CLEVELAND – Most Golden State Warriors fans probably have never heard of Nick U'Ren. As the special assistant to the head coach, U'Ren quietly stays behind the scenes doing whatever he can to make Warriors coach Steve Kerr look great.
But after U'Ren suggested the drastic lineup change for the Warriors – starting Andre Iguodala in place of center Andrew Bogut – that helped them beat the Cleveland Cavaliers 103-82 and even the NBA Finals at two games apiece Thursday night, Kerr felt it was only right to give U'Ren a shout-out.
"He's behind the bench, he's 28 years old, he's a kid," Kerr said. "We have a staff that is very cooperative. Whoever has the idea, it doesn't matter. And he brought me the idea."
After winning the Finals opener, the Warriors lost the next two games and were in danger of squandering the series. LeBron James was having his way with the Warriors. The Cavaliers' size also was bothering Golden State. The NBA's best offensive team was suddenly struggling, averaging 92.5 points the past two games.
"This entire series [entering Game 4], it's been them as the enforcers, them as the aggressors and us on our heels," Warriors forward Draymond Green said. "We needed to reverse that."
Kerr likes to incorporate some principles from his old team, the five-time NBA champion San Antonio Spurs, and uses many of them with Golden State. With that in mind, U'Ren began watching film of the Spurs from last season's NBA Finals to try to come up with an idea to help Kerr.
The Spurs split the first two games against James and the Miami Heat in last year's Finals. But after starting versatile forward Boris Diaw instead of center Tiago Splitter in Game 3, the Spurs generated more ball movement, a 71-point first half and a 111-92 victory. San Antonio won the final three games while scoring an average of 107.3 points to win the championship.
U'Ren and Warriors assistant coach Luke Walton have privately been fans of using a small lineup. U'Ren first brought the idea of the lineup change to Kerr after a team dinner after the Game 3 loss.
"I went and brought it up at dinner to mixed reviews, which is fine and totally normal," U'Ren said.
U'Ren refused to give up on the idea and did more research. He watched the Spurs in the first halves of Games 3 and 4 of last year's Finals. He began to believe even stronger that if the Warriors went small like the Spurs it would work well against Cleveland. After Walton also embraced the idea, U'Ren sent Kerr a text at about 3 a.m. on Thursday suggesting Iguodala replace Bogut in the starting lineup.
"I just explained that they started Diaw instead of Splitter and starting Andre is something to consider," U'Ren said. "We wanted to tell him in time to watch the film for himself and make the decision."
Kerr woke up to the suggestion and liked it because he believed it would help the Warriors increase the game's pace. It didn't hurt that Iguodala also had played well in the series' first three games, averaging 12.3 points, 4.6 rebounds and four assists off the bench while doing a respectable job of defending James.
Kerr debated the lineup change with the Warriors' coaching staff during a breakfast meeting before deciding to boldly make the move.
"I didn't see the text until this morning," Kerr said. "I told him I liked it and we debated as a staff what the repercussions would be and what the rotation would look like. It was a great idea."
It also was a gutsy decision by Kerr to go with it.
"I don't think it was that gutsy because they were kicking our ass," Kerr told Yahoo Sports. "We were running in mud."
Kerr told the Warriors players about the lineup change during the morning shootaround. He also asked them to keep their mouths shut.
"It made sense when he told us because we've been getting off to such slow starts," Warriors guard Stephen Curry said.
San Jose Mercury-News columnist Tim Kawakami asked Kerr during shootaround if Bogut, who had struggled offensively, was going to be benched. Kerr said he was going to continue to start Bogut.
"I lied to everybody," Kerr said. "It was obvious, right? I could have lied again and said I changed my mind 10 minutes before the game. Then that's another lie. I'd rather tell one lie than two."
Word got out before tipoff that Iguodala would be making his first start of the season in Game 4. Kerr's move sent Bogut to the bench and meant struggling starting forwards Draymond Green and Harrison, both of whom measure under 6-foot-9, would take turns defending the center position. The Cavaliers countered with their usual starters in 7-1 center Timofey Mozgov and 6-10 power forward Tristan Thompson. The move appeared to be a bad one at the start after the Warriors watched the Cavaliers score the game's first seven points while crushing them on the boards.
"When we got down 7-nothing I was like, 'Geez,' " U'Ren said.
The Warriors stayed the course and surged past the Cavs by utilizing a faster pace and more spread-out offense. The smaller lineup generated 12 3-pointers, 11 fast-break points and 19 made free throws. Iguodala also forced James into another challenging offensive night that included 20 points on 7-of-22 shooting.
The Warriors gave up a combined 40 points to Mozgov and Thompson, but it didn't matter.
"Coach Kerr did a great job of mixing the lineup up," James said. "They have so many different interchangeable players where he can decide how he wants to go with his lineups in that nature, and to start [Iguodala] tonight gave them that boost."
Back when Kerr was the Phoenix Suns' general manager from 2007-10, he hired U'Ren for the video department. U'Ren worked for three general managers in Phoenix before Kerr hired him with the Warriors last offseason. During their time together, U'Ren has built a level of trust with Kerr.
If U'Ren's idea didn't work, the Cavs could have pushed the Warriors within a game of elimination. Even so, U'Ren said his boss still would have protected him.
"I was never that nervous," U'Ren told Yahoo Sports. "Our staff is so amazing that they would never throw anyone under the bus or hang them out to dry. And obviously, they are being super kind for giving me credit. I was definitely happy when it worked because I wanted to win.
"Steve deserves all of the credit because he has to live and die with the consequences. It's easy to make a suggestion, but he has to make a decision."