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Monday, June 15, 2015

Warriors Demonstrate Folly of Trying to Play Small Ball Against Them, Take 3-2 Finals Lead Over Cavaliers

Stephen 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.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:36 AM


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At Monday, June 15, 2015 6:52:00 AM, Anonymous A said...

Spot on David.

I agree with the strategy of playing Mozgov on Iguodala like what Bogut did to Tony Allen. It's gives them the best chance of winning.

I reckon that Cleveland is capable of getting a little more from their supporting cast offensively but they are running too much isolation with James and no set plays at all. You see very little player movement, pass and cuts and off-ball screens. Everyone is standing around waiting for the pass and watching James go 1 on 1, which I think takes them out of rhythm. And like you said, not playing Mozgov limit the scoring opportunities they have. Also when James is not attacking he usually stands on the perimeter watching others but instead he could make cuts to the basket or set screens for other players to free them up for a good shot like what Curry does quite often.

Another area that I find interesting is James' assists. In Game 5 he had 11 assists and about 9 of them were to 3 point shooters coming off picks or kicking it out driving off of a pick and roll. This was the same during his Miami days when they had more and even better 3 point shooters. I understand that his teams are always surrounded with 3 point shooters and I may be wrong about this because I don't watch a lot of his games during the season only the playoffs, but it seems like he doesn't look to create for his bigs off of pick and rolls or when he gets doubled in the post. He is always looking for the shooters first whether it's the weak side or the strong side.

In the third quarter I felt he was too passive, the game at that point was just constant lead changes and both teams trying to find a momentum going into the fourth. He should be as aggressive as he was in the first half. The thing about James is that he puts up huge all round numbers but if you watch the game you'll always find a certain period and especially down the stretch like you mentioned and fades away. It's not that he isn't clutch, but he doesn't put his foot on the gas pedal the whole game, that killer instinct people always talk about what separates Jordan and Bryant from the rest. They never take possessions off. Maybe it's just not in his nature. I remember watching him in the Miami a lot of times when the shot clock winds down and he's holding the ball at the top of the key, he wind up passing the ball to 3 point shooters instead of taking the "hand grenade". I mean it should be the best player's responsibility to bail his team out in situations like that, instead he gives me the impression that he wants to get an assist and not ruin his field goal percentage.

I agree with that fatigue excuse being offered to James. He is only 30 years old. That 2010 Celtics team was one hell of a defensive team, they weren't just great scheme wise but they were also very physical and tough minded. I remember Bryant got his knees drained in the first round and played with a dislocated right index finger for most of the season and he was 32 at the time.

At Monday, June 15, 2015 10:41:00 AM, Anonymous AW said...

I don't think no one is saying those guys that James is playing with are scrubs.Those guys do have some value. But its obvious they cant perform good to very good consistently every game.

Now about the Warriors, some people may say that if they win the title it would be tainted because the Cavs are missing Love and Irving. I don't agree. You play who is in front of you. There's numerous times where teams had to deal with injuries in the playoffs in which it probably affected the outcome. But if LeBron is going to get heavily criticized if the Cavs lose this series, then he should get heavy praise if his team wins when you consider the circumstances.

Since Kobe,is being brought up, does Kobe get criticized if he lost to Golden State with LeBron's current roster. People would just say, "Oh the Warriors had a more talented roster and Kobe was surrounded by just role players. If Kobe's team won all we would here about is, " Kobe beat the team in the nba with the best record with the league mvp. He had no superstars or all stars on his team since Kyrie and Kevin didnt play. He won with the least amount of help of any superstar in nba history."

At Monday, June 15, 2015 1:47:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Iggy was making his 3's. You can't just leave him wide open or sagging off him too much with Mozgov or whoever.

Mozgov should be playing more. But, he's never really been a high-minute player. I think his 33 minutes in game 4 was actually a lot, and him playing 5-10 more minutes wouldn't have changed the outcome. However, if he played regular minutes in game 5, maybe CLE wins.

AW, not sure what you're talking about concerning Kobe. Kobe's 09/10 casts weren't that great. We still hear people saying Pau deserved NBA finals MVP. And many people discrediting Kobe since he had Pau to play with, who was a 1x AS and 0-12 in the playoffs in 7 seasons before joining Kobe, including Nick who comments on here, while not applying the same standard to other past/current greats.

James isn't getting criticized much, if any. People are saying he's never played better. He's shooting poorly from everywhere, except decent from 3, and hasn't had a good shooting game yet. Yes, that's what his team needs, but it's not like he's putting the world on fire, and his team's overall offense has stunk so far. He has the ball 90-95% of the time on offense and shoots a ton while facing very few full-out double teams. Of course, he'll score a lot and get a lot of assists. I would hope a superstar who is much bigger than someone like Livingston can back him down to get an easy shot. He's bailing out by shooting too many jumpers, needs to be driving/posting more. He got lucky with some ridiculously bad shots from 3's late in game 5, but it wasn't enough, and that's not going to be consistent offense.

James seems to be getting really tired at the ends of games. His defense has been very shoddy. He looked confused and left Iggy wide open for a 3 off an inbound, lucky he missed it.

At Monday, June 15, 2015 2:46:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sure, Blatt has made some mistakes, but who doesn't? He's gotten his team, whose 2nd/3rd best players are out, to within 2 wins of the title in his first year. He deserves a ton of credit, even though it was pretty much a given making the finals out of the east. ATL was their biggest competition, and they looked terrible.

If James has played hard consistently and/or been able to make his FTs, CLE would be up 3-2 at the very least, if not have already won the series, regardless of Blatt's mishaps. It looks like Mozgov should've played more in game 5, but maybe that's not the right call, who really knows for sure, or maybe it wouldn't have mattered. Mozgov probably plays better if he played more in game 5, but he stunk when he was in. Mozgov and Thompson both played high minutes in game 4, which they aren't really accustomed to as much. In the end, GS would've still won even if they were able to play 48 minutes each, which would've diminished their overall effectiveness because of probable fatigue.

At Monday, June 15, 2015 4:34:00 PM, Anonymous JLK1 said...

LeBron assisted on or scored 70 of the Cavs 91 points. Fatigue or not it's hard to expect more.

I agree on Mozgov, but don't see that turning the game. It's inexcusable for Jones and Miller to combine for 30 minutes (together they had 3 points and 1 rebound) while Mozgov played 9 minutes. Blatt instead played Tristan Thompson who was minus 23 for the game, and showed an inconsistent post game despite shooting 6 for 11. He is simply not dangerous even when he catches the ball in the restricted area.

The underrated story of the series is Golden State's FG% defense. The Cavs were under 40% shooting as a team in games four and five, with the guards leading the way: Smith at 5/15, Shumpert 3/9, and Dellavedova 2/9. All three shot under 25% in game four. These guys just aren't very good, and are going up against an excellent perimeter defense.

At Tuesday, June 16, 2015 10:53:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


On NBA Radio, one commentator--it may have been Mitch Lawrence--said that without LeBron James the current Cavs' roster would be one of the worst teams in NBA history. Not one of the worst Finals teams, but one of the worst teams, period. Other commentators have also offered the opinion that several of James' teammates do not belong in the NBA or barely belong in the NBA.

I would not criticize James for losing per se but it is fair to criticize him for aspects of his play and for comments he makes about being the best player in the world while also whining about being tired.

At Tuesday, June 16, 2015 10:56:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Yes, Iguodala made some three pointers but that is not a good reason to bench Mozgov. The percentage play is to have Mozgov guard Iguodala but back off of him a bit. If I were Blatt, I would rather have Mozgov on the court and Iguodala shooting three pointers than Mozgov on the bench and the Warriors getting any shot that they want in or out of the paint.

Good catch on James' defense. He did fall asleep at the switch on more than one occasion, including the one that you mentioned.

At Tuesday, June 16, 2015 10:58:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Blatt has done a good job in some respects as a rookie coach but he has also made some critical gaffes, including the benching of Mozgov.

Mozgov did not get a realistic chance to have any rhythm in game five. He had two short stints before being yanked. The Cavs were much better with him on the floor in game four than with him off of the floor.

At Tuesday, June 16, 2015 11:31:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Mozgov is a major matchup advantage for Cleveland. I don't know if using him would "turn" the game in terms of Cleveland actually winning the game or the series, but going big is Cleveland's best chance. Cleveland had a 2-1 lead with their normal lineup. If Mozgov had played more in game four, that might have been a 3-1 lead. Blatt overreacted to what Kerr did. The team that is winning should not make a knee jerk reaction to the adjustments made by the trailing team.


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