When the Golden State Warriors went small in Game 4 of the 2015 NBA Finals, removing Andrew Bogut from the starting lineup in favor of Andre Iguodala, David Blatt faced a decision. Would he also downsize, moving away from the two-big look that's been so successful for the Cleveland Cavaliers throughout the playoffs in an attempt to match Golden State's quickness and versatility? Or would he respond to Steve Kerr's attempt to engineer mismatches by resolving to exploit his own, doubling down on Cleveland's commitment to slowing the pace and hammering the Warriors inside?
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Blatt stayed big in Game 4, and Mozgov went to town, scoring a career-high 28 points and grabbing 10 rebounds in 33 1/2 minutes. Cleveland lost by 21 points, though, as the Warriors pulled Mozgov, now guarding Iguodala, away from the rim more often, creating cleaner driving lanes and more playmaking space on the interior.
Blatt hedged Saturday when asked how much he'd adjust to the Warriors' small-ball: "We've got to continue to do certain things really well. What we need to change, we will." LeBron James said the Cavs would "make adjustments throughout the game, but we won't change our starting lineup."
That was true. Mozgov jumped tip in Sunday's Game 5 against Golden State "center" Draymond Green. The adjustment came fast, though, as a game-opening 8-2 Warriors run prompted Blatt to pull Mozgov in favor of swingman J.R. Smith.
The downshifting, offense-juicing move worked until it didn't, but the terms of engagement had been set. Kerr gave Festus Ezeli three minutes, gave mid-series reclamation project David Lee nine, and didn't play season-long starter Bogut at all, with wings Shaun Livingston and Leandro Barbosa rounding out a seven-man rotation. Blatt, meanwhile, gave Tristan Thompson, a more capable and quick-footed defender in space than Mozgov, the lion's share of Cleveland's center minutes and leaned on Smith, James Jones and little-used Mike Miller in the 6-foot-8-and-under run of play, limiting Mozgov to just over nine minutes.
"Well, I felt we needed to respond to the last game," Blatt said afer the game. "I thought for the most part our guys did it well and handled it well. Without question, we were in that game."
Golden State won the small-ball battle, surviving another monster LeBron game (40 points, 14 rebounds, 11 assists, just two turnovers in 45 minutes) to notch a 104-91 win, taking a 3-2 lead behind the brilliance of Stephen Curry and timely contributions from the likes of Iguodala and Draymond Green, among others, to move within one victory of the franchise's first championship in 40 years.
The nine-minute, 19-second outing marked Mozgov's lowest minute total of the season. Blatt's decision to park Mozgov on the pine after arguably the best game of his NBA career — especially with Cleveland so short on viable contributors following season-ending injuries to Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and Anderson Varejao — prompted some tough questions during his post-game presser.
The first question he faced: "Today Timofey Mozgov only played nine minutes, had zero points. What made you match Golden State's small lineup during this game?"
"The way we needed to play tonight to give ourselves a chance to win," Blatt replied.
That stock answer to a strategic question didn't satisfy a number of reporters — primarily members of the foreign press who've been chronicling the NBA journey of the decorated international coach, according to Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal. They stayed on Blatt about his choice.
Things got testy.
Q. You talked about how you needed more rebounding today. And not to go back to the Mozgov question, but last game he had 28 points, 10 rebounds, seemed very effective against Golden State's small lineup. Today, limited [to] 10 minutes. Could you explain what your philosophy was there?
COACH BLATT: Well, we were in the game the way we were playing. We were right there. So that's the way that we played it. [...]
Q. Steve Kerr just told us this is not a series for big guys. And going again to the Timofey Mozgov thing, are you going to stay playing not big basketball, or after the circumstances and the result of the game, are you trying to do something different? Because it didn't pay much result tonight, if you think?
COACH BLATT: And how did it do the game before?
Q. He was the best scorer, but you didn't use him tonight.
COACH BLATT: What was the score of the game?
Q. You guys lost the game again.
COACH BLATT: Yeah, by more.
Q. Can you explain why you didn't use him? 28 points last game, and no points tonight?
COACH BLATT: I thought I was pretty clear I thought that was our best chance to win the game, and we were definitely in the game with a chance to win. So that's the way we played it. So I thought I was pretty clear with that.
Blatt then received a third straight question about Mozgov, pitched from the perspective that, after losing Irving, Love and Varejao, Blatt had essentially "lost" Mozgov by sacrificing him in an attempt to match up.
"I don't think we've lost him by any means, first of all," Blatt quickly responded. "I think that's inaccurate. Did I make a mistake? Listen, when you're coaching a game, you've got to make decisions. I felt that the best chance for us to stay in the game and to have a chance to win was to play it the way that we played it. It's no disrespect to anyone — certainly not to Timo, who has done a great job for us. That's just the way that we played it tonight, and Timo will be back, and he will not lose his way or lose his head just because he didn't play a lot tonight."
Oddly, the repeated Mozgov questions might not even have been the most awkward inquiry Blatt faced:
Q. Is there any reason other than a professional one for you not using Shawn Marion?
COACH BLATT: No, of course not. Only professional. What would even give you the —
Q. Because it seemed to us that you could have used those five, six more minutes of rest at the end.
COACH BLATT: That's something different. You should have said it seems to me that you could have done that, and then I could have responded differently to you. But absolutely only on a professional basis. Shawn's a tremendous guy and a terrific player. That's just a professional decision. That's all.
After Game 4, ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst reported that Marion — a 37-year veteran who plans to retire after the season, has seen just 25 minutes of playing time in the playoffs and had not gotten off the bench in the Finals — was "itching to get a chance." He did not play in Game 5.
You can understand the post-game grilling, given the current state of the Cavs' roster. The peerless LeBron is the only dude in wine-and-gold boasting better on-court/off-court numbers than Mozgov in this series; the Cavs have been outscored by 2.1 points per 100 possessions with Mozgov on the floor, but by a whopping 21.1 points-per-100 with him off it. He proved capable of punishing smaller defenders in Game 4. He's been smart about cutting off the ball on the weak side away from LeBron's post-ups, and effective rolling to the basket in the screen game.
The Cavs' biggest, and really only, non-LeBron advantage in this series — their ability to dominate the boards — has evaporated with Mozgov on the bench. Cleveland has gone from hauling in 56 percent of all misses in Mozgov's Finals minutes, a rebounding rate that would have led the NBA during the regular season, to pulling down just 43.9 percent of available rebounds when he's sat, which would've slotted into a sub-basement deep below the league's worst glass-cleaning numbers.
That drop-off was abundantly clear over the final five minutes of Game 5. The Warriors outrebounded the Cavs 10-5 down the stretch, with Green and Harrison Barnes controlling the glass, extending Warriors possessions and limiting the Cavs' chances to stem the tide of a Curry-led 19-7 game-closing run.
LeBron refused to attribute Cleveland's late-game rebounding woes to Mozgov's absence.
"No, I mean, at the end of the day, no matter who is on the floor, we have to come up with that rebound," he said. "That's what it is. We just have to come up with the rebound no matter if Double T or Mozzy are not in the game. We've got to come up with those rebounds."
Yes, it would've been nice to have Mozgov on the floor to grab those late boards. (Provided, of course, he was actually near the basket rather than tracking a Warrior 20 feet away from the basket, or chasing behind plays in transition, as he was when Golden State cranked up the pace early.) It's reasonable to argue that adjusting away from what you do best to counter what your opponent does best might not be an optimal strategy.
Despite all that, though, Cleveland trailed by just two points with 4 1/2 minutes left. It was a two-possession game with 3:20 remaining. Staying small against the Warriors seems suicidal, especially with Cleveland's current wings, but with LeBron authoring another brilliant performance and Thompson continuing to work his tail off in the paint, the Cavs were right there.
And then Curry went nuts ...
... and that was all she wrote.
"Not a lot you can do, honestly," Blatt said of Curry, who scored 17 of his team-high 37 points in the fourth quarter, and 12 in the final 4 1/2 minutes. "He made some terrific shots. Now, there were a few that we made mistakes and we went under or we didn't stay connected, and that's on us. But there are a few that he made, more than a few, that were extremely difficult shots — high, high‑level shots by a high‑level player. Sometimes you've got to take your hat off to the other guy."
Then again, as Kerr saw it, Curry's Game 5 explosion came thanks in part to Blatt removing Mozgov.
"It was a different game, you know, because they decided to go smaller, and so the floor was more open," he said. "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.'"
Stay big and risk being unable to match all of Golden State's shooting, passing, speed and versatility for the second straight game. Go small and risk being unable to protect the paint and clear the glass while also giving Steph the room he needs to tear you apart. Against these Warriors, you're damned if you do and damned if you don't; they force you to make uncomfortable choices and, when your calls don't pan out, they leave you facing uncomfortable questions.
Video via Dan Feldman of ProBasketballTalk.
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