CLEVELAND — When you need to win a game, like the Cleveland Cavaliers needed to win this game, you want the ball in your best player's hands as often as possible. You just don't necessarily want it lingering there too long, being cradled or bounced, when it could be moved toward a teammate or toward the rim.
Not even if that best player is LeBron James.
That is what needed to change for Cleveland on Tuesday, and that is what did in a 106-101 Game 5 victory. That is why the Cavaliers are primed to eliminate the Bulls on Thursday and are still serious contenders to win a championship, even with Kevin Love sidelined and Kyrie Irving hobbled, though the latter was still able enough to score 25 to complement James' 38. They are a legitimate threat largely because James is consistently willing to reset his approach, and he's capable of doing so from game to game or even quarter to quarter, to accommodate the circumstances and reverse his regression.
To grab control of this second-round series, the Cavaliers needed James to loosen his grip some, at least in terms of possession time. He may love the basketball, but you can sometimes show your love by letting go. They needed him to junk the perimeter jab-stepping that had led to so many off-balance, off-rhythm, off-target launches. They needed him to stop being so stationary and stagnant. They needed him to get on the move, and in the post. And when he got the ball from any of his teammates, he needed to get it back in the air.
So that's what James did in a spectacular first half, one in which he made as many shots—10—in a dozen attempts as he did in 30 in Sunday's victory in Chicago. Prior to six of those shots, according to SportVU, he possessed the ball for fewer than two seconds, and prior to four of those shots, he possessed it for between two and six seconds. He held it for six or more seconds prior to only two attempts.
Compare that to the first four games of this series, when James possessed the ball for six or more seconds prior to 46.2 percent of his shot attempts, for between two and six seconds prior to 34.9 percent, and for fewer than two seconds just 18.9 percent of the time.
Tuesday, there was a consistent pattern of James getting to comfortable spots—all 12 of his first-half shots came from the left side facing the rim—and then committing quickly, without hesitation.
And with considerable harm to Chicago.
"Well, I think the coaching staff did a great job of putting me in positions where I could be successful," James said, a statement that should get some attention, considering all the controversy related to his comments after Game 4. "And I just tried to read and react, just tried to let my game be aggressive. Any time you get some shots going early, you feel pretty good. I was able to get my jumper going, I was able to get my post-up game going early, and my attack game. Just tried to feed off of it. Just tried to feed off of the rhythm that I had, and just tried to stay in rhythm as long as I could."
He never lost that rhythm, not entirely, not even as he reverted back to some of his holding habits in the second, possessing the ball for six or more seconds on seven of his 12 shots, and for two to six seconds on the other five—making just four of 12 in all. Still, he was doing so much else so well that his shooting inefficiency could be overcome.
His final stat line was one of the most sterling of his playoff career.
Not just the 38 points, but 12 rebounds, six assists, three steals, three blocks (more on that shortly)...and not a single turnover.
"Um, yah!" James quipped, when told of that last number, before turning more serious. "No turnovers. That's the first stat I always look at after the game. Just try to be efficient for my teammates. As much as I was handling the ball tonight, myself and Kyrie, to not give the opposing team extra possessions, that's a huge stat for myself. I never pat myself on the back ever, but I will now."
It was earned, especially in light of how much more often he's erred since returning to the Cavaliers—he had never averaged more than 3.3 turnovers per 36 minutes prior to averaging 3.9 this season. He entered Tuesday's game averaging 4.5 per 36 minutes in the 2015 postseason, also easily the highest average of his playoff career.
"Obviously I'm an attack guy and I'm going to have attack turnovers, and those are the turnovers I can live with," James said. "The careless turnovers are the ones I can't live with. So tonight I was attacking, I got to my spot, my guys helped me get to my spot, and it allowed us to have a very efficient game. To be able to shoot 50 percent against a Bulls defense, against a Thibs defense...Very impressive."
Very important, too, because James is handling a larger load, though not as much larger as in Games 3 and 4, when Irving was more limited, first by a strained foot and then by a sore knee. Irving had been sulking some behind the scenes, especially prior to David Blatt's disclosure of his injuries, as an explanation for why Derrick Rose had been outplaying him. Tuesday, however, Cavaliers officials were more confident that Irving could contribute, especially after seeing him in better spirits at shootaround.
"This morning felt really good," Irving said. "I got out of bed, walking around, and I was like, 'This is going to be a great day.' I could feel it."
He felt good, and then he looked good in a pregame workout, showing some lift in his legs.
More than anything, he needed to leap over some psychological hurdles.
"This has been the biggest mental challenge of my career thus far, because I want to do more," Irving said. "And I want to be that guy for my teammates as well as for 'Bron. We've built the dynamic of being able to play off one another extremely well, with other guys spacing the floor. And when we need a bucket, it's me or 'Bron and we take it upon ourselves to do that."
They couldn't exactly alternate as they're accustomed since, as Irving said, "Running screen and rolls, I can't necessarily push off and get around like I'm used to." But Irving, while trying to hide at times on defense, did hit some difficult layups, using angles he learned doing the Mikan drill, "taking something off" when he spun the ball off his fingers. He did find enough open space to sink three three-pointers. He did take his share of the playmaking or, at least, ball-moving responsibility, with more touches (90 to 84) and passes (65 to 48) than James.
He did give James just enough assistance.
"I just commend him for putting us on his back and us feeding off his energy and being ready to shoot off his drives," Irving said.
That energy extended to the other end, specifically on a chase-down block of Rose, one of the 15 shots Rose missed, in 17 attempts, after a 5-of-7 start. That came with the Bulls trailing 101-99 with 48.8 seconds remaining.
"I think that was the play where I drove," James said. "(Iman Shumpert) hit me on the left wing, and I drove middle and kicked it to Kyrie for the jumper, and it hit off the front rim, right to D-Rose's hands. And with them being down two, I felt like he was going to try to take off. And he did that. Just try to take off and try to get a bucket. It would have allowed them to have a 2-for-1, to get that bucket. So just not giving up on the play. (Matthew Dellavedova) did a great job of keeping his body in front of D-Rose, just not giving him an angle to the rim, and I actually once he shot it, I knew I was going to be able to get the block. I didn't even try to pat it, like I'm accustomed to doing. I tried to just tap it a little bit, so I can get the ball. But it didn't work out that way. But it was just a saved possession."
And a preserved lead.
He didn't get to keep the ball that time, but that's OK. He had it plenty of other times, and then he didn't, and that worked out rather well. To have, but not to hold, from this Tuesday tipoff forward, for better for the Cavaliers, for worse for the Bulls.
All advanced stats via NBA.com unless otherwise noted.
Ethan Skolnick covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is a co-host of NBA Sunday Tip, 9-11 a.m. ET on SiriusXM Bleacher Report Radio. Follow him on Twitter, @EthanJSkolnick.