OAKLAND (California) • Defending National Basketball Association (NBA) champions Golden State Warriors felt the absence of suspended forward Draymond Green in Monday's 97-112 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Warriors' usually stiff defence shattered by LeBron James and Kyrie Irving.
James and Irving each scored 41 points in powering the Cavaliers to a must-win victory that pulled Cleveland to 2-3 in the best-of-seven series and forced a sixth game tomorrow in Cleveland.
Only 10 teams in NBA history have overcome 1-3 deficits, a feat most recently accomplished by the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals, but none have ever done it in the championship round.
Green was banned for Monday's game after league officials reviewed a foul late in Golden State's Game 4 victory and upgraded it to a flagrant-one offence.
After two previous such fouls in the play-offs, the flailing hand that struck James in the groin was enough for Green to be suspended for the potential title-clinching match-up.
In addition to tough individual defensive work against James, Green was the communicator who made the defence flow smoothly, the only man who played in every Golden State victory this season.
Turnovers by the Draymond Green-less Golden State, resulting in 18 points for Cleveland.
"He's usually pretty vocal. He's our centre fielder in the back when he's able to see the whole floor," NBA Most Valuable Player Stephen Curry said of his missing team-mate. "Tonight it was obviously different rotations and we tried to adjust on the fly with the different match-ups, but we just didn't execute as well."
In Green's place, Warriors coach Steve Kerr called on super-sub Andre Iguodala to start at power forward. His final statistics line was satisfactory (15 points, 11 rebounds, six assists, two steals), though at times, he appeared out of sorts with the first team.
A team already prone to would-be highlight passes and careless basketball coughed up 17 turnovers, resulting in 18 points for the Cavs.
A defence that thrived on switching match-ups against opponents was outmanned when it came to the one-two punch offered by Irving, who had a career play-off scoring high, and James, who netted 26 points in the first half and took full advantage of Green not hounding him.
"There were a couple of switches that we were very lazy on, and when guys get hot like that, if you don't shore up your defence, especially in pivotal moments where you have momentum, that's when it comes back to bite you," Curry said.
James played down Green's absence, citing the Cavaliers' must-win situation.
"From a mental standpoint, it wasn't about anybody that was on the floor," he said. "We just had a mindset that we wanted to come in here and just try to extend our season and have another opportunity to fight another day."
He also dismissed the notion that he had extra motivation due to Klay Thompson's taunt about hurt feelings following his comments on an exchange of words with Green after the foul.
"My only motivation is my team-mates and my coaching staff," James said. "That's it. I mean, at the end of the day, nothing else really matters."
The message was clear to the Warriors that they needed to play better even with Green coming back from his suspension for Game 6.
"We didn't communicate," Golden State's Shaun Livingston said. "They were playing in a rhythm all night. We just weren't communicating defensively. Obviously there was a void with him being out, but we can still be better. We weren't nearly as good as we needed to be to get the job done."