OAKLAND, Calif. — The 2015 NBA Finals continue to confound and delight in equal measure. After the Golden State Warriors tied up the series with a convincing Game 4 win by essentially eschewing traditional big men, the Cleveland Cavaliers countered with the same types of lineups and surprisingly played the favorites relatively even before falling late in an eventual 104-91 Warriors win on Sunday night at Oracle Arena.
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Yet this was not the typical smallball stereotype in which guards and wings dashed from end to end in pursuit of easy buckets. With LeBron James and the Cavaliers continuing to grind out possessions, the Warriors had to match that intensity without going away from their strengths as a ball-sharing offensive unit.
Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green deserve a great deal of the credit for that success. While both players have stood out throughout this season as the clearest examples of Golden State's elite, perhaps unprecedented, defensive versatility, they have taken on added importance in the Finals due to Cleveland's approach. The duo now has the Warriors on the brink of their first championship in 40 years despite MVP Stephen Curry having played to his top level only intermittently.
Much of that edge comes from Green, the Defensive Player of the Year runner-up who struggled mightily over the first three games of the series. The outspoken Green did not hide that he was dissatisfied with his play following Game 3, and he has certainly responded to his own challenge with averages of 16.5 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 6.0 assists in Games 4 and 5. Beyond the stats, though, Green has brought a fight that the Warriors often appeared to lack to start this series. The effects have been felt throughout the roster.
"Part of my role is to bring that fight to the game, bring that toughness, and I wasn't doing it," he said Sunday. "So i couldn't necessarily blame them for not bringing it. But at the same time I knew we all needed to bring it. So I needed to be heard."
That renewed passion and focus has typified these past two wins. Although LeBron James remains the dominant figure in the series and the Cavaliers keep performing above their apparent talent level, the Warriors have executed with confidence that their style and schematic advantages will carry the day. With Green playing center, nearly every Warriors lineup features five players capable of making plays and creating shots. They are very much at home in that identity.
"I love the chemistry I have with this guy right next to me [Green] to be able to make those plays," Curry said. "Because if he's not a threat, then they can kind of go all out and sell out on the traps."
Green excelled in that role in Game 5, taking advantage of Timofey Mozgov's marginalization to attack the rim with LeBron and Tristan Thompson acting as primary rim protectors. Even if the Warriors passed up several three-pointers they would usually take, they rarely hesitated to take advantage of driving lanes. Not all of those forays to the rim were successful — credit to the Cavs for a fine effort — but the mere fact that they created the opportunities points to a shift in how the Warriors have considered the challenge in front of them.
That's not to say that Green is any happier with his play.
"Yes, I am still angry [laughing]. I'm an angry person [laughing]."
Iguodala has had few reasons to stew about his play vs. the Cavaliers over these first five games. The 31-year-old veteran, moved to the bench at the start of this season to make way for Harrison Barnes in the starting lineup, has unexpectedly been Golden State's most consistent player of the Finals and the team's best choice for series MVP with one win left to go. Some fans even began an "M-V-P" chant when Iguodala went to the line late in Game 5.
"When I hear MVP I'm thinking they're talking about Steph," he said.
Those chants were warranted because Iguodala has gone from very important reserve to one of the essential players in this series. Steve Kerr and the coaching staff's decision to go small for Game 4 has been analyzed largely via what it did for the Warriors' offense, and Iguodala has been a major positive on that end. His 14 points and seven assists (with no turnovers) compounded Cleveland's difficulty in defending five men at a time. As with Green, every move had the potential to open up a new option for a team with five capable passers.
Yet Golden State's smallball also simplified its options for guarding LeBron James by putting its most experienced and intellectual defender on the floor for more than 40 minutes a night. While the (accurately) self-described "best player in the world" has played well enough to inspire realistic debates about the possibility of taking Finals MVP in a losing effort, Iguodala has helped to exacerbate the effects of LeBron's unprecedented workload by making him push his limits on every possession. That job can take just as much out of the defender.
"The mental challenge is you're not going to give up no matter what," Iguodala said. "You might feel some fatigue. I felt like there were some moments when he got the best of me on a low block, made some tough shots. But mentally you've got to say you're going to get a stop every opportunity you get and you've got to keep just grinding out."
It's tough to say that Iguodala pushed around a player who put up 40 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists with only two turnovers on Sunday, but James appeared to lose steam late for the second straight game. LeBron has accepted the fact that he needs to play as much as possible for the Cavs to have any chance in this series, but that requirement can catch up to him late in games. The Warriors, for their part, are willing to fight a war of attrition.
"He's been there for years now, so you're not going to shut him down," said Green, an occasional primary defender on James when Iguodala sat and regular help defender otherwise. "But if you continue to make him work hard for each and every bucket that he gets, it takes a toll on his body."
If Cleveland made this series competitive by grinding out every single possession, then Golden State has reestablished its status as the NBA's best team by applying that same logic to the full 48 minutes. Although the rotation has shrunk to eight players (including one traditional power forward and no centers), the Warriors have successfully pushed LeBron and the Cavaliers past their limits if only because they feature several playmakers and can force simultaneous adjustments from the opposition. They knew they held the advantage in depth and versatility heading into this series, but there's a difference between owning a strength and actually employing it. The Warriors, largely through Green and Iguodala, have found a way to reverse the terms of this series and put the Cavs in the most uncomfortable situations.
Those who have watched Golden State throughout this season or postseason know that this manner of winning is not new, or even especially undercovered. (For example, Green stars in a national headphones commercial and is about to receive a max-level contract that will shock absolutely no one.) For that matter, the Warriors' smallball lineups have been a regular source of discussion in these playoffs, particularly in their very similar conference semifinals series with the Memphis Grizzlies.
Yet the circumstances of the Finals have placed Green and Iguodala on center stage and turned them into two of the Warriors' three most important players with no real room for debate. With Curry often struggling to get free for decent shots and the Cavs having forced Steve Kerr to extreme lineups, these two highly versatile offensive fulcrums and defensive stalwarts have allowed the Warriors to maintain their capacity for finesse without sacrificing the ability to match the rugged style of their otherwise overmatched opponents. It's a change of pace for a franchise that has historically been known as a run-and-gun outfit on the rare occasions when it's been part of the national basketball conversation.
"Even when I played against [Curry] in the playoffs when I was in Denver there was talk of let's get into him, let's hit him and see how he responds to being physical," Iguodala said. "So I think he's seen it a lot throughout his career. We've seen it this year a lot, even in the regular season. So we know how to adjust, stay physical, but not let it take us away from who we really are."
The Warriors, acknowledged as a great team on many occasions this season, now stand one victory from a title in large part because they understand how to excel in several styles at once. Green and Iguodala aren't only comfortable in that mode — they often define it.
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