It might be possible that the Cleveland Cavaliers have cracked, and you couldn’t blame them for that. It also might be possible that the Golden State Warriors have broken through.
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Some combination of the two likely led to a desperately needed Warriors win in Game 4 on Thursday. Golden State used an inspired starting lineup change to blow out the Cavs 103-82 and tie the 2015 NBA Finals up at 2-2. The Warriors will have a chance to take a commanding 3-2 series lead in Game 5 on Sunday, and former supersub Andre Iguodala is the biggest reason why.
Iguodala, who didn’t start a game all season until his team’s 101st game on Thursday, replaced Andrew Bogut in the starting lineup and completely outplayed a game-but-ultimately-ineffective (to his usual standards, at least) LeBron James. Dre finished his night with 22 points on 8-for-15 shooting with eight rebounds. He played excellent defense, and turned the ball over only once despite handling the rock nearly as much (if not more) than Warriors point man Stephen Curry.
Iguodala, somehow, ended his night without any assists despite leading several fruitful fast breaks. James finished Game 4 with 20 points on 22 shots, eight assists, 12 rebounds and zero fourth-quarter points. This appears to be a pattern:
LeBron James points in the fourth quarter.2011 Finals Game 4: 02014 Finals Game 4: 02015 Finals Game 4: 0
— Tom Haberstroh (@tomhaberstroh) June 12, 2015
Thursday night wasn’t about the game’s best player running with a skinflint supporting cast as he attempts to work through the most grueling half-decade in NBA history. Thursday night was about the brazen choice the W’s made in what wasn’t exactly an immediate lineup switch payoff.
All the hallmarks of GSW’s previous NBA Finals struggles were in place early in the first quarter. There was over-passing, with Iguodala and Draymond Green both declining to take advantage of good looks, all while Cleveland seemed to get any high-percentage chance it wanted on the other end. The Bogut-less experiment wasn’t exactly a success to start, as even the element of surprise led only to a 22-20 Golden State lead when David Lee subbed in for Green with four minutes to go in the first quarter.
In a series that has seen the Warriors struggle terribly to put points on the board in the first, however, the spark was enough. Golden State went on a 9-2 run to finish the quarter, and Steve Kerr looked like a genius as the W’s went on to build a 14-point first half lead.
He also, admittedly, looked like a damn liar:
Kerr also admitted that he had a few second thoughts after Cleveland raced out to a 7-0 lead, but in their fourth game in a week the Cavs seemed due to break down. Especially after a furious first half that saw them rushing around with the intensity and panache of a team down 3-0 in the Finals, as opposed to the 2-1 mark it entered Game 4 with.
The squad couldn’t sustain things, though. Golden State began to grow comfortable with its looks, with Harrison Barnes (who had missed nine consecutive shots dating back to Game 3, including his first clang of Game 4) hitting for 14 points and nine rebounds, contributing to the parade of defenders who sidled up well behind James’ back. The Cavs just could not slow the pace and mind the roll that led to its previous two wins.
That isn’t to say that a charge wasn’t made. Behind James’ passing and the growing confidence (not to mention his superior hops and touch) of center Timofey Mozgov (28 points and 10 rebounds), Cleveland came back to turn Game 4 into a one-possession game with under a minute left in the third quarter. A 9-0 Warriors run, led by Iguodala and the slow-to-reveal derring-do of Stephen Curry, helped give GSW a double-digit advantage early in the fourth quarter. The Cavs immediately relented.
You couldn’t blame them.
Both James and storyline hound Matthew Dellavedova were treated for clearly debilitating cramps, all while Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith couldn’t cash in on several fantastic looks as the final period got away from the Cavaliers. Cleveland managed just 12 points in the fourth quarter after a 28-point third quarter, with Shumpert (2 of 9 from the field on the game) and J.R. Smith (2 of 12) clanging away. Dellavedova also missed 11-of-14 shots in the loss.
The Cavs were dragging, and with Iguodala working with an extra gear that his teammates didn’t even seem to possess, it really wasn’t fair. With less than five minutes to go in regulation, he even managed to strip LeBron 30 feet from the hoop, as a wearied James attempted to line up a play.
Following the game, Kerr (ever the mensch) declined to credit his lineup switch for the win, pointing out that his team’s activity and insistence on valuing each possession while still managing to play in the pell-mell style that marked the team’s 67-win regular season was the difference. Tellingly, Kerr did credit sitting Iguodala out for several games in the regular season for keeping him fresh and ready to work expertly on both ends this deep into June. It’s a different, more active game these days. And coaches have to be aware of as much.
This isn’t to discredit Cavaliers coach David Blatt for his use of any of his players during the regular season, minutes-wise. Blatt had no idea in October, as he fielded James, Anderson Varejao, Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters as starters, that he’d be working with a lineup like this in the second week in June. The Cavaliers gave James a needed two weeks off as 2014 turned into 2015, prior to making a series of fantastic trades for Mozgov, Shumpert and Smith, and as a result the Cavaliers turned in a dominant final half of the season.
Working without three former starters (even if Mozgov and Shumpert are improvements upon their predecessors) and asking James to play 47.3 minutes per game over the first three contests of these Finals were bound to catch up to Cleveland. James sat just a combined 12 minutes over the first three games in this series, and considering his workload (and his Karl Malone-meets-Magic Johnson-meets-Michael Jordan) physique, he seemed due for an understandable step back. LeBron missed 5-of-10 free throws and 3-of-4 3-pointers in the loss, usually the most telling signs that the legs have decided that they need a nap.
Of course, James gets to nap for all of Friday, Saturday and most of Sunday before Game 5 in Oakland. He appears to be fine, as anyone with a massive head wound could possibly be (following his second-quarter tumble into a cameraman’s lens) and he’ll be working against a Golden State group that is full of notoriously slow-starters. Even if the Warriors have lost just four times at home this season in 51 tries.
One of those losses came against these Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 2, and it’s the reason the Cavaliers will live to play a Game 6. Whether or not they’ll have the legs to stay competitive in a Game 5 remains to be seen. Sometimes even an extra day off hardly matters.
And sometimes, a little lie in the face of a Twitter-mad media can save a season.
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