CLEVELAND — LeBron James stepped down from the podium, donned his sunglasses and broke into dance. Before disappearing behind a set of curtains, James allowed himself this joyful moment to celebrate a victory. He raised his left arm and his left knee, waited a beat, dropped them, and then raised his right arm and right knee.
This particular two-step is so old that it predates almost everyone who was in the room. Known as the “Mikan Drill” after Hall of Fame big man George Mikan, it has been used for decades by basketball coaches angling to help their players learn to finish in the basket area. Kyrie Irving, fresh off a strong Game 5 performance, had mentioned the endlessly repetitive drill moments earlier, and James now looked like he was flashing back—all the way back before prom—as he reached for the sky and high-stepped.
“I wasn't like him growing up,” Irving said, turning to James. “You were taking off [and dunking] when you were like eight. My game is predicated on angles and the backboard.”
A smiling James interjected to set the record straight: “I did the Mikan Drill.” Later, his little dance proved that claim, in case anyone doubted that the best player in basketball had skipped over one of the game's most fundamental training exercises.
Cleveland took a 3–2 series lead over Chicago with a 106–101 victory on Tuesday, with James turning in by far his best performance of the playoffs. His final line—38 points (on 14-of-24 shooting), 12 rebounds, six assists, three steals, three blocks and, to his delight, zero turnovers—was another major step toward extending his total supremacy in the East. The Bulls mounted a furious comeback in the game's last few minutes after digging out of a 17-point fourth-quarter hole, and Derrick Rose found himself screaming down the open court with a chance to even the score. Instead, James took off, to borrow Irving's phrase, and swooped in for the perfectly-timed chasedown block.
Shot extinguished. Momentum halted. Order restored.
Cleveland's light postgame scene marked quite a contrast from Game 4, when a less patient James revealed to reporters that he had overruled coach David Blatt on the final possession. That was to be expected. Game 4 had been a season-saving win for the Cavaliers, by the skin of their teeth, while Game 5 left one with the strong sensation, for the first time, that this is absolutely Cleveland's series to lose. James was the cause of that swing: He won Game 4 with a buzzer-beating jumper and he won Game 5 by exerting his authority at all times. “LeBron was just outstanding in every element of the game,”Blatt said. “You can't pick a thing that he didn't do at the highest level.”
[daily_cut.nba]The four-time MVP pounded in the post, got to the line, tipped numerous deflections on defense and maintained firm control over the ball, avoiding the turnover problems that he has dealt with all series. There have been plenty of nits to pick in this series: James has over-relied on his jumper, forced the issue while driving into traffic and stopped the ball. Those issues melted away in Game 5, leaving only a spectacular throwback performance that seemed to aggravate the Bulls as it unfolded. Jimmy Butler found himself in foul trouble, Joakim Noah was talking to the referees all night and Taj Gibson was ejected for kicking Matthew Dellavedova after the Cavaliers guard locked up his leg. The Bulls have been bested by James far too often to go quietly, as they indicated with their late rally, but they still have yet to find a reasonable counter when James is on.
Chicago's chances of stumbling upon an answer for this brand of James are slim. The only player to post a stat line comparable to James's in the playoffs since 1985 is, of course, Michael Jordan, who managed 40 points, 15 rebounds, nine assists and six steals in a 1989 win over the Knicks. Shooting struggles aside, James has kicked his game up higher and higher as this series has unfolded, with no sign of abating. James can surely smell blood in the water at this point, and he spent a good chunk of time after Tuesday's game laying out his desired improvements for Game 6. “We were up 17 and we just kind of got into a trance defensively,” he said. “We gave up too many backdoor cuts. We gave up a couple and-ones. We had a couple open threes in the fourth quarter. Those are things that we will watch tomorrow and say, 'We can't have those types of lulls defensively.'”
This is exactly the perfectionist, by-example leadership that the Cavaliers need from him. It's helpful when James shoulders the blame after losses, but it's this extreme focus and unrelenting attention to detail that is so valuable for a Cleveland team that relies on a number of contributors with limited playoff experience.
Many of those players responded in key roles during Game 5, none more so than Irving, who played through multiple nagging injuries to finish with 25 points and five assists. In recent days, he's reiterated multiple times that he feels an obligation to his teammates, and to James especially, to get himself on the court.
Midseason acquisition Iman Shumpert chipped in 13 points and seven rebounds, confidently stroking mid-range jumpers and attacking the basket. His offensive rebound with less than 20 seconds left was especially important, as it helped turn a one-possession game into a two-possession game. “Big play, big play,” moaned Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau.
Energetic power forward Tristan Thompson enjoyed another strong performance, posting 12 points and 10 rebounds while helping hold Chicago's frontline in check. “In five games, he's been an A-plus,” James said, sounding like a proud uncle. “You can't coach a motor.”
All James needs in this series is a little help. Cleveland played just seven players more than seven minutes; Timofey Mozgov was one of those seven, and he went 0 for 7 from the field. But Irving brushed off the foot problem to emerge as a second scorer, Shumpert and Thompson continued to handle their roles, Gibson took himself out of the game down the stretch and Pau Gasol remained sidelined with a hamstring injury. Combined, that adds up to more than a little help, and James was happy to handle the rest.
When the post-game talk turned to the Mikan Drill, James interrupted Irving because he wanted his teammate, and the world, to remember that he had put in those same hours of drill work. James isn't “just” a physical freak capable of making even his fellow MVPs look ordinary by comparison. He's always thought the game, he's taken pride in his fundamentals and, in recent years, he's preached the importance of playing cleanly. Like Irving, he knows the angles, even if he might play them differently. Here, the angle was to stay on Irving one last time, to prove one final point: James's superhuman skills were built with human investments of time and sweat, and these hard-fought victories aren't as effortless as he can make them seem.
Satisfied, James danced into the night with steps that are second nature.