Golden State had it. They were riding high on their All-Star shooting guard.
Until they didn’t, and they weren’t.
The Warriors lost Game 5 of the NBA Finals to the Cleveland Cavaliers 112-97, and did it by beating themselves.
Head coach Steve Kerr summarized the night in just seven words:
“We had to play better and we didn’t.”
Golden State’s second quarter showcased one of the most prolific shooting performances in history with Klay Thompson scoring 18 points and knocking down four three-pointers in as many tries.
Thompson’s performance helped the Warriors to the NBA Finals record for three-pointers in a half, 11, and the first 24 minutes ended with a 61-61 tied score.
The third quarter, though, was not a friendly one for Golden State.
Kerr explained what was hampering what is normally the Warriors’ strongest point of play:
“Communication. Not picking up the correct man, not talking on our switches, that kind of stuff.”
Golden State finished the regular season second best in the league for opponents field goal percentage, behind only the San Antonio Spurs. By the end of the third quarter, when the game was still truly competitive, Cleveland was shooting 56.3 percent from the floor.
Draymond Green‘s absence was felt Monday night and especially in the third quarter, which also included a left knee injury to center Andrew Bogut that kept him out for the rest of the game and could have negative implications for the remainder of the Finals.
Despite Thompson’s masterful night that included 6-of-11 from distance and 37 points, his production was overshadowed by Irving — who scored 41 points, shooting 17-of-22 from the field — and James, with 41 of his own.
James’ scoring performance is a season-high, including the regular and postseason, and likely not coincidentally following a war of words centering around the one-game suspension of Green. But it wasn’t the absence of Green, even though it hurts, that Kerr associates with the loss:
“It’s too simple to say that. We weren’t very good defensively. We obviously knew we were without Draymond, so there’s no point in harping on that. We had to play better, and we didn’t. Both those guys played terrific games, shot the ball well. I thought our defensive communication was lacking. We had some plays where we didn’t pick up in transition, and we had some cross matches that we didn’t identify and they got free, especially Kyrie, and made a lot of shots in transition where we just weren’t there.”
When Brandon Rush knocked the ball out of bounds after checking in with 270 seconds left, the prognosis was bleak for Golden State. Rush would foul James for the and-1 on the ensuing Cleveland possession, adding the the tumultuous opponent the Warriors were facing.
Which, for most of the night, was themselves.
Golden State allowed 46 points in the paint, a major factor without Green, and also gave up 28 fast break points. They turned the ball over 16 times, resulting in 18 Cleveland points, and shot 36.4 percent from the floor to the Cavaliers’ 53 percent.
Especially Irving’s 70 percent field goal percentage, a stat made more remarkable by how difficult many of his shot attempts were. Said James:
“You’ve got a guy like this who is very special, it’s probably one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen live. To put on the show that he did, you just go out and follow the keys and play winning basketball, and we did that tonight.”
The Warriors can try not to have Green’s absence be an excuse for numerous miscues and poor all-around shooting, but the forward’s absence clearly affected the game flow and the ease at which Golden State normally operates defensively.
Stephen Curry, who finished with 23 points, seven rebounds and four assists, said:
“He’s our center fielder in the back when he’s able to see the whole floor. Tonight it was obviously different rotations and we tried to adjust on the fly with the different matchups, but we just didn’t execute as well.”
“Draymond does a little bit of everything. Obviously, his playmaking, his rebounding, his communication and his heart and soul. So obviously we missed him tonight big time. It’s not an excuse, though. We still had an opportunity to win the game. We liked our position at halftime tied up. But Kyrie was great tonight and had my number. Hit some tough shots, but there’s nothing you can do about it. Sometimes you put your hand up and it just goes in. Same with LeBron. He was hitting his shots we were giving him the first three games. But we still like our chances.”
The end result is that there will be a Game 6, in Cleveland, exactly where and how the Warriors won the NBA Finals one year ago. And the potential for an excessive amount of pain in Cleveland, as Golden State remains the overwhelming favorite to win the series.