SAN ANTONIO -- It was shaping up to be another one of those learn-by-losing nights for the Cleveland Cavaliers. They came into San Antonio, went chest-to-chest with the defending champions for 3½ quarters, and those stately Spurs -- a program so much the envy of the league that even the proud David Blatt couldn't help but mention their merits in the days leading up to the game -- had the Cavs on the ropes.
But instead of it becoming pack-it-in time for this Cavs group, they showed pick-it-back-up poise. Instead of having to swallow a near miss, they pulled off a rally -- thanks in large part to a career-high 57 points by Kyrie Irving -- that could bring them untold momentum as this dream season continues to play out.
Before Irving could become the hero and score the last nine points of regulation, including a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to force overtime, and before Irving could top even that by scoring 11 of the Cavs' 18 points in OT to earn the 128-125 win in what had to be the league's best regular-season game this year, James needed to remind all of his guys that even when down double digits in the lion's den, they had the power to make something happen.
"LeBron told us in the timeout, ‘Win, lose or draw, still fight to the end,'" Tristan Thompson said. "And guys believed."
Spend enough time in the Cavs' locker room and you'll hear a version of James' message uttered on a daily basis. Guys will chirp, "Stay with it," as a sort of catch phrase that's become an inside joke (they usually pronounce it more like, "Stayyyy wittttt it"), quoting a recurring piece of advice imparted by assistant coach James Posey.
"Coach Pos started it," James said. "You know, stay with it, and that's what we've got to do. No matter what's going on throughout the game, no matter what's going on throughout the season, we've got to stay with it, stay with our process, stay with what we need to do, both offensively and defensively, on the bus, on the plane, whatever the case may be. We've always got to stay with what we're trying to build around here, and that's championship DNA."
To build that DNA, first the Cavs had to draw blood from a champion.
In the blink of an eye, the Cavs got it back to eight. Coming out of the timeout, Irving threw Thompson a quick alley-oop that seemed to be aided in part by Thompson's clever approach of chatting up his summer workout partner, Tim Duncan, who appeared to be lulled into the conversation.
Just 35 seconds later, it was down to six, as a stop on Tony Parker on one end followed by a James runner on the other end kept the comeback going. They had 2:18 to close the final gap.
But the comeback stalled. This was the Spurs they were trying to do it to after all. This was the team with the greatest coach in the game in Gregg Popovich on the sideline and three former NBA Finals MVPs on the court in Parker, Duncan and Kawhi Leonard.
Parker hit a jumper over Thompson with 33.9 seconds left to push San Antonio's cushion back to six and, again, James soothed his troops.
"'We got time,'" Thompson recalled James saying. "'It's OK.'"
"OK" in this case meant it was "On Kyrie." The fourth-year guard hit a 3 from the corner on the next possession to cut it to three.
The Spurs came back down and Parker missed an 18-footer, with Thompson's switch onto the point guard working this time. But Leonard got the offensive rebound and was fouled with 4.3 seconds left with a chance to seal it at the line.
Much like James' imperfect ending to an otherwise stellar game in Houston when he missed two crucial free throws to start the Cavs' brutal month of 10 out of 15 games on the road in March with a loss, Leonard marred an otherwise transcendent performance (24 points, nine rebounds, seven assists) by missing both free throws.
There was room for only one truly transcendent star on this night, anyway, and it was Irving.
Once James got his teammates to believe, he showed how strong his belief was in them right back. Rather than being the one to get the last shot and try to, with one flip of the wrist, exorcise the AT&T Center demons that have haunted him the past nine months when his hopes for ring No. 3 died, James took the ball out of bounds and passed to Irving for the final shot of regulation.
As we already covered, Irving made it. Of course he did.
"As long as my elbow's pointed at the rim, I feel like it has a great chance to go in," he said. "I learned that from Kobe Bryant."
He shot 7-for-7 from 3 on the night, went 10-for-10 from the foul line and made 20 of 32 attempts overall.
The historical significance of the performance was baked in, as Irving topped his own NBA season-high mark of 55 points while simultaneously edging James’ Cavs franchise record of 56 points and also managing to tie Purvis Short’s record of 57 points for the most points ever scored by a San Antonio opponent. And, to give context to just how well the Spurs played and still lost, it was just the second time in the Popovich-Duncan era that San Antonio shot 56 percent or better as a team (it shot 56.3 percent Thursday) and didn't win.
But Irving didn't want any part of it. "I don't want the game ball," he told a team attendant afterward. Nor did he seem to be too keen on setting aside any keepsake from the night -- Mike Miller was the recipient of his autographed, game-worn sneakers, which Miller toted out of the locker room with a smile on his face. Irving did say he planned to go to Disney World on Friday, but those were plans he already made before going bonkers on the Spurs, what with the team heading to Florida for an Orlando/Miami back-to-back.
What Irving got out of this night was an ascendance to James' level and an acceptance from the four-time MVP that he doesn't just have a young, talented guy out there by his side, he has a partner. When Irving scored 55 points against Portland earlier in the season, James was out with a sore wrist. When he scored 57 against San Antonio, it came on a night when James scored 31 and the two of them combined to score Cleveland's final 27 points (20 for Irving, seven for James).
"Once Bron gets into hitting those step-back 3s [in overtime], we're just looking at each other like, ‘Man, this is just so much fun,'" Irving said.
More than fun, the Cavs ran the gamut on Thursday and became only further galvanized as a group for having done so.
"I always say the best teacher in life is experience, and I think tonight was a great experience for all the guys that haven't been a part of huge games like this," James said. "Not in the sense that it was nationally televised, but [in the sense] of the competition. This is the best competition that you could find in our league, and for the guys to be able to stay composed and keep your head throughout the whole game, even when it wasn't going so well, and sometimes where it was going so well. Just to keep your mind into it, more than the physical -- the mental, as well."
There are more tests to come, surely, as Cleveland will try to lock up the No. 2 spot in the East to close out the regular season while also finding time for James to rest and finding ways to continue to tinker with their lineups to get the best out of them (starting with finding out a way Kevin Love doesn't have to sit out the entire fourth quarter, as he did for the third time this season, against San Antonio).
Just a few more challenges to conquer for a Cavs team that proved once again Thursday that it's up for whatever challenge should arise.
"That was a big step for our team," James declared. "I said we're going to have a few moments where you know we took a step forward, and tonight was one of those moments."
And what a moment it was.