Warriors Regain Homecourt Advantage with 103-82 Game Four WinGolden 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.
posted by David Friedman @ 3:14 AM