- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 14, 2016

CLEVELAND — Kyrie Irving’s crossover dribble happened at almost the exact spot where his first NBA Finals ended brutally last year with his left leg buckling and kneecap shattering.

He didn’t crumble this time, using his left hand to keep his balance before switching hands, stopping, whirling and dropping a contested fadeaway shot over the Golden State Warriors‘ Klay Thompson, who shook his head.
In the biggest game of his life, Irving astounded.

Making shots from all over the floor, Irving matched teammate LeBron James by scoring 41 points as the Cleveland Cavaliers kept their season alive with a 112-97 win in Game 5 of the NBA Finals on Monday night.

That means the Cavaliers will return home on Thursday with a chance to force a championship game in the best-of-seven series with the Warriors, who were without suspended forward Draymond Green and missed out on their first chance to close out their history-making season with a second consecutive title.

Irving wouldn’t let it happen, delivering an effort that drew rave reviews from his teammates.

“Probably one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen live,” said James, who joined Irving as the only teammates in finals history to score 40 points in the same game.

The Warriors lacked their most essential defensive player in Green, and Irving and James took advantage.

Irving, who misfired during Game 1 and Game 2 in Oakland, was on target from the start in Game 5. He made 17 of 24 shots, including five of seven 3-pointers and several layups.

The 24-year-old was at his best in the fourth quarter, upstaging even James by scoring 12 points — including 10 points in a stretch of 1:57 — to help the Cavaliers continue their attempt to become the first team to overcome a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals.

“We’re not satisfied,” Irving said. “We understand the magnitude of what Game 6 means for us at home, and we know that it will be an incredible level that they’re going to play at, and we have to play at an even better level.”

Irving reached a level in Game 5 that he’s only touched in brief, brilliant flashes. With second-to-none ball-handling skills and an uncanny ability to knife his way through defenders, Irving does things that even the league’s elite points guards can’t. He also has shown that he dribbles too much, shoots too often, loafs on defense and forgets his teammates.

The key is striking the right balance, and now Irving has averaged 35 points in the past three games.

Kyrie was great tonight and had my number,” Thompson said. “Hit some tough shots, but there’s nothing you can do about it. Sometimes, you put your hand up and it just goes in.”

James was forced to take on the Warriors by himself last year without the star guard — Irving got hurt in Game 1 — or Kevin Love, who contributed just two points in Game 5 and remains a conundrum.

Love was again a non-factor in the Cavaliers’ win, reduced to on-court spectator as Irving and James took turns dissecting Golden State’s defense. Love returned to the starting lineup — he missed Game 3 after sustaining a concussion — but his game remains misplaced amid speculation about his future if the Cavaliers don’t win the title.

Fortunately, Irving and James clicked like never before.

Their relationship has been a curiosity since James returned to Cleveland, effectively swiping the role of team leader, alpha male and headlining star from Irving, who had the city to his own for three years.

They haven’t always been in sync, but as Irving and James answered questions following Monday’s game, they’ve rarely appeared more at ease together. They had quieted their critics, silenced a booing Warriors crowd and delayed summer vacation.

At 31 and in his sixth consecutive appearance in the NBA Finals, James is savoring every step. He and Irving did something special and didn’t want to let the night go.

“When you’re done with the game and big moments like tonight and moments throughout your career you wish you could get back,” he reflected. “No matter how loud you turn the stereo system up in your house, you’ll never be able to get it back. You just don’t take these moments for granted.”

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