The Cleveland Cavaliers have new life following historic performances by LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, and the Golden State Warriors find themselves underdogs in the biggest game of the 2016 NBA Finals. After the teammates became the first to score 40 points apiece in a finals game, the series shifts back to Cleveland Thursday night for Game 6.
Cleveland had seemed overmatched for most of the series, but they handed Golden State just their fourth home loss all year, winning by 15 points at Oracle Arena. James had a masterful performance with 41 points (16-30), 16 rebounds, seven assists, three steals and three blocks. Irving made 17 of his 24 shots for 41 points, and the two stars performed at a level Golden State could not contain.
"We had a mindset that we wanted to come here and just extend our period and have another opportunity to fight for another day," James said Monday night. "That was our main concern, and we were able to do that."
That’s the mindset Tyronn Lue's squad need to have in order to extend the series to a seventh and deciding game. James has put up eye-popping numbers for the entire series, but he took control Monday in a way that he hadn’t done in the first four games, taking a series-high 30 shots and eight free throws, refusing to let the Cavs go down without a fight.
Golden State even got one of their better performances in the finals from "the Splash Brothers," who combined for 62 points on 41 shots. But 11 3-pointers from Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson weren’t enough to clinch a second straight title.
The Cavs are bigger favorites for Game 6 than they have been all series. The betting line is up to 2.5 points, according to VegasInsider.com, and the over/under is 208.
Despite losing big at home, the Warriors have every reason to be confident.
"I kind of like our position," Golden State head coach Steve Kerr said. "I like our position a lot better than theirs."
It makes sense that James and Irving had their best games as teammates when the Warriors were missing their best defensive player. Draymond Green returns Thursday after a one-game suspension for his flagrant foul in Game 4, and his presence will most certainly be felt. Andrew Bogut missed much of Monday’s game with a sprained knee, and his status for Game 6 is unknown.
Green, an intense and versatile defender, will make it more difficult for James and Irving to get clean looks in the paint; but for the most part, there is little that the Warriors could have done to slow down Cleveland’s top two scorers, even if they were at full strength. Irving couldn’t miss, hitting contested shots with Thompson draped all over him, and James is nearly unstoppable when he has his jumper going. James made four of his eight 3-pointers, having previously shot 31.3 percent from behind the arc this series.
Throughout his career, James has played his best when facing elimination, averaging 32.4 points in games that his team could potentially be knocked out of the playoffs. But the odds are against the four-time MVP and Irving making a combined 33-of-54 shots for a second game in a row.
The Warriors were in this same position a year ago. Leading the finals 3-2 heading into Cleveland, Golden State won Game 6 and the championship, despite 32 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists from James. The Cavs are healthy this time around, but the Warriors might be too good to be defeated by just two players for a second straight game.
Meanwhile, Kevin Love continues to have a limited impact on this series. Once highly regarded for his outside shooting and rebounding skills, Love has seen his production take a major hit in recent games. The 27-year-old managed just two points and three rebounds in 33 minutes in Game 5. It will be interesting to see how many minutes Love will be on the floor in Game 6, as Green will be back in the lineup after six days of rest.
While Love's production will be of particular focus, so will the Cavs' play on their home court. Cleveland jumped out to a big lead at Quicken Loans Arena to cruise to a Game 3 win. But in Game 4, the Warriors earned a road win behind excellent 3-point shooting (47.2 percent) and free-throw shooting (80.6 percent) and out-rebounded the Cavs 43-40, as well as forcing three more turnovers.
Following James' and Irving's legendary performances, as well as the perplexing struggles of Curry and Thompson through the first three games, any outcome in Game 6 would hardly be surprising. But Golden State remains the better team, and James’ heroics might not be enough.
Prediction: Golden State over Cleveland, 110-105