After Game 3 of the 2015 NBA Finals, Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said he didn't anticipate changing his starting lineup, despite that unit's struggles against the Cleveland Cavaliers throughout the first three games of this series.
Before Game 4, Kerr reiterated that message to the media assembled at Quicken Loans Arena, saying that he wouldn't bench center Andrew Bogut, who has struggled at times with the size of opposing center Timofey Mozgov and had chipped in just 3.3 points (albeit alongside 7.7 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.7 blocks) in 23.6 minutes per game through Game 3.
"No, we're going to start the same way," Kerr said.
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Just before tipoff of Thursday's Game 4, Kerr decided to shuffle his starting lineup, sending the 7-foot Bogut to the bench and inserting small forward Andre Iguodala — arguably Golden State's best player thus far in this series — into the mix.
The tactical shift meant the Warriors opened the game small, with power forward Draymond Green bumping up to center, Harrison Barnes sliding up to power forward and Iguodala slotting in at the three alongside the All-Star backcourt of Klay Thompson and MVP Stephen Curry. As NBA.com's John Schuhmann notes, the small-ball lineup had been successful for Golden State, outscoring opponents by 18 points in 62 total minutes this postseason and topping the Cavaliers by eight points in 20 minutes to that point in the Finals.
With the Cavaliers grinding the Warriors down over the course of the last three games by dragging out possessions and running endless LeBron James isolations, Golden State has frequently found itself unable to push the tempo, generate clean driving lanes at the basket, and find the sort of offensive flow that propelled them to the No. 2 spot in points scored per possession throughout the regular season.
The move to go small from the opening tip seemed aimed at forcing Cleveland head coach David Blatt to make a choice. If the Warriors would spread the floor with shooters (theoretically, anyway; new-look center Green entered Game 4 just 1 for 8 from 3-point land in this series) and put Mozgov in pick-and-rolls over and over again, intent on taking him out of his comfort zone and opening up lanes to the basket, would the Cavs keep him out there for rebounding and paint patrolling? Or would they go small, too, and take their best rim protector out of the game?
The move also looked like an attempt to unlock Barnes, who had struggled to find his stroke in this series (he was scoreless on 0-for-8 shooting in Game 3) while also getting battered and bruised in the matchup with James on the other end. Getting the former UNC standout on track and back into a productive offensive mode while matched up on someone other than LeBron would profile as a major win for Golden State, which has struggled to generate offense with Cleveland clamping down on Curry and Thompson.
For a second there, it looked like the move would blow up in Kerr's face. Cleveland came out of the gate blazing, with the more conventional two-big Cavs outrebounding the downsized Dubs 5-1 through the first two minutes and nine seconds and leaping out to a 7-0 lead to force a Warriors timeout.
But Kerr calmed his team down, stayed the course with his small-ball lineup out of the stoppage ... and watched his charges go on to unleash hell.
The Warriors stomped the Cavaliers out on Thursday, 103-82. Once again, Iguodala was brilliant, tying Curry for the team scoring lead with 22 points on 8-for-15 shooting, including a 4-for-9 mark from 3-point land, to go with eight rebounds and a steal in 39-plus minutes of work. Freed from the sole game-starting responsibility on James and allowed to find his place in a more uptempo, passing-heavy attack, Barnes got going with 14 points on 4-for-9 shooting, with eight rebounds and a pair of blocks in 33 minutes. Green looked like the fire of old, scoring 17 points on 6-for-11 shooting, pulling down seven rebounds, rediscovering his passing touch to the tune of six assists, while also snagging two steals and blocking a shot in 32 minutes.
Golden State didn't just start small; it stayed small. Bogut logged just two minutes and 46 seconds of playing time. (He made them count, committing three fouls, including a doozy on James.) Backup center Festus Ezeli didn't play at all. Instead, Kerr leaned on Game 3 reclamation project David Lee (nine points, five rebounds, three assists in 15 1/2 minutes) and versatile guard Shaun Livingston (seven points, eight rebounds, four assists, a steal and a block in 24 1/2 minutes) as his primary reserves off the bench, going with a seven-man rotation chock full of passing, cutting, shooting and length.
The new-look starting five itself didn't overwhelm Cleveland; Green-Barnes-Iguodala-Thompson-Curry actually got outscored by a point in its 14 minutes of floor time, according to NBA.com's lineup data. But the commitment to staying small, to putting more shooting and passing on the floor, and to both push the tempo as often as possible and generate more fluid half-court sets paid major dividends.
"We found something we liked in our pick-and-roll sets [in Game 3] and we just wanted to speed up the pace a little bit," Iguodala told ABC's Doris Burke after the game. "The games we lost, throughout the whole series, we hadn't been able to get the numbers we wanted and hadn't been able to put up the points. We said, 'Hey, let's throw a little wrinkle in and see how it works,' and it worked for us tonight."
It most certainly did, and as a result, the Warriors have regained home-court advantage ahead of Sunday's Game 5, turning the Finals into a best-of-three with two of the prospective tilts slated to come at Oracle Arena in Oakland.
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