By Tom Withers
AP Sports Writer
CLEVELAND — Kyrie Irving’s now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t, ankle-breaking 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 Golden State’s Klay Thompson, who shook his head.
In the biggest game of his life, Irving astounded.
Dropping shots 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 over the Warriors, who missed suspended forward Draymond Green and their first chance to close out their history-making season with a second straight title.
Irving wouldn’t let it happen, delivering a spectacular effort that fulfilled his potential and promise.
“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 more than 40 points in the same game.
With Green barred from Oracle Arena and forced to watch the game in a suite next door at Oakland Coliseum, the Warriors lacked their most essential defensive player. Irving and James took advantage and extended a series that has defied logic and predictions, and could go the distance.
A little splashy, Irving and James were Cleveland’s Crash Brothers, wrecking Golden State’s plans to pop champagne and kiss the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Irving, who misfired during Games 1 and 2 at Oracle Arena, was on target from the start in Game 5. He made 17 of 24 shots, including 5 of 7 3-pointers and several twisting layups on which he somehow coaxed the ball through the rim.
The 24-year-old was at his best in the fourth quarter, upstaging even James by scoring 12 points — 10 in a stretch of 1:57 — to help the Cavs send the series back to Ohio and Quicken Loans Arena on Thursday night. Irving may have to pull off something similar if the Cavs intend to force a Game 7 and maybe become the first team to overcome a 3-1 finals deficit.
“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 like Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul can’t duplicate. That’s the unstoppable Irving, the gifted one.
However, there’s also the Irving who dribbles too much, shoots too often, loafs on defense and forgets his teammates.
The key is striking the right balance, and with Cleveland’s season on the ropes, he found it in his sixth finals game. Of course, it helps when shots are going down. He’s 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.”
This was the Irving Cleveland needed, the perfect complement to James, forced to take on the Warriors by himself in last year’s finals without the star guard — Irving got hurt in Game 1 — or Kevin Love, who contributed just 2 points in Game 5 and remains a conundrum.
Love is again the uncomfortable third wheel in Cleveland’s Big 3. He was a non-factor in the Cavs’ 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 with a concussion — but his game remains misplaced amid speculation about his future if the Cavs don’t win the title.
Fortunately, the Irving-James duo 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 straight 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.”