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Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Why the Warriors Won the NBA Championship

It is fun to watch Golden State but it will not be much fun to listen to all of the nonsense and revisionist history that will likely be spewed in the wake of the Warriors' 4-2 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2015 NBA Finals.

My newest article at The Roar explains that Golden State's triumph is in no way a vindication of the style of play employed by Mike D'Antoni's Phoenix Suns:

Why the Warriors Won the NBA Championship

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:20 PM

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Iggy Does It: Andre Iguodala Wins Finals MVP as Golden State Claims First Title Since 1975

Usually, a player whose man nearly averages a triple double in the NBA Finals does not win the Finals MVP but the 2015 NBA Finals were unusual in many respects. Andre Iguodala, a 2012 All-Star who did not start a single regular season game for the 67-15 Golden State Warriors, won the 2015 NBA Finals MVP after Golden State defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers 105-97 in game six to clinch a 4-2 series victory. Iguodala finished with 25 points (tied with Stephen Curry for team-high honors), five rebounds and five assists. Iguodala averaged 16.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg and 4.0 apg for the series and he was the primary defender on LeBron James, who stuffed the box score en route to suffering his fourth defeat in six trips to the NBA Finals.

Iguodala's career arc is interesting and it illustrates what it takes to become an NBA champion. He is good enough to start for just about every team in the NBA. He is good enough to start for the Warriors, for that matter--but Iguodala understood that the Warriors would function best if he came off of the bench and he embraced that role, an unselfish and wise decision in a league where many players would rather be the number one option and never win a championship than sacrifice some of their statistics and glory in favor of the greater good. Manu Ginobili made a decision similar to Iguodala's and was rewarded with four championships. On the other hand, Stephon Marbury could have played his whole career alongside Kevin Garnett but Marbury did not want to be the second option--and, more recently, James Harden could have continued to be the sixth man for a powerful Oklahoma City team but he chose to seek more money and more glory. No one would expect LeBron James or Kevin Durant to take a back seat to anyone but if you are not one of the very best players in the NBA and you want to win a championship then it makes sense to put the team's needs before your desire to receive individual accolades.

Iguodala's Finals MVP award will surely generate some controversy. Curry, the 2015 regular season MVP, put up MVP caliber numbers in the Finals as well, leading the Warriors with 26.0 ppg while averaging 6.2 apg and 5.2 rpg. He poured in 37 points--including 17 in the fourth quarter--to lead Golden State to a 104-91 victory in game five but neither that signature moment nor his overall productivity were enough to move the media voters off of the small-ball storyline that gathered steam after Golden State Coach Steve Kerr benched starting center Andrew Bogut for game four and moved Iguodala into the starting five. Going small helped the Warriors open up the court and increase the tempo but the most important effect is that Kerr's move prompted Cleveland Coach David Blatt to counter with his own move: limiting starting center Timofey Mozgov to just nine minutes in game five after Mozgov had 28 points in game four. The Cavaliers were underdogs no matter what Blatt did but the rash decision to bench Mozgov hurt the team's chances to pull off the upset; when Cleveland took a 2-1 series lead, the Cavaliers' main weapons were LeBron James doing everything and Mozgov controlling the paint at both ends of the court. Playing Mozgov for 40 minutes per game the rest of the way in the Finals may not have been a winning strategy for Cleveland but limiting Mozgov's minutes in order to give playing time to James Jones and Mike Miller was definitely a losing strategy.

Klay Thompson, the other half of Golden State's All-Star backcourt duo known as the "Splash Brothers," had a quiet game six (5 points on 2-7 field goal shooting) but Draymond Green picked up the slack with 16 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists.

LeBron James put up monster numbers in the series and probably received serious consideration for Finals MVP honors even in defeat. He averaged 35.8 ppg, 13.3 rpg and 8.8 apg and he had two triple doubles but he also shot just .398 from the field and .687 from the free throw line. James is the first player in NBA Finals history to lead both teams in total points, total rebounds and total assists--but pro basketball history aficionados know that in the 1976 ABA Finals, Julius Erving led both teams in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocked shots as his New York Nets defeated the star-studded Denver Nuggets to win the league's final championship. Erving shot .590 from the field while averaging 42.8 mpg during that series and no one--least of all Erving--spoke about Erving being fatigued. Ever since the infamous "Decision" fiasco, James has usually said the right things to the media but he may have taken a step back in the 2015 Finals as in one breath he called himself the "best player in the world" but he also complainied about being fatigued. Most basketball observers understand that James is indeed the best player but if James is going to make bold public declarations about himself then he opens himself up to questions such as "If you are the best player, why are you so much more tired than the other great players who are logging heavy minutes in this series and the other great players who logged heavy minutes in previous NBA Finals?" Games five and six were winnable for the Cavaliers down the stretch if he had been more productive in the fourth quarter.

J.R. Smith scored 19 points in 34 minutes in game six but many of those buckets came late in the fourth quarter when the Cavaliers cut the Golden State lead to four before the Warriors closed out the series by making some free throws.

Turnovers killed Cleveland in game six as much as anything else. The Cavaliers committed 16 turnovers that led to 25 Golden State points, wiping out Cleveland's huge advantages in rebounding (56-39) and free throws attempted (39-29).

How would this series have been different if Cleveland's injured stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love had been available? That question cannot be answered with certainty but Cleveland's management has some very interesting personnel decisions to make soon and those decisions will be based in no small part on their expectations for Irving and Love moving forward.

Today, though, the story is about Golden State. Steve Kerr took over an improving, good team and helped transform it into a great, championship team. Along the way, Stephen Curry emerged as an elite player, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green carved out nice complementary niches, former All-Stars Andre Iguodala and David Lee sublimated their egos to come off of the bench and Shaun Livingston's comeback from a devastating knee injury culminated in his becoming a solid contributor on the league's best team.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:00 AM

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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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Sunday, June 14, 2015

Adjustments for Cleveland Heading Into Game Five

Basketball is a game of matchups and adjustments but sometimes the best adjustment is no adjustment at all. The favored 67-15 Golden State Warriors had to do something after falling behind 2-1 to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals because it was clear that the slow down style of play that predominated in the first three games favored Cleveland. Golden State Coach Steve Kerr elected to try to speed up the tempo by going with a small lineup, replacing starting center Andrew Bogut with Andre Iguodala. The Cavaliers promptly took a 7-0 lead in game four by taking advantage of their size inside but the Warriors took control after the Cavaliers went small to match up with Golden State's small lineup; Golden State won 103-82 to even up the series.

In my newest article at The Roar, I explain why Cleveland's best adjustment now is no adjustment at all, but rather sticking with the team's strengths and forcing the Warriors to match up with them or get pounded in the paint:

Cleveland Needs LeBron--and Timofey Mozgov's Height--to Win the Title

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:23 PM

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