Bogut’s absence means Cleveland might get a huge dosage of the Lineup of Death for the rest of the series, which spells trouble for any comeback hopes.

Green’s absence last night underlines the fact he is a unique defensive player in the league. He has the bulk to hold his own in the low post, the quickness to guard on the perimeter, the length to protect the rim, the basketball IQ to quarterback the second line of the defense, and the mean streak to be an enforcer. There’s no replacement for the versatility he provides. Without Green, the Warriors’ small-ball efforts are largely ordinary — they are susceptible to getting exploited at the rim and taking a beating on the boards, just like any other team. With him, small ball becomes the ultimate weapon in the modern game, a five-man lineup that can roll with just about anything being thrown at it on either end of the court.

The Cavs were not able to figure out that lineup in last year’s six-game Finals, and for all the noise surrounding this series, it will end at six yet again if Cleveland can’t find its advantage over this bugaboo. LeBron and Kyrie had their best games of the series without Draymond on the floor in Game 5. But the Warriors are being given another chance to close this season out, and they’ll have in tow the one player who always relishes the role of executioner.