It is premature to say this with absolute certainty, but all the evidence suggests that the Golden State Warriors of 2104-15 were built to withstand the power of one man.
Sunday’s 104-91 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 5 of the NBA Finals was a testimonial to the power of many over the power of one, even if the one is LeBron James at his most omnipotent and inspirational.
In other words, he was either directly responsible or proximally so to most of Cleveland’s 89 points, and in the end he . . . er, they still lost by double digits.
Put another way, the Warriors had a persistently resolute response for James’ mates that the Cavs did not have for Stephen Curry and his, and as a result this persistently moribund franchise is one game from its first championship in four decades and 22 days.
And here comes the disclaimer: Steve Kerr is already fretting the burden of the closeout game.
“The closeout game is always the hardest one to get,” Professor Half-Filled Glass said, “and what I’m excited about is that I think we can play a lot better. I thought we were a little scattered, a little disorganized. We had a lot of turnovers (17), so we can be a little more organized offensively . . . but we’re a very confident group playing at a high level, sometimes too confident and we get a little carried away. But they believe in what they’re doing and they believe in each other.”
That belief took some time to congeal -– the Warriors were better in the second half than the first, though the final score was not fully indicative of the ferocity of the struggle on both sides.
There were times when J.R. Smith looked like he was going to shoot the Cavs to glory, and when Tristan Thompson was going to add enough rebounds to make Cleveland’s 39 percent shooting seem tolerable, and even times when Matthew Dellavedova was going to pest his teammates to victory.
But Smith faded after the first 16 minutes, and Thompson couldn’t retrieve enough shots, and Dellavedova couldn’t irritate enough Warriors –- not when Curry was at his most decisive and Andre Iguodala at his most intrepid and Harrison Barnes was at his most dogged and Leandro Barbosa was at his most . . . well, barbo-tastic.
And more than that, they all wove their particular moments into a gigantic tapestry that survived all that James tried to unravel it.
Indeed, James may have done more to convince people he should be the NBA Finals' most valuable player in this defeat than he did in the Cavaliers’ wins in Games 2 and 3. His 45 minutes, his 40 points, his 14 rebounds and 11 assists, and the fact that he was accountable for nearly every point the Cavs scored in the second and fourth quarters –- all of it was magnificence, and barring a shocking turn in a series that is now tilting heavily westward, a magnificence that ends in shards.
In the meantime, Curry finally had his jaw-dropping breakout night, winning the night by saving his very best for the 31-point fourth quarter -– 17 points on five for seven shooting and only one turnover when possessions mattered the most.
It figured it would come Sunday as well, when the Cavs finally abandoned all pretense of dominating down low and going small to match the Warriors’ natural state of small. It was the atmosphere in which Curry thrives best, and one in which the Warriors could win the rebounding battle and make their break work better. The result was Curry facing James as an equal, and winning the battle by being best in the final quarter (James had 16, but had to take 13 of Cleveland’s 20 shots because his teammates managed only three field goals in the final quarter).
“The reality is that this a small series, and it works very well for us,” Kerr said, quietly thanking all available deities that he, his staff and their players had stripped all other options from Cleveland coach David Blatt. “We’re very comfortable with this style. But you never how every game is going to unfold.”
“It was the way we needed to play tonight to give us a chance to win,” Blatt said as he was peppered with continued questions about the decision to play center Timofey Mozgov only 10 minutes three days after he went for 28. “We were definitely in the game with a chance to win, so that’s the way we played it.
And when the Mozgov queries persisted?
“How did it go the game before?” he snipped. “What was the score of the game? (You lost the game again) Yeah. By more.”
It was the sound of a coach out of cards to play, flailing for something different to narrow a widening gap against a team that has found its pace and style. David Blatt has LeBron James, and they are both still close to being irrevocably screwed by a superior team with superior numbers and a superior style.
But it’s more than playing small, or playing fast, or having Curry just be Curry. The Warriors have finally figured out all the things they can do and be, and all the things Cleveland can and cannot be. The cold fact is all the Warriors can bring to bear more than all the LeBron James and the Cavs have to offer.
“Signature moments only come to those who are holding the trophy,” Curry, who offered several, including a killing crossover three over Dellavedova and Thompson down the stretch, said. And he said it with a face that screamed full understanding that while the strangler’s grip is tightening, the Warriors still have to show they know better than to relax their hands this close to the big hold.