Previously, on "The Warriors vs. The Cavaliers" ...
Heading into Game 4, the Cleveland Cavaliers were like:
After, though, they were like:
Your mood can change pretty quickly when the Golden State Warriors get locked in.
After spending the lion's share of the first three games of the 2015 NBA Finals watching their high-octane offense get dragged down by the deliberate, isolation-heavy approach of the LeBron James-led Cavs, the Warriors finally got free. The Dubs built on the offensive success they found in the 36-point fourth quarter of Game 3, handing Cleveland a 21-point Game 4 blowout behind an efficient, effective game from Stephen Curry (22 points on 8-for-17 shooting, 4-for-7 from 3-point land, six assists) to even the series at 2-2.
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Seeking a change in the terms of engagement, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr took a suggestion from 28-year-old special assistant Nick U'Ren and shuffled his starting lineup, moving struggling center Andrew Bogut to the bench in favor of soaring swingman Andre Iguodala. Draymond Green bumped up to Bogut's center slot, Harrison Barnes slid up to replace Green at power forward, and Iguodala stepped in at small forward to match up with James.
The small-ball shift left Golden State vulnerable on the boards. The bigger and burlier Cavs, led by Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson, grabbed 16 offensive rebounds and scored 20 second-chance points. But it also put the Warriors back in position to reclaim the aggressive, attacking form that helped propel them to 67 wins this season.
Removing Bogut's big body from the interior — and the resultant cross-match, which often saw Mozgov guard Iguodala, who's no knockdown shooter, but does pose a greater perimeter threat than the Aussie — gave Golden State more space to attack. The shock to the system shook some struggling Warriors out of the doldrums, as the previously punchless Green rediscovered his scoring and playmaking touch (17 points on 6-for-11 shooting, seven rebounds, six assists) and Barnes bounced back from his scoreless Game 3 (14 points on 4-for-9 shooting, eight rebounds, two blocks).
Iguodala again gave the Warriors exactly what they needed. The 11-year vetera scored a season-high 22 points, drilled four of his nine 3-point attempts and pulled down eight rebounds. He looked for every chance to find early scoring opportunities before Cleveland could set its defense — including determinedly pushing the ball up the floor after a couple of Cavaliers baskets — and made LeBron work for his points.
With James' production curtailed from "historically insane" to merely "All-Star-level" and Cleveland's perimeter players unable to fill the void, the Warriors kept the Cavs' offense in check. Cleveland couldn't do the same, allowing Golden State to shoot 12-for-30 from deep and turn the Finals into a best-of-three.
Three Things to Look For in Game 5
Will the Warriors stay small?
Look a bit deeper, and you'll see that the lineup change by itself didn't necessarily seal Cleveland's fate.
As well as Iguodala played, and as much better as Barnes and Green looked offensively, the Warriors' new starters got outscored by a point in 14 minutes of floor time. As much as it seemed like the small-ball Dubs cranked up the pace, Game 4 actually featured fewer possessions (91.6) than the series' first three games had averaged (93.74 possessions per 48 minutes) and Golden State still managed just 11 fast-break points, a tick below their average through three Finals games (11.7 per game) and well below their league-leading regular-season (20.9) and pre-Finals-postseason (21.6) marks.
Starting small didn't mean Golden State spent the entire game with its foot on the gas pedal, which is word to Bay Area notable Sage the Gemini. But staying small — Bogut played just three minutes and Festus Ezeli didn't play at all, while valuable Swiss army knife Shaun Livingston (seven points, eight rebounds, four assists, one steal, one block, a team-high +25) and Game 3 silver lining David Lee (nine points, five rebounds, three assists) got extended run — did mean that the Warriors had multifaceted threats at just about every position at nearly all times. When everybody can screen, drive, pass and hit an open jumper, and you don't know who'll do what next, it can stretch an opponent past its breaking point.
The Warriors' most effective five-man units in this series have all run small. The Lee-Curry-Iguodala-Klay Thompson-Leandro Barbosa group got Golden State back into Game 3 with a big fourth-quarter run. The Green-Iguodala-Livingston-Thompson-Curry group torched Cleveland by 10 points in a four-minute burst in Game 4. The Game 4 starting lineup, which got outscored 36-35 in Game 4, has still logged a +7 in 35 Finals minutes.
Then again, the Warriors led the NBA in defensive efficiency and were one of the most successful regular-season teams in league history playing significant minutes with All-Defensive Teamers Bogut and Green up front. Turning away from that alignment for good might be a bit too much for Kerr to swallow.
"Obviously, we won Game 1 with our normal lineup," Barnes said after Saturday's practice. "We've had a great season with our normal lineup. So it's something we went through last season to get our offense going. So whether we stick with it or go back to the old one, we'll see."
As you might expect, the coach played coy.
"Well, as I established before Game 4, I will lie," Kerr said Saturday. "[...] if I say anything, I'm guessing it might get back to [Cavaliers head coach] David [Blatt]. So I'll just say that I've established my penchant for lying. So however I answer right now, you shouldn't believe me anyway."
How much will fatigue be a factor?
The Cavaliers looked dead on their feet at times in Game 4, which was to be expected, given the sharply shortened rotation Blatt has favored following injuries to Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving. It seemed like only a matter of time before the heavy in-game workloads — especially with three games in five days and a three-time-zone-spanning flight mixed in — took its toll on the Cavs' skeleton crew.
Herculean recovery efforts aside, LeBron wasn't nearly as effective, scoring 20 points (less than half his pre-Game 4 Finals scoring average) on 7-for-22 shooting. He did add 12 rebounds and eight assists in his 41 minutes of play, but with James taking 14 fewer field-goal attempts than he'd averaged through the series' first three games — thanks in part to more active help defense from the Warriors' array of long-armed wings — the onus moved from the King to what remains of his court.
The 7-foot-1 Mozgov scored a career-high 28 points, with which Golden State was willing to live.
"You're going to take the chance on Mozgov beating you before you take the chance on LeBron beating you," Green said after the game.
None of the other Cavaliers, though, were up to the task.
A decaffeinated Matthew Dellavedova crashed to Earth after his heroic Game 3, missing 11 of his 14 shots, including seven of his nine 3-pointers. J.R. Smith rolled — hands-free, natch — off a cliff, going 2-for-12 from the floor and 0-for-8 from deep; the Cavs were outscored by 27 points in his 27 1/2 minutes. Iman Shumpert, working through a left shoulder injury, missed seven of nine field-goal attempts, making just one of five triple tries.
"The fact that we didn't make shots tonight from outside, that really had an impact on [LeBron's] ability to find seams and to score the ball, because there is a dynamic to that," Blatt said after the loss.
The question now is whether the Cavs missed the open shots they got because that's just the way the ball bounces sometimes, or if they clanged away — 33 percent from the field overall, just 4-for-27 from 3 — because they just don't have the legs.
LeBron's averaging 45.8 minutes per game in the Finals. Tristan Thompson's averaging 42.3. Since Irving's injury, Dellavedova's logged 38 per game, resulting in cramps so debilitating and dehydration so severe that he had to be hospitalized after Game 3 and had to briefly ask out of Game 4.
Shumpert's playing 36 minutes per night despite shooting 25 percent from the field. Smith's at 33 a contest despite, by his own admission, playing like equine feces. And while Mozgov's at a comparatively reasonable 32 per outing, ramping his floor time up might not be a solution for what ails Cleveland, especially if Golden State doubles down on its commitment to playing small.
The easing of the schedule — from just one off day separating Games 2, 3 and 4 to two off days between Games 4 and 5 — couldn't come at a better time for these Cavaliers.
"I think I'll definitely feel better," Dellavedova said Saturday. "Yeah, extra day's rest for everybody is going to be really good for us, I think."
"We've had a couple of days here to recover. I believe that's going to be helpful," Blatt said. "[The extra day off] certainly helps. Doesn't guarantee anything — you've still got to come and play — but it certainly helps."
That cuts both ways, though, and Kerr spent the regular season emphasizing the importance of rest and balancing his roster's workload to be able to push some players into the red if needed in the season's highest-leverage moments.
"Well, it was a focal point for us to try to keep guys fresh, but it was made easy by our players' play," Kerr said. "I wouldn't have sat Steph out of 17 fourth quarters if we'd had close games in those 17 games [...] We did make a concerted effort to give Bogut and Andre games off from time to time. Whether it's paid off or not, I guess that's subjective. But I do like our players, the look. They look fast. They look sharp out there."
How do the Cavs respond to the Warriors' adjustments? How much do they have to?
There's a tendency, especially after a blowout, to think the losing squad must totally overhaul its game plan to avoid another strafing. Blatt, though, doesn't sound like he's looking for another reinvention after having already experienced one due to midseason trades and two more due to postseason injuries.
"If you look at the one game, it makes you think, 'OK, we've got to change this, that and the other thing,'" he said. "If you look at the four games, in three out of four of those games, we were pretty good doing the things that we did. So I think you'll see a combination of both of those possibilities. We've got to continue to do certain things really well. What we need to change, we will."
When they've been able to stay big, the Cavs have commanded the proceedings. Cleveland's two-big starting lineup — Mozgov and Thompson up front, James and Shumpert on the wing, Dellavedova running point — outscored the smaller Warriors by eight points over 16 minutes of floor time in Game 4, and stands at +10 in 43 total minutes for the series.
With Golden State going small more often, though, it might be harder for Cleveland to keep two bigs on the floor. The Cavs, then, will need to find workable small-ball lineups capable of generating enough half-court scoring to fight fire with fire.
RealGM's Jonathan Tjarks suggests more minutes for James Jones as a small-ball power forward alongside LeBron and Mozgov. Lineups featuring that trio have only seen 13 minutes of Finals playing time, but have outscored Golden State by seven points in that span and boasted strong shooting percentages. With neither Mozgov nor Jones especially fleet of foot, though, Blatt would figure to be at least somewhat concerned about how that mix would hold up defensively against the Warriors' wings.
One potential change — especially in light of the fatigue issue — could be to look for opportunities to expand the wing rotation. There were rumblings after Game 4, according to ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst, that some Cleveland players would like to see Blatt take a longer look at veterans Mike Miller (who has played 15 minutes in this series) and Shawn Marion (who hasn't logged a second of Finals burn) to help spell Shumpert, Smith, Dellavedova and, most importantly, James:
When asked about the need to expand the rotation, LeBron James publicly yielded to Blatt after Game 4 but hinted it could help him and others get some more rest.
"That's the coach's decision if he decides he wants to go deeper in the bench," James said. "We haven't played many guys throughout this playoff run. I think it would help some of the guys that are playing some high minutes, for sure. Just give guys a couple minutes here, a couple minutes there. But I think the coaching staff will try to do what's best to help us be physically and mentally prepared for Sunday."
Asked Saturday specifically about turning to Marion, Blatt offered a noncommittal answer.
"Well, first of all, I'm not sure why you're picking out any one particular name, unless you want to suggest to me what the next rotation should be," he said. "Listen, we've got a lot of experienced players on our roster, and a lot of guys have been through these battles before. Some of the guys have not played a whole lot. Our results have been pretty good as we've been playing, but, again, I believe in those guys and their ability to step in, if necessary, and do what needs to be done."
Mozgov and Thompson aside, few wine-and-gold-clad contributors did what needed to be done Thursday when the Warriors collapsed on LeBron. All told, other Cavaliers shot 30 percent off LeBron's passes in Game 4, according to NBA.com's SportVU player tracking data, after shooting nearly 53 percent off his feeds in winning Games 2 and 3.
"I think we had a lot of good looks last game," Shumpert said Saturday. "We just failed on connect on them. And we've got to do a better job of knocking those shots down."
After spending three games trying to make LeBron beat them by himself, and losing twice, the Warriors in Game 4 dared any other Cavalier to beat them. None could.
"We've got to get performance from everybody," Blatt said. "At times we've got to take the pressure off of him."
They've yet to show they can. The Warriors have outscored the Cavs by as much (11 points) in the scant 19 minutes of rest that LeBron has received in this series as they have in the whopping 183 minutes he's played. When he doesn't do everything, not much gets done. With the Finals knotted and the scene shifting back to Oakland, the Cavs now find themselves with an awful lot to do.
"We're going to play our game," James said Saturday. "We've gotten to this point by playing the way we play, and we're not going to change. We'll make adjustments throughout the game, but we won't change our starting lineup."
Then again, after Kerr's pre-Game 4 prevarication, I suppose LeBron could be lying, too.
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