LeBron James had a rough start and finished the game on the bench, watching the final minute like most everyone else as Golden State claimed a critical Game 5 of the NBA Finals on its home floor.
In between, he left it all out there in another performance that might contribute to him picking up a Finals MVP in a losing effort, something that hasn’t been done since 1969.
The numbers themselves were astounding, 40 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists, but he couldn’t lift his teammates after assisting on Tristan Thompson’s short bucket that cut it to 85-84 with just over five minutes to play.
From that point on, Cleveland was outscored 19-7 down the stretch, missing shots, turning the ball over and allowing the Warriors to get offensive rebound after offensive rebound. The other two MVP candidates in the series, Stephen Curry and Andre Iguodala, each hit 3-pointers to create separation, getting a firm grip on a series that they’re again now heavily favored to win.
That’s really the point here. Suddenly, an NBA Finals that looked like it could’ve belonged to anybody with 5:09 to play ended up going decisively in the Warriors favor as if they’ve had it all along.
That’s it. They may as well call this series now. Print the shirts. Get the parade route ready. Plan where that championship banner is going to hang for the rest of time.
The Cavs may not go down at home on Tuesday, but odds are great that their opportunity to win Cleveland’s first pro title since 1964 has come and gone.
Even if they get to a Game 7, they’re not winning in Oakland. LeBron’s first season back home won’t yield a championship. Don’t even think about backing the best player in the world simply because the odds look appetizing (+700 at Sportsbook.ag). At this point, that would be like flushing money down the toilet.
“I feel confident because I’m the best player in the world,” James said after Game 5, conceding nothing.
He’s right, but there’s a reason why Golden State has always been the chalk in these Finals, favored in every game, always laying the wood as bookmakers adjusted series prices. The best player is getting overwhelmed by the best team.
Down 2-1, Golden State was still a slight favorite (-115) to prevail at most books following their Game 3 loss, even though Warriors head coach Steve Kerr had yet to go small to turn the series on the ear.
Once he did, it’s become a situation where the Cavs seem to be fighting the uphill battle everyone anticipated awaited them once Kyrie Irving went down.
Despite racing out to a 7-0 lead and winning the rebounding battle in Game 4, the Cavs were dismantled at home, a combination of them running out of gas and being unprepared for the lineup change that saw Golden State go small. On Sunday night in Oakland, they were ready for the challenge that awaited them, but head coach David Blatt played Timofey Mozgov just nine minutes despite his 28 Game 4 points, deciding that his Cavs stood a better chance of winning if they matched up with the Warriors than if they simply played to their strength and put a larger lineup on the floor.
Although they were in the game until the final minutes, that was a major error on the part of Blatt, who has otherwise had an impressive series with imaginative offensive sets and a team that has largely made him look good in chasing 50-50 balls and minding the defensive end.
Rather than trust that his team had enough to exploit their own mismatches by playing a larger frontcourt, Blatt stuck with a slumping J.R. Smith, who made just two 3-pointers over the final three quarters, missing shot after shot. Mike Miller played 14 minutes while Shawn Marion sat on the bench, yet another example of Cleveland looking to match up with a Warriors squad it doesn’t have the personnel to try and emulate.
In a sense, the NBA Finals turned on coaching decisions. Blatt, who definitely won the early rounds in this matchup of first-year head coaches, has been outdone by Kerr, whose biggest decision of opting to play to his team’s strength and go small came hours in advance of Game 4’s tip-off.
He opted to ride with the adjustment the Game 3 film work said he should make, going small out of the gate to get his team’s energy up early and implement the tempo that makes Golden State most comfortable.
Iguodala would start and defend James out of the gate. Andrew Bogut would sit. Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green would have to find a way to overcome the size edge held by Tristan Thompson and Mozgov.
Once that was decided upon, Kerr had to cover it up. Asked during media availability if there was a lineup change coming, he made the conscious cut-throat choice to be misleading. Dodging the questions wouldn’t work since it would just lead to rampant speculation, so he lied. No point in giving Blatt and the Cavs any advantage.
“I don’t think they hand you the trophy based on morality,” Kerr said after a bemused apology.
“They hand it to you if you win.”
Kerr is going to get that trophy at some point this week. Blatt is going to forever wonder what he could have done differently. There will be a lengthy list of things for his mind to chew on. He should’ve trusted his advantages more.
Even with the best player on the planet leading the way, Blatt’s Cavs surrendered a series they were two wins away from winning before the main coaching adjustment was made.
After that, all his decisions became reactive rather than proactive. Once small ball mode was activated, the NBA Finals were decided.
Tony Mejia is a national sports writer and senior contributor at VegasInsider.com. He’s also the owner and operator of Antony Dinero, the most successful documented volume handicapper in the industry. View his analysis daily at VegasInsider.com. Contact Tony at [email protected].