Golden State coach Steve Kerr made the key adjustment in the NBA Finals when he switched to small-ball in Game 4. Putting Andre Iguodala in the staring lineup helped the Warriors even the series instead of being one loss away from vacation.
The next move was up to Cleveland coach David Blatt and he followed suit, playing center Timofey Mozgov for just nine minutes in Game 5 as Cavaliers played their own small lineup.
As Golden State looks to end the series Tuesday on the road, Blatt has to decide whether to match up with the Warriors or try to pound them when they’re diminutive. The Cavs have lost both ways in the last two contests but might feel compelled to stick with the first option.
“We were in the game the way we were playing,” Blatt said in a postgame news conference Sunday night, defending the lack of playing time for Mozgov, who had 28 points and 10 rebounds in Game 4.
“We were right there,” Blatt said. “So that’s the way we played it. … I thought that was our best chance to win the game and we were definitely in the game with a chance to win.”
Asked if he would stick with that game plan, Blatt said “not necessarily.”
But it’s probably too late to turn back.
The Cavs imposed their will through the first three games, slowing the pace with a LeBron James-centric offense and taking a 2-1 series lead, but the Warriors have flipped the script. They gambled that the risk of being out-rebounded wouldn’t out-weigh the reward of more space and a faster pace.
Starting center Andrew Bogut, who played 28 and 25 minutes respectively in Games 1 and 2, played just 19 minutes total over the last three games. He didn’t play at all Sunday after playing just two minutes in Game 4.
“We’re trying to play faster, we’re trying to get up and down the floor,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said in a postgame news conference. “It’s just not a series for bigs right now, the way that everything has unfolded. … The reality is this is a small series and it works well for us. We’re comfortable with this style.”
It works well because Golden State’s rotation is more versatile, with more players who can score, pass and defend at high levels. The Warriors have a number of viable options when Steph Curry is double-teamed and those options have more room to operate as a result of the attention he draws.
Conversely, the Cavs are pretty one-dimensional when they go small. James is good for 40-10-10 on any given night, but for help he must rely on the limited Tristan Thompson and Matthew Dellavedova, streaky shooters like J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert, or spot-up artists like James Jones and Mike Miller.
The impact is even greater on the defensive end, where Cleveland gives up rim protection by Mozgov while getting little back in return. Meanwhile, Golden State gets the total package – and then some – with Iguodala. He had 14 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and no turnovers Sunday in a team-high 42 minutes.
“He does everything for us,” Kerr said. “He’s our best defender on LeBron. He’s an incredible decision maker. He rebounds. He guards everybody. When he’s off LeBron he goes to a shooter and stays at home with the shooters and challenges shots.
For all of Curry’s wondrous ball handling and shot-making – especially some of the daggers during his 17-point fourth quarter in Game 5 – you could argue that Iguodala has been Golden State’s most valuable player. The Warriors appeared dead before his insertion into the lineup but they haven’t lost since.
Not bad for an 11-year veteran who started every game he played in his first 10 NBA seasons, but didn’t have a single start this season prior to Game 4. Harrison Barnes took over at small forward and Iguodala wasn’t thrilled. He still played the fifth-most minutes per average on the team, but coming off the bench was a foreign concept not embraced.
Stepping in at power forward while Draymond Green slid to center and Bogut moved to the bench has given Iggy and the Warriors new life, 48 minutes away from an NBA title.
“I’ve just been through a lot this year,” Iguodala said. “A lot about what happened early in the year I think was blown out of proportion. I’ve just enjoyed my teammates and they’ve been working really hard. We’ve got this goal in mind and we’re been fighting trying to get it.”
In discussing his bigs’ inactivity over the last two games (six minutes total for Bogut and reserve center Festus Ezeli) Kerr said things could be different Tuesday. “You never know how every game is going to unfold,” he said.
True. But unless Bogut and Mozgov miraculously shrink before the opening tip, I suspect they can make themselves comfortable on the bench.
In this series, they’ve become too big to succeed.