Too much was at stake for the Cleveland Cavaliers. The strain finally started showing.
LeBron James was a little too angry over a meaningless non-call in the final minute of their Game 5 loss Sunday night. Cavaliers Coach David Blatt was a tad defensive while describing why he ditched center Timofey Mozgov in favor of a small-ball lineup against the Golden State Warriors.
On top of it, James felt the need to proclaim himself "The best player in the world," in case there was any doubt about someone averaging 36.6 points, 12.4 rebounds and 8.8 assists while possibly becoming the first NBA Finals most valuable player from the losing team since Jerry West with the Lakers in 1969.
This is what happens when the pressure builds within a city that has never claimed a Cavaliers championship or Super Bowl victory. This is what unfolds when a franchise finally gets it right — Hello, Kyrie! Welcome, Kevin! — after so much push and pull over the years (LeBron gets drafted, LeBron becomes a star, LeBron leaves, LeBron wins two championships elsewhere, LeBron returns home).
The Cavaliers are running out of time to do something special. Game 6 is Tuesday in Cleveland. James needs a lot more assistance if there is to be a Game 7.
"I want to do whatever it takes to help our team win, and I haven't been able to do that the last two," James said Sunday after the Warriors' 104-91 victory. "So hopefully I can do a better job coming in on Tuesday. We all as a unit can do a better job, and we'll be fine."
But who will help him?
Matthew Dellavedova? Old news. Hasn't done much of anything since Game 3.
J.R. Smith? Scoreless in the second half of Game 5.
Shawn Marion? The player known as "The Matrix" has disappeared into the abyss, totaling 25 playoff minutes, and none in the Finals.
Mozgov? Perhaps. If he can even see the court. He was the biggest loser in the three-day stretch from Game 4 (28 points, 10 rebounds) to Game 5 (no points, no rebounds, nine minutes).
Blatt docked Mozgov's playing time to match the Warriors' small-ball mantra and then got exasperated after fielding six questions from reporters about it.
"Did I make a mistake? Listen, when you're coaching a game, you've got to make decisions," Blatt said. "I felt the best chance for us to stay in the game and to have a chance to win was to play it the way that we played it. It's no disrespect to anyone, certainly not to 'Timo,' who has done a great job for us."
For all the Cavaliers' foibles the last two games, they actually did a nice job staying close until the fourth quarter.
In Game 5, James hit a 34-foot three-pointer with 7:47 remaining, the Cavaliers led by one and Warriors fans squirmed in their seats. But then Golden State finished with a 25-11 push, fueled by A) long threes from Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson and B) the disappearance of anyone not named James (six points down the stretch) or Tristan Thompson (five points in the final five-plus minutes).
Game 4 was even more one-sided in the fourth quarter, the Warriors outscoring Cleveland, 27-12, as James went scoreless and the Cavaliers missed 16 of 18 shots.
The Warriors are keeping it in check even though the Bay Area is ready to burst with its first NBA title since 1975.
City Hall in Oakland has been lit up in blue and gold lights for weeks. San Francisco, not to be outdone, has bathed part of its city in Warriors shades, be it the iconic Coit Tower, the exterior of its eternally busy airport or a collection of spirited buildings along the Embarcadero.
Just don't remind the Warriors that they're very much like Cleveland. A lot is riding on Game 6.
"In the locker room, if you walked in there it was the exact same after a regular-season win," Curry said after scoring 37 points in Game 5. "But we know the sense of urgency of the moment."