As a child, I read and reread a Ray Bradbury short story about a hunter who traveled back to the distant past to bag a dinosaur, illegally stepped off a levitating walkway and mistakenly crushed a butterfly. When he returned to his time, everything was the same, and everything — language, culture, politics — was subtly off.
So it is with the Golden State Warriors, ordained as the champions after Game 4 of the N.B.A. finals, a Jaguar-smooth blend of speed and shooting and strength. Then Draymond Green, the defensive heart of this team, took one too many shots at the groin of an opposing player and was suspended for a single game, Monday night’s Game 5.
Change one thing and everything changes.
The Cleveland Cavaliers, primed for extinction, staged an inspiring stand. LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, Big and Little Poison, poured in 41 points each. Irving scored from every angle, a spinning top of a shooter, while James offered his amalgam of Magic Johnson and Bill Russell, passing with precision while yanking down 16 rebounds and repeatedly chasing down and blocking the shots of Warriors who threatened to steal this game away from him. James hauled his jump shot, a tetchy instrument in these playoffs, out of the closet; he hit 4 of 8 3-point shots.
He remains the best hoop-playing specimen on the planet.
A keening home court crowd was not enough for destiny’s darlings, the Warriors. Golden State applied pressure, pushed the ball, spun it round and round the perimeter, and watched Klay Thompson hit shots from a dinghy in San Leandro Bay. The Warriors still could not crack the spine of the Cavaliers.
So the series returns to the frenzied shores of Lake Erie, and maybe back again to Oakland for a Game 7. The Warriors’ champagne remains in cold storage, perhaps shipped back to a Napa vineyard under cover of night.
The grassy knoll conspiracists were in full array Monday night on Twitter and television, their eyes gleaming as they propounded ornamented theories. The league and the networks wanted a longer series; the league is in a hopeless LeBron James embrace; the Kenyan-born Barack Obama called N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver and ordered this travesty. (O.K., I did not hear that last one, as I neglected to call Donald Trump for comment.)
It was a bit much. The Warriors sometimes lose a game. Once, this season, they lost two consecutive games. They never lost three in a row. For Cleveland to win the championship, it needs to beat them three straight.
Coach Tyronn Lue applied a tourniquet to his Cavaliers rotation Monday night. James and Tristan Thompson, the jumping jack forward-center who somehow plays fine defense on Stephen Curry, the whippet point guard, each logged more than 41 minutes. Irving clocked in at a hair under 40.
Only two players off the Cavaliers bench played more than four minutes. As the longtime basketball writer Peter Vecsey noted on Twitter, Lue adhered to Pat Riley’s old playoff axiom: Use seven players, put six in the rotation, and trust five. Power forward Kevin Love apparently decided to retire while playing in this series: The erstwhile power forward played 32 minutes and finished with 2 points and 3 rebounds.
Love, in fairness, sustained a concussion in this series. The Warriors’ offense located him with the alacrity of a pride of lions searching for a weakened water buffalo. So in the second quarter, Curry found himself covered by the slow-of-foot Love. He played the big man like a yo-yo on a string, and hit a loose-limbed jumper in his face.
On the other side of the court, Curry, Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala played more than 40 minutes. Forty minutes is regarded as the point at which players’ bodies start to cough and shimmy and are at imminent risk of overheating. Reporters asked Coach Steve Kerr, a survivor of more than one N.B.A. finals series, about that, and he shrugged. “That’s kind of what you do with your star players,” he said.
Let’s return to the conspiracy narrative, which frames the league’s suspension of Nutcracker Green as a destiny-changing move. It bears some interrogation. Long ago and far away — as in the first game of the finals — much celebration was reserved for Iguodala, a former All-Star who seemingly dips his hands in Stickum and has an uncanny ability to strip opponents of the ball.
Iguodala filled in Monday for Green and scored 15 points, doled out 6 assists and pulled down 11 rebounds. Green is a buoyant and smart player, and I’d want him out on a court with me. But in several games in this series, he has all but disappeared at the offensive end. James scored 25 and 32 points in Games 3 and 4, suggesting that somehow he managed to dribble and shoot even in the presence of Green.
More to the point: Teams lose players. Last season, the Cavaliers lost Irving and Love, and James strapped the remaining players to his back like a piano, and they took two games against the Warriors. Stuff happens.
Kerr, the Warriors’ coach, offered a sensible take Monday night.
“Draymond wasn’t here,” he told the news media. “I’m not going into all that stuff.”
He added that last season the Warriors returned to emotionally fraught Cleveland for Game 6. The Warriors took that game and claimed the championship. “I like our position a lot better than theirs,” Kerr said.
Unless, that is, some Warrior stepped on a butterfly.