Warriors Demonstrate Folly of Trying to Play Small Ball Against Them, Take 3-2 Finals Lead Over CavaliersStephen Curry scored 37 points--including 17 in the fourth quarter--as his Golden State Warriors defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers 104-91 to take a 3-2 lead in the NBA Finals. Curry shot 13-23 from the field, including 7-13 from three point range. He also had seven rebounds and four assists. Curry is one of five players to score 17 points in the fourth quarter of an NBA Finals game in the past 40 years, a list that includes Shaquille O’Neal (2000 Lakers), Dwyane Wade (2006 Heat), Russell Westbrook (2012 Thunder) and Kevin Durant (2012 Thunder).
LeBron James had another huge game for the Cavaliers, compiling 40 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists with just two turnovers in 45 minutes. James shot 15-34 from the field, including 1-4 in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter after the Cavaliers had trimmed the Warriors' lead to 85-84.
The big story--literally and figuratively--is Cleveland's starting center Timofey Mozgov, who played a scoreless nine minutes after scoring 28 points in game four and helping to keep the Cavaliers close with his inside presence at both ends of the court. Cleveland Coach David Blatt pulled Mozgov from game five after just five minutes with Golden State leading 8-2; Blatt did not give Mozgov a chance to go to work against Golden State's undersized lineup, a markedly different approach to coaching and matchups from the one that Golden State Coach Steve Kerr took in game four when he stuck with his small lineup despite trailing 7-0 early in the first quarter.
Any player--but particularly a big man whose size and length can wear down opponents over the course of a game--would struggle to find his rhythm if he is used to playing regular minutes but then is suddenly relegated to just four or five minutes per half.
Mozgov averaged 16.8 ppg on .550 field goal shooting plus 8.3 rpg in the first four games of the series, yet after Blatt benched Mozgov early in game five he did not put Mozgov back in the game until late in the third quarter. The Cavaliers cut a 71-67 Golden State lead to 78-77 during Mozgov's cameo second half appearance and then were outscored 26-14 the rest of the way after Blatt yanked Mozgov again. Essentially, Blatt iced his second best player and failed to exploit the only matchup advantage that the Cavaliers have other than James versus whoever tries to guard him one on one.
The minutes that Mozgov would have and should have played went to a combination of perimeter players J.R. Smith (14 points on 5-15 field goal shooting in 36 minutes), James Jones (0 points in 18 minutes) and Mike Miller (3 points in 14 minutes).
The bottom line is that Kerr has outcoached Blatt. Yes, Kerr has more cards to play but Blatt has the biggest card (LeBron James) plus the edge inside with Mozgov but Blatt has not taken full advantage of those trumps. On offense, the Cavaliers should be running a steady diet of James-Mozgov screen/roll plays, forcing the Warriors to either trap James and leave Mozgov open at the rim or else single cover James and pray for salvation. On defense, the idea that Mozgov could not guard any of the Warriors is wrong; Mozgov should be assigned to stand two feet away from Andre Iguodala, who is struggling to make uncontested and wide open 15 foot shots (Iguodala shot 2-11 from the free throw line in game five). The Cavaliers could then pack the paint, stay close to Golden State's three point shooters and dare Iguodala to beat them with two point jump shots. If that strategy sounds familiar that is because it is the strategy that Kerr used to beat Memphis in the playoffs, assigning Bogut to guard Tony Allen--and by "guard" I mean give Allen the space to shoot open jumpers to his heart's content. Iguodala is a very good all-around player but the Warriors are not going to win a championship with Iguodala shooting 15-18 foot jumpers while James and/or Mozgov are getting dunks and free throws.
What did Kerr think of Blatt's quick hook of Mozgov? Here is what Kerr said after game five: "I thought from the very beginning when they went small, had their shooters out there, I thought this is Steph's night. This is going to be a big one for him because he has all that room. He took over the game down the stretch and was fantastic." Translation: "If I had known that all I had to do was bench Bogut and Blatt would respond by taking out his second best player then I would have done it in game one and this series would have been over in four games. I will match our five best perimeter players against Cleveland's five best perimeter players any day of the week. Cleveland then has one matchup advantage with LeBron James but we have four matchup advantages and we do not have to worry about foul trouble or our guys getting worn down by banging around in the paint against a true big man."
While Golden State is deeper on paper than Cleveland, it is interesting to look at who is actually seeing action in this series. In game five, three Golden State starters played at least 40 minutes and seven Golden State players played at least 17 minutes; three Cleveland starters played at least 40 minutes and seven Cleveland players played at least 18 minutes. For all of the talk about fatigue and depth, the reality is that both teams are using seven man rotations. Yes, LeBron James is carrying a heavy individual workload but that is at least partially because Blatt refuses to take advantage of his second best weapon. Is James really more tired than Michael Jordan was in 1998 at the end of the Bulls' second three-peat or than Kobe Bryant was in 2010 after battling Boston's historically good defense for seven games or than most other great players were when they fought to win championships against worthy opposition? James is putting up great numbers but he is also consistently fading down the stretch while being offered (and accepting) a fatigue excuse that is rarely if ever granted to any other person who has held the greatest player in the world title.
Let's stop pretending that the Cavaliers are nothing more than LeBron James and a bunch of guys he rounded up at the YMCA. Timofey Mozgov is the best big man on either roster. Tristan Thompson is the leading rebounder in the series (and James is second). Iman Shumpert and Matthew Dellavedova are credible perimeter defenders. J.R. Smith is a talented, if erratic, player. The main difference in this series since Cleveland took a 2-1 lead is that Kerr convinced Blatt to bench Mozgov in exchange for Kerr benching Bogut, who is averaging 2.5 ppg in the Finals.
Maybe the Cavaliers would have lost game four even if Mozgov had played 35 or 40 minutes. Maybe the Cavaliers would have lost game five even if Mozgov had played more than nine minutes. However, it is a near certainty that if Blatt insists using some combination of Smith, Miller and Jones to match up with Golden State's skilled perimeter players while Mozgov languishes on the bench then Cleveland will lose every time.
As bizarre as this may sound, Cleveland could still win this series if Blatt makes the right moves and if James figures out how to play as hard and well in the final five minutes as he does the rest of the game. A Cleveland victory is by no means probable but it sure would be interesting to see what would happen if Blatt came up with a strategy other than expecting James to play point guard and center the rest of the way while Mozgov watches the action. Magic Johnson won his first NBA championship while doing the point guard/center routine in one game of the 1980 NBA Finals due to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's ankle injury--and Johnson's Lakers already enjoyed a 3-2 lead over Philadelphia, while James' Cavaliers trail 3-2. No onc expected Johnson to do that for an entire Finals.
posted by David Friedman @ 3:36 AM