In certain moments, Game 5 of the NBA Finals felt like a duel between Stephen Curry, the reigning MVP, and LeBron James, the consummate MVP. With a wide enough lens, however, we can see that game for what it really was: The trial of a single great player against an opponent in constant recovery. The Warriors take hits and adapt around them. They weather runs with the knowledge that theirs will stretch further. They accept an opponent’s best in understanding that theirs will burn brighter. The Warriors endured another wonderful performance from James in Game 5 and returned every point, rebound, and assist in kind as a collective—an inspired showing that led to a 104–91 victory and a 3-2 Finals lead that has them one win away from their first NBA title since 1975.
The Warriors' offense, while slowed in its pace, looked the healthiest it has all series. Curry’s jumper practically leapt from his hand in sharp contrast to the antsy shooting we saw in the Finals’ initial games. Credit goes to more than rhythm; Golden State has worked hard to vary Curry’s means of attack once it became clear that Cleveland could offer genuine resistance. The result is a version of the MVP so assertive (17 of his 37 points came in the fourth quarter) with and without the ball, that he carved up the best defensive team of the playoffs. Matthew Dellavedova’s days as a folk hero are finished.
Around him, Curry found brilliant support from Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green. Both have made the most of the Warriors’ full tilt into small ball. Removing a traditional center from the floor (Andrew Bogut, normally a starter, received a DNP-CD) helped again to get Golden State’s offense rolling downhill. The ball pinged from a pressured Curry to a rolling Green to an open Iguodala to wherever it needed to go. It’s in the flow of those actions that the Warriors navigate around almost any obstacle. Their sequencing of smart players making the right reads makes it only a matter of time before Cleveland’s short, exhausted rotation is worked into a breakdown.
So effective were the Warriors’ small lineups that Timofey Mozgov, who had scored 28 points in Game 4, was out of the game almost entirely. After an early exit in the first quarter, Mozgov didn’t return until the closing seconds of the third. Those minutes he did play were primarily a relief to Tristan Thompson—a means to give the situational center a rest after playing 32 of the game’s first 36 minutes. That he offered so little cinched up Cleveland’s already shortened rotation even further. What the Cavs' rotation has become—James, Thompson, a ragged Dellavedova, the injured Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith’s more damaging tendencies, and roster placeholders James Jones and Mike Miller—is not the lineup of an NBA finalist. • MORE NBA: Curry dehydrated after win | SI's playoff coverage | Highlights
Yet this series has been proof positive of how far James can go with only well-meaning, hard-working teammates. There isn’t a cogent basketball reason for Cleveland’s duct-taped rotation to hold against a juggernaut like Golden State. Yet the last five games have made perfectly clear how little the bounds of logic apply when James involved. The best basketball player alive can go head to head against one of the best defenders in the league and still give his team’s offense everything it needs to survive. That the Cavs ultimately didn’t win Game 5 is less significant than the fact James's performance—a triple double with 40 points, 14 rebounds, and 11 assists—made a victory plausible at all under these impossible circumstances.
As the Warriors withstand and rally, James’s only choice is to trudge forward with each possession. There are no sweeping changes to be made. The Cavaliers must rely on James to fix every problem of a roster that holds no other solutions. Whatever flaws are beyond him will stay, intensify, and—in all likelihood—lead to Cleveland’s unceremonious end. GALLERY: Sports Illustrated's best photos from Game 5 of NBA Finals