CLEVELAND — After seven minutes of Game 3 of the 2016 NBA Finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers held a 19-4 lead over the Golden State Warriors, fueled by LeBron James' attacking and Kyrie Irving's playmaking, which combined to leave the visitors stunned and stifled.
It took a while, but the Warriors eventually joined the fight, drawing within eight points at halftime, thanks largely to strong two-way play by small-ball lineups that eschewed traditional centers. The only proper Golden State five-man to see the court in the second was Marreese Speights, and he only got 12 seconds of burn, as the Dubs relied heavily on the likes of Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes, Klay Thompson, Shaun Livingston and Andre Iguodala to settle the game down and get back within hailing distance despite a ghastly first half from Stephen Curry.
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And then, the Warriors came out of intermission with their standard starting lineup — Andrew Bogut at the five, Green at the four, Barnes at the three, same as ever — and the Cavs once again incinerated it, ripping off a 19-5 run that pushed Cleveland's lead to 22 and effectively declared Game 3 over midway through the third quarter.
Those two runs — made by small(ish)-ball lineups featuring Tristan Thompson at center, LeBron James at power forward in place of the injured Kevin Love, and Richard Jefferson at small forward — accounted for nearly all of the Cavs' eventual 30-point margin of victory. By comparison, the Warriors' own small-ball lineups featuring Green at the five outscored Cleveland by one point in 17 total minutes on Wednesday, according to NBAwowy.com.
That continued the trend from the first two games of this year's Finals (and the last three games of last year's), which saw Golden State annihilate the Cavs with Draymond in the middle and tread water in everybody else's minutes:
— Green Curry (@georgezchen) June 9, 2016
Steve Kerr knows all of this. He is, after all, the man who sat down Bogut for Iguodala in Game 4 of last year's Finals, completely changing the complexion of the series, and the coach who made "The Death Lineup" a household name (well, in the homes of hoops diehards, anyway).
He knows that his best answer to the Cavaliers' adjustment of downsizing around LeBron at the four is to meet fire with fire, unleash the Death Lineup and let God sort 'em out. So why the heck didn't he do it coming out of halftime in Game 3?
Because he already knows that. And because he already had a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven Finals. And because, when you've won 87 games playing one way, you probably don't feel a pressing need to throw out Plan A after a bad half.
"Before — I don't know, when did last night end? 11:30 [p.m. ET]? So 14 hours ago? 16 hours ago? — everything was great," Kerr said before the Warriors' Thursday practice. "We were doing great, and [everyone was saying] 'Boy, what are the Cavs going to do? Are they going to get swept?' They're a great team. They win a game. Now it's [questions about] our lineup changes, and, 'Oh, my God, Steph Curry can't play well, and what's Klay going to do?'"
In the grand scheme of things, you can see Kerr's point. No, Golden State's long-established starting five hadn't been setting the world on fire through two games, with Bogut-Green-Barnes-Thompson-Curry getting outscored by seven points in 16 total minutes ... but who cares about that when you've whipped the opposition in the other 80? The Warriors had more than made up for the initial discomfort thanks to brilliant play from their reserves and from Green, who looked like the Finals MVP after Game 2 before struggling mightily against James in Game 3, finishing with just six points on 2-for-8 shooting with seven rebounds and seven assists in 36 minutes.
"[Curry and Thompson] both haven't had that 30-, 40-point burst," Bogut said Thursday. "We won two games without our two best scorers having their usual production, so we're not overly stressing. We know, for us, if we come with the right energy at the start of the game and match their crowd and everything, and just stay close over the course of the game, we can win."
The Warriors took care of business at Oracle Arena and took a 2-0 lead without either of their top guns unloading. Being down 20 in the first quarter isn't exactly how Kerr had drawn it up, of course, but with as many as four tries left to get two more wins, the Coach of the Year clearly didn't feel this was the right time to push the pedal to the metal.
"We didn't feel like we had to match what they were doing [at the start of the second half] because of their change in their starting lineup," he said after Game 3. "We can always make a quick substitution. So I don't think that had anything to do with losing the game. It wasn't lineups. It wasn't substitution patterns. We just got our tail kicked."
And since that was largely a team-wide condition on Wednesday, why shorten up the bench for a win you don't, strictly speaking, need?
"We like to play a lot of people," Kerr said Thursday. "All year, we've played 10, 11 guys a night. So we don't like to cut our rotation way down and play five guys 40 minutes. It's just not really who we are."
Yes, Kerr's the coach who — at the now-legendary suggestion of special assistant Nick U'Ren — sat Bogut in favor of Iguodala in last year's Game 4, but the circumstances were entirely different. Cleveland had already wrested home court advantage away from the Warriors in last year's Finals, grinding out Game 2 at Oracle before winning Game 3 to take a 2-1 lead. One more loss and the Warriors would have found themselves in a 3-1 hole. At that point, only nine teams in NBA history had ever come back from 3-1 down to win a playoff series — by knocking off the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference finals, these Warriors just became the 10th — and in 32 tries, no team had pulled it off in the Finals. That 3-1 hole was doom; Golden State had to do whatever it could to fight that off. Hence, the Death Lineup.
This situation didn't strike Kerr — or, from the sound of things, his players — as nearly as desperate. To a man, the Warriors on Thursday emphasized all of the things they could clean up and improve upon without making wholesale changes, a collection of generalities (more effort, more focus, more urgency, more energy) interspersed with some specifics (getting great shots rather than quick ones, more determinedly boxing out on the defensive glass, especially against the relentless Tristan Thompson, crisper passes in the half-court) that, taken together, they believe will make a bigger difference than just playing five wings.
"Bogut's done a great job for us, Festus has done a great job for us," Barnes said. "I don't think we need to necessarily shift the whole game plan right now. I think it just starts with our energy and effort."
Everyone, then, sees the same problem: the Warriors can't get smoked in the first six minutes of either half and expect to have a puncher's chance in the last six minutes. (Especially if the struggling Curry can't find a way to break out and start scoring in bunches.) And everyone knows there's one surefire likely solution. But as Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News notes, Kerr doesn't like relying on that one trump-card answer "until he really has to," for fear of asking Green and Barnes to hit the nitrous oxide boosters too soon and leaving them out of gas before the finish line.
"When we do go smaller, we generally do it in short bursts to change the pace up and change the look, and that can vary from game to game, from series to series," Kerr said. "It's not easy to play small for huge chunks of the game."
If Tyronn Lue elects to keep Jefferson in the starting lineup, no matter what Love's status, and ride his first five for the bulk of the proceedings in a desperate bid to get level, Kerr might find himself with no choice but to assume that risk. If things do break that way, sending Bogut and the rest of the centers back to the bench, bringing Iguodala back into the fray, and leaving Green and Barnes in line for monster minutes and a massive workload, Kerr's confident his group of "big boys" will respond appropriately.
"You know, they get paid a lot of money not only to play, but sometimes to sit," he said. "You have to accept whatever comes your way as a player, especially in the playoffs, when everything is more easily changed because of matchups or lineups or whatever. So that doesn't concern me. We've done that. We have a very mature group, and if we were to make any changes, I wouldn't worry about hurting any feelings."
For now, though, Kerr does have a choice ... and it sounds like he's planning to choose to stay the course and stick with what's made his team the winningest single-season club in NBA history.
"When you go through the playoffs, you understand this is all part of it," he said Thursday. "And as a player, you have to feel that. Our guys felt it last year. Steph had a couple of rough patches in the playoffs. We made some lineup changes. Klay maybe didn't have his best series in the Finals last year. Who cares? It's a team game. We get out there, we compete, different guys step up and have big games, other guys may not shoot the ball as well, but we all compete and we all play our asses off. And whatever happens, happens.
"But all this stuff about, 'Oh, my God, what are we going to do?' All we have to do is take stock. We're up 2-1. We're in pretty good shape. We haven't played that well. Let's play better."
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