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Friday, June 12, 2015

Warriors Regain Homecourt Advantage with 103-82 Game Four Win

Golden State defeated Cleveland 103-82 to tie the NBA Finals at 2-2 and regain homecourt advantage. Stephen Curry and Andre Iguodala led Golden State with 22 points apiece. Timofey Mozgov scored a game-high 28 points for Cleveland while pulling down 10 rebounds. LeBron James finished with 20 points on 7-22 field goal shooting plus 12 rebounds and eight assists.

This game is yet another reminder of how quickly things can turn in a seven game series and how foolish it is to make too much of just one game. Prior to game four, everyone was talking about the Cavaliers being on the verge of pulling off a huge upset as James authored possibly the greatest performance in NBA Finals history. Then in game four the Cavaliers suffered the fourth worst home loss in Finals history. The same people who were writing off Golden State after game three will probably write off Cleveland after game four. The reality is that, except for an occasional mismatch, most NBA Finals are seesaw affairs in which each game is both its own individual story and also one chapter in a larger story that cannot be completely understood until after the fact. It could very well be that the most important moment of the 2015 NBA Finals has not happened yet--or it may have already happened and we do not realize it because we do not know the final outcome.

Most of the analysis of game four will probably focus on Golden State Coach Steve Kerr's decision to go small by inserting Andre Iguodala in the starting lineup over Andrew Bogut. Iguodala, a former All-Star, had started every game of his career prior to this season but had yet to start a single game for Kerr's Warriors. Kerr's move had such an immediate impact that Golden State promptly fell behind 7-0. You can bet that this part of the story will be left out or glossed over in most accounts of the game.

Kerr's decision to go small did not spark the Warriors--but what happened shortly after the game started did. To understand that part of the story we need to look at the plus/minus numbers from this game. Every Cleveland player who played significant minutes had a plus/minus number of -12 or worse except for Mozgov (-5). Kerr went small for two reasons: to accelerate the pace of the game (which favors the Warriors because they are deeper and because their perimeter players are better than Cleveland's) and to entice the Cavaliers to take the bait and also go small--and Blatt fell for the banana in the tailpipe, giving J.R. Smith 28 minutes even though Smith was a one man disaster area. Smith's plus/minus number of -27 (12 points worse than any other player who appeared in the game) only hints at how poorly he played and how negative his impact was. Smith shot 2-12 from the field (including 0-8 from three point range) and finished with as many fouls as points (four).

The Warriors made a 10-4 run to take a 22-20 lead after J.R. Smith replaced Matthew Dellavedova in Cleveland's lineup. Matters really went south for Cleveland after Blatt took out Mozgov at that point to go small with James Jones; Golden State pushed the lead to 31-24 before Blatt put Mozgov back in the game.

There is a natural tendency to focus on the fourth quarter in general and the final minutes/final plays in particular but students of the NBA understand that games are often decided early, even if there are subsequent runs by both teams. Cleveland made a late run in game four but the Cavaliers could not overcome the double digit lead that Golden State built by halftime. Golden State did a lot of damage in the first half with Mozgov on the bench; the Cavs played too fast during that stretch and Smith was awful. Instead of going small, Blatt should have stayed true to his team's strength and exploited his team's advantage inside.

When the Cavaliers went small they also started to play faster and they started firing up three pointers. Cleveland shot 4-27 from three point range. The problem is not just the number of misses or even the number of attempts but rather the quality and nature of the shots. Cleveland won games two and three by pounding the ball inside with James posting or driving, Mozgov cutting through the lane and Tristan Thompson pounding the offensive boards. Most of the Cavaliers' three pointers in those games came as a result of penetration and good ball movement. In game four, James did not attack as much, the Cavaliers settled for low percentage three pointers and the Cavaliers paid the price for Blatt's substitution patterns.

I understand that Blatt has limited options due to injuries but in order for Cleveland to win this series Mozgov's minutes need to go up, Smith's minutes need to go down and James cannot sit out the first two minutes of the fourth quarter because every time that happens Golden State goes on a run; this almost cost Cleveland in game three and it thwarted a potential Cleveland comeback in game four.

James may have to play 42 or 43 minutes per game the rest of the way, including all 12 in the final stanza. That work load is not the cruel and unusual punishment that the media portrays it to be. In the 1993 Finals, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen--en route to winning their third straight championship--averaged 45.7 mpg and 44.3 mpg. In the 1996 Finals, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen--en route to completing their second three-peat--each averaged more than 41 mpg (and Gary Payton averaged almost 46 mpg for Seattle in a losing cause that year). Superstar players should not only expect heavy minutes in the Finals but they should demand heavy minutes.

Hall of Famer Jerry West, a consultant for the Warriors, has said that in the NBA when you don't have talent coaching can only do so much but when you do have talent coaching is everything. While it is true that Golden State has more talent and more depth than Cleveland, for all intents and purposes both teams are using a seven man rotation now and both teams are talented or they would not be in the Finals; in game four, seven Cleveland players played at least 18 minutes (and three players received three garbage time minutes apiece) and seven Golden State players played at least 15 minutes (and five other players received between one and seven minutes, with four of those players playing three minutes or less). Kerr may have more chess pieces to move around the board than Blatt does but Blatt has the ultimate chess piece (James) and he has a chess piece who is a matchup nightmare for Golden State (Mozgov) so within the options that Blatt has he needs to make the best possible choices to maximize the damage done by his two best pieces.

In addition to Kerr outcoaching Blatt (or Blatt outcoaching himself), the other big factor in game four is that LeBron James was not nearly as aggressive as he had been in the first three games of the series when he averaged 41 ppg. James scored 10 points on 4-12 field goal shooting in the first half and if he had reached his normal level of production in this series then Cleveland would not have trailed by 12 at halftime. Yes, that is a lot to ask of one player but when James is aggressive he not only creates scoring opportunities for himself but he also creates scoring opportunities for his teammates.

James suffered a large gash late in the first half when he hit his head on a courtside camera lens after receiving a hard foul from Andrew Bogut. It is unclear how much that injury affected James but he had been passive and the Cavaliers had been trailing even before that happened.

As a longtime advocate for the ABA, I cannot neglect to mention that even though James' 123 points through the first three games of the Finals is an NBA record it is not a pro basketball record; in the 1976 ABA Finals, Julius Erving scored 124 points in the first three games as his underdog New York Nets took a 2-1 lead over the powerful Denver Nuggets. James now has 143 points after four games but Erving scored 158 points in the first four games in the 1976 ABA Finals and for the series he led both teams in scoring (37.7 ppg), rebounding (14.2 rpg), assists (6.0 apg), steals (3.0 spg) and blocked shots (2.2 bpg) as the Nets won 4-2 over a squad that featured two Hall of Famers (David Thompson and Dan Issel) plus the best defensive forward in pro basketball (Bobby Jones) and a Hall of Fame coach (Larry Brown). Erving shot .590 from the field against the Nuggets. Considering the quality of the opponent, the all-around statistical dominance and the efficiency, a good case can be made that this is the greatest single series performance in pro basketball history. Just keep that historical perspective in mind when placing James' numbers in proper context. James has played great overall in the first four games but basketball history did not begin with Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan and basketball history includes (or should include) the ABA, though you might not realize this if you depend on the mainstream media outlets for basketball commentary.

OK, enough with the historical interlude for now. What will happen next in the 2015 NBA Finals? The only honest answer is, "I don't know." What I do know is that Golden State has the better team but Cleveland has the best player. Cleveland is capable of winning by employing the right strategy and playing really hard but Golden State has a larger margin for error. If Cleveland wins this series it would clearly be an upset but I am not sure it would be the biggest upset ever, as some people have suggested; let's wait and see if Cleveland prevails before trying to figure out how big of an upset it would be.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:14 AM


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At Friday, June 12, 2015 6:47:00 AM, Anonymous A said...

New post right after the game. Love the speed David!

For whatever reason the media seems to always overblown James' surrounding difficulties/obstacles, i.e. his lack of supporting cast and now his minutes. We all know that without Irving and Love his offensive responsibility increases. That is a fact. But when you consider the physical specimen that he is you'd think that he would be able to handle it. You pointed out that Jordan and Pippen averaged more than 41 mpg in the 1996 Finals. Jordan at that time was 33 years old and just the first full season after coming back from Baseball. I remember watching the highlights on Youtube that series was pretty physical too with Payton and all those guys.

Obviously the schedule for the Cavs is not that favorable with only one day rest in between and considering the fact that he played great for the first three games and posted historical numbers, in which the first two games went to OT. But I think it's also a factor in the way he plays for the previous three games that had a lingering effect on him. For the first three games he was pretty much all isolation backing down in the post and attacking the rim. This takes a lot out of your legs. But I think this also shows his lack of confidence and consistency on his outside shooting. Although he has improved tremendously the past few years improving his outside shot, he still doesn't have the mid-range game or the back to the basket footwork skills (as opposed to using strength and size to back down your defender) that Jordan and Bryant possessed.

I disagree with media saying he is the most skilled player in the world. He is the best and most dominant player in the world blessed with a freakish physique and off the charts athleticism but his offensive game is not the complete package. To me, he does not have a consistent or a go-to mid-range game like I mentioned above nor does he have a good catch and shoot game coming off of picks. What Jordan and Bryant did so well during their prime and also after their athleticism have declined was that they were always able to rely on those skill sets to be effective and conserve their energy throughout the game. I think it will be very interesting to see how effective he would be after his athleticism has declined but that's only if he decides to play that long.

I have never looked at the ABA before but those stats that you posted on Dr.J was some insane numbers. I don't think anyone including James would be able to top those numbers in a Finals series. I think for most people excluding those who grew up in the Dr.J era their first impression associated with him would be that he was a very good dunker and first player to take off from the FT line. But in reality, the guy could play and he was a Hall of Famer and the same goes for Dominique Wilkins. They were so great at dunking that their basketball capabilities were foreshadowed by it.

At Friday, June 12, 2015 10:34:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Yeah, I wanted to get my article out there before all of the superficial analysis appeared.

Kerr made a good move but he made the only kind of move that made sense: go small and speed up the game to counter Cleveland's advantage in the paint. Cleveland should have maintained the course as much as possible and not let Golden State turn the game into an up and down the court three point shootout.

LeBron has improved his post up game and midrange game since he entered the NBA but I agree with you that he has not mastered either of those skills to the extent that Jordan and Bryant did.

I think that LeBron will age better than Wade, for instance, because LeBron is bigger and because he has developed his skills more so than Wade has but I agree with you that he probably will not age as well as Jordan and Bryant did.

Erving's 1976 ABA Finals appearance is one of the least talked about and most underappreciated accomplishments in pro basketball history. In a larger sense, his overall ABA career is also vastly underappreciated.

At Friday, June 12, 2015 12:02:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Excellent analysis again. Although most mass media DID reference the 7-0 start by the Cavs.

Any predictions on how the rest of the series goes? Can CLE make the necessary adjustments?

At Friday, June 12, 2015 3:01:00 PM, Anonymous JLK1 said...

JR Smith deserves the heat, but to be fair they are running a 3 guard rotation and the other two guys are Dellevedova and Shumpert (combined 5 for 25, 5 assists, 3 turnovers). Delly was hospitalized for fatigue/cramps after game 3, and at one point checked himself out of the game. Cutting his minutes from 28 is probably wise, but the alternatives are not great. One other thing on the guards: Livingston is too big for Delly and Shumpert and has played pretty well off the bench.

The story of the Cavs in this series is their dominant front line, with James, Mozgov, and Thompson all playing incredibly well. It is striking how well the undrafted Mozgov has played compared to the former #1 pick Bogut. The problem is that they are deficient at guard and lack reliable shooters.

One other thing I noticed compared to game three was the leadership of Iguodala. In game three the Warriors were dejected and disengaged. Curry showed frustration and poor body language, not what you'd expect from the MVP. In game four, Iguodala emerged as the leader they need. He is a proven veteran, and he's 31 years old and knows that these opportunities are precious. By guarding James he can show that leadership with his play even though he's not dominant on offense.

At Friday, June 12, 2015 3:36:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's only an upset if CLE wins because GS has failed to compete as hard as CLE. CLE has competed extremely hard every game. James did so in games 1-3, much less so in game 4. If GS had just approached that same intensity, the series would be 3-1 and likely 4-0 in their favor at this point. CLE has the 2 best bigs in the series so far, and James has been the best perimeter player so far. Especially given limited rotations, CLE should be up 3-1. The biggest factor in the series so far has been Dellavedova slowing Curry, which has nothing to do with James. Curry may have woken up in the 4th in game 3, and looks to have finally gotten his act together. James has put up his usual stat-stuffer stats, and that's what his team needs. But, CLE's offense has been bad. It's their defense that has saved them so far. James's shooting has been abysmal each game. Given that he's not facing many full-out double teams, he should be shooting better. Even his FT shooting has been very suspect, and probably cost CLE game 1.

At Friday, June 12, 2015 5:15:00 PM, Blogger jackson888 said...

Thanks for your kind words, but i didn't exactly get it right. I got the Igoudala part right, but i totally got the Bogut part wrong.
I really believe that controlling the boards (the final part of the defense process) is essential to winning the game. A small ball approach will be effective for short spurts only as it is very taxing for Green and Barnes to consistently box out big active and mobile big men like Mozgov and Thompson.
You were right that JR Smith's minutes should go down and Mozgov should have played more. I would go 1 step further. With the existing personnel that coach Blatt has, and the tremendous advantage their frontline has over the control of the boards, i would have played them together as much as i can. I think the only way cavs can win is by domination of the boards.

At Sunday, June 14, 2015 12:37:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Cleveland has to stay big and play Mozgov at least 40 minutes. The Cavs cannot get into an up and down game with Golden State.

I picked the Warriors before the series and that remains the smart pick but there is a blueprint for Cleveland that could lead to victory. So, I expect Golden State to win but if Cleveland plays big and LeBron is super aggressive then I could see Cleveland taking game five on the road in a close one and then winning game six at home. I do not see Cleveland winning a seventh game at Golden State if the series lasts that long.

At Sunday, June 14, 2015 12:38:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree with you about Iguodala.

Blatt cannot give Smith so many minutes if Smith continues to be this ineffective. Blatt has to go big or at least give Marion or Miller five minutes to see what they can do. They can't be worse than Smith at this point.

At Sunday, June 14, 2015 12:40:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You did not nail it 100% but you made some good analysis and predictions.

I agree with you that the Cavs have to stay big and dominate the boards to compensate for their weaknesses.


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