Cleveland Cavaliers 128
San Antonio Spurs 125 (OT)
Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale.
Holy crap. What a game.
Some games are intimidating to write about, and this is one of them. I can barely breathe, let alone think. Putting together complete sentences that actually add something to the experience of watching this game seems like a long shot. But this game, perhaps more than any other played this season, deserves discussion. It needs to be written about and talked about and thought about, if only for historical purposes.
We need to tell stories about this game for the same reason that Egyptians carved hieroglyphics into pyramids. We need to preserve this game’s memory. It’s risky to say so in the immediate afterglow, but I think this is the best Cavaliers game I have ever seen in my whole dumb life. LeBron’s Game 5 in Detroit may have been on par with Kyrie Irving Thursday in terms of individual brilliance, but this game was more than one virtuoso performance. Both teams were incredible. It was to entertaining basketball what Bud Light is to mediocre domestic beer, a standard bearer against which all others must be measured.
It was exciting, exhilarating, and perhaps more than anything else, exhausting.
With just over three minutes to go in regulation, LeBron James drove and missed a layup. Kawhi Leonard came away with the ball and steamed ahead in transition. He drove into three Cavaliers and kicked out to Danny Green, who canned a three-ball from the left corner. The Cavs called timeout trailing by 10 with 3:04 to go. I thought they were done.
With 1:24 to go, Kawhi Leonard hit a free throw to put the Spurs ahead 108-101. He missed the second, but Tim Duncan gathered the offensive rebound. He was in trouble on the baseline, but he called timeout. The Spurs would get it back with a fresh shot clock. The Spurs had scored on four of their last five possessions. The Cavs were down by seven. I thought they were done.
Kyrie scored an old-fashioned three-point play with 56 seconds left to cut the lead to four. Tony Parker answered with a jumper to extend it to six. Kyrie hit a three off a feed from LeBron to make it 110-107. Parker missed a jumper but Kawhi Leonard beat Irving, who tried to box out the larger man after switching onto him, to the offensive rebound and was fouled with four seconds left. Made free throws would virtually guarantee victory. I thought they were done.
Leonard, however, missed the first, and then he missed the second. Despair became hope, and darkness light. The Cavs called timeout with 3.1 seconds to go. LeBron James inbounded from the forecourt sideline. He passed to Irving at the top of the key. Kyrie took a dribble and rose up for three with Leonard in his face.
Swish. Buzzer. Overtime.
Kyrie kept it going in the bonus period. After the Spurs jumped ahead, he hit a three to tie it at 113. Then he put the Cavs ahead with another three-point play. Danny Green fired back with a three to tie it, and then LeBron put the Cavs back on top with one of his own. Parker narrowed the margin with a layup; Irving extended it with a three. Parker kept the Spurs alive with a jumper. LeBron hit a three to put the Cavs up five. Danny Green’s next three rimmed out, the Cavs secured the rebound, and Kyrie added two free throws to hit his point total for the night. The clock struck zero.
Cavaliers 128, Spurs 125.
To play against the San Antonio Spurs is to resist waves crashing on a beach. At a glance, it looks like they hit you the same way every time. But if you’re out there in the water, you see and feel that each wave hits you a little differently. They come at slightly different speeds, in slightly different shapes, from slightly different angles. Just as you orient yourself to one, another knocks you off balance. And then another one after that, and another. You fight to regain control, but you can’t quite get there. The waves keep coming, and they don’t ever stop. They keep coming, and coming, and coming, until you’ve been worn down to the point of surrender.
The Spurs hit the Cavs with every wave they had Thursday night, and the Cavs stood up to them. There were no less than three Spurs plays that could have done the Cavs in. Green’s apparent dagger three to put them up 10? That’s a Spurs play. Duncan grabbing an offensive rebound off of a missed free throw and calling timeout? That’s a Spurs play. Leonard exploiting a mismatch to get a rebound with four freaking seconds left, with his team leading by three? That’s a Spurs play.
But, it must be said, the Spurs erred from the charity stripe, and only with that did the Cavs’ hope remain. Leonard missed both in the closing seconds of regulation. He split a pair a minute before that. Diaw and Parker each missed one in overtime. Great games have a way of putting a magnifying lens over the free throw line. The Spurs’ errors loomed all the larger for it.
TNT is replaying the game as I write, and I’m tempted to shutter the laptop and watch the whole thing again. But first, a look at the numbers.
57 – Kyrie Irving scored a Cavalier-record 57 points, breaking LeBron James’ mark of 56. Irving’s 57 are the most points scored in an NBA game this season, and the most ever scored against the Spurs in San Antonio.1 He is the first player to score 50-plus twice in a season since Kevin Durant last year. He is the first player to hit a double nickel twice in a season since Kobe Bryant in 2006-07.
Kobe Bryant. Kevin Durant. These are Kyrie Irving’s peers.
He was just nuts. Fifty-seven points. I could write a million words about him and it still wouldn’t be enough. He shot 20-of-32 from the field. He hit all seven of his three-pointers. He sank all 10 of his free throws. He scored 14 straight in the second quarter. He scored 27 in the fourth quarter and overtime. He spun in his Kyridiculous (patent pending) layups. He hit shots to keep the Cavs in it, and he hit shots to knock the Spurs out of it. He played 47 minutes. He had four steals. He did it all.
You know how Gregg Popovich can barely be bothered to say anything to reporters during those between-quarters interviews? You know how he’s a semi-friendly curmudgeon who’s more likely to take the piss out of you than pat you on the back or brown his nose? Here’s what he had to say about Kyrie after the game:
Pop on Kyrie: "Kyrie Irving was unstoppable. I don't know how to guard that. He did a hell of a job…He really went to a new level tonight"
— Jason Lloyd (@JasonLloydABJ) March 13, 2015
31, 7, and 5 – LeBron’s points, rebounds, and assists, which sort of came quietly and which sort of didn’t. LeBron was aggressive early and threw down a couple big dunks, but Kawhi Leonard defended him as well as can be done all night (and Irving overshadowed everything).
Still, Bron got his when it counted. He scored 16 points in the final two periods. He sank 8 of his 10 free throws and committed a modest 3 turnovers. He was vocal and engaged throughout, and even took a charge in the paint. And it was his three-ball with 32 seconds to go that all but sealed the Spurs’ fate.
48.4/53.8/86.7 – The Cavaliers’ field goal, three-point, and free throw percentages, respectively. They shot the hell out of the ball, and they had to to win. Irving and James hitting 57.7 percent of their 52 combined shots certainly helped, but some other Cavs had solid nights, too. Timofey Mozgov didn’t play great, but he scored 10 on 4-of-7 from the field. Tristan Thompson provided a vital boost off the bench and shot 5-of-9 en route to 12 points and 9 rebounds.
And actually, that was about it in terms of good shooting. Kevin Love was 2-of-10, J.R. Smith was 2-of-6, and Iman Shumpert was 1-of-6. Add in James Jones’ 0-for-1, and that’s all of the Cavs’ shots. On the bright side, while Love and Smith only made four baskets combined, they were all three-pointers.
Free throw shooting was huge for the Cavs. They made 10 of their last 11 starting at the 6:03 mark in the fourth quarter, and the only miss was LeBron’s final toss of the night with the game already in hand. Kyrie was perfect from the line and LeBron shot 80 percent, but two free throws that should not be overlooked were those that Tristan Thompson made to pull the Cavs within six with 1:44 remaining.
The final two minutes of a tight road game against the defending champs is about as big a spot as there is, and Tristan came through in the finest possible form. I never would have thought I’d feel comfortable with him guarding Tim Duncan in crunch time, but Thompson did, and he did well.
56.3, 28 – The Spurs’ field goal percentage and assist total, respectively. Make no mistake, they played a terrific basketball game. They screened and cut and passed like five surgeons carving into a torso, and virtually everyone contributed. The expected parties―Leonard, Parker, and Duncan―led the way, combining for 73 points, 25 rebounds, and 21 assists. The team shot 61 percent from the field in the first half and assisted on 17 of their 27 baskets.
But, like a good breakfast, the Spurs were balanced. Danny Green scored 24, hit five triples, and blocked four shots. Boris Diaw scored 9 points and played his chubby French post-up game. Patty Mills hit two threes off the bench. Tiago Splitter scored nine and played solid defense. They weren’t quite at full strength, as Manu Ginobili only played 10 minutes due to illness, but they looked like a team with eyes on another Finals run more than a team ready to fade into the horizon.
15-of-23 – Tony Parker’s shooting numbers. His effort may well be forgotten since it came on the same night as Kyrie’s, but Thursday night was vintage Parker. He was all head fakes and floaters in the lane until the Cavs started going under screens, at which point he started pulling up from midrange and burying jumpers. He scored 31 points and nearly put the Cavs away down the stretch, only for his counterpart to match and ultimately surpass him.
Parker and Irving battled all night in a duel of two of the finest point guards in the league. Kyrie was 9-of-13 at the half, and Parker 9-of-12. They traded baskets for much of the game, each player slithering past the other for layups or losing him to get space for jumpers.
Parker was a worthy foe until Kyrie entered a different dimension sometime in the second half.
44 – Minutes played by both LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard. It is little coincidence that the two played the same amount of minutes, as Leonard was tasked with shadowing James all night, a chore he seems to relish. LeBron brings out the best in him, and he was at his best Thursday, totaling 24 points, 9 rebounds, and 7 assists on 9-of-14 shooting. Last year’s Finals MVP has been injured for much of the year but has come on lately, averaging 21.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 2.7 steals in his previous six outings entering this game.
His defense against James was especially good. Leonard’s arms are so long and his hands so big and quick that he can constantly reach and poke at the ball without compromising his position. A dribbler can cross over from right to left and back again, and Leonard’s hands will be tracking the ball the whole time. LeBron could barely make a move toward the hoop without coming off a screen, and Leonard did a great job of ducking past those, too.
He has to do it over a whole season before he truly enters the conversation of best players in the league, but on any given night Kawhi’s all-around game is already there.
18, 11, 8, 4, 38 – Tim Duncan’s points, rebounds, assists, blocks, and years lived. He’s been so good for so long that we need to make up new words for consistency and longevity. He’s more of a machine than Chappie, Johnny Five, and the T-1000 put together. He’s often and rightly referred to as the greatest power forward ever, but it’s said with understatement, not awe. When we say LeBron is the best player, we call him the best player on Earth to add that extra oomph. Timmy? Just the greatest power forward ever. No big deal. Thursday’s game was roughly the millionth great one of his career.
1 – Tired scribe, yours truly. What a game. What a night.
- Irving tied the overall record for a Spurs opponent; Golden State’s Purvis Short also scored 57 in 1984. [↩]