They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Steve Kerr, who had been thoroughly out-coached by David Blatt through three games of the Finals, decided to borrow a couple of pages from his playbook and focused his game plan entirely on Cleveland's one star, at the expense of disrespecting every other Cavalier on the floor. Getting dominated inside by big men Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson? Giving up open shots galore to J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and scrappy little Matthew Dellavedola? Kerr DOOOOOOON'T CAAAAAAAAAAAAAARE. As long as LeBron James wasn't the one who beat them, the Warriors were content. They dared "The LeBronniares" to score and they were collectively dreadful from outside, shooting 3-of-23 on three-point attempts combined, which allowed the Warriors to pull away to a comfortable road win to tie up the Finals 2-2.
Many of us pundits and critics were calling on Kerr to bench struggling Harrison Barnes in favor of the surging Andre Iguodala and perhaps to insert David Lee in place of Draymond Green. Instead, Kerr kept both of his young forwards in there and inserted Iguodala for center Andrew Bogut, a super small-ball look where Green is effectively the five and no one is taller is than 6'7. It left them vulnerable on the glass and to Mozgov's post-ups, and he scored a career-high 28 points, which is understandable.
However, the "tiny ball" lineup has been the Warriors secret weapon all year long. In 400 minutes with Green at center (meaning no Bogut, Lee, Festus Ezeli or Marreese Speights in the lineup) they had an offensive rating of 116.5 and a defensive rating of 92.1, according to NBAWowy.com. That's a 24.4 net. Of the various lineup combinations they used, the most popular was the version they started Game 4 with, which played 102 minutes together during the regular season, with a 21.8 net. The Cavs had the size advantage, but they couldn't match the Warriors speed and their bigs were beaten up the floor a number of times for easy transition baskets, even after makes. Golden State spaced the floor properly for their pick-and-rolls with Curry and Green was finally able to take advantage of all those 4-on-3s at the free throw line, hitting floaters over Mozgov, or outmaneuvering the giant Russian to the rim, or simply kicking the ball to a wide open Barnes at the corner.
All series long the Cavs game plan has been to stick with Curry and Klay Thompson at all cost and to dare the other guys to beat them. Green, Barnes and Iguodala did well enough, nailing 7-of-17 threes and combining for 53 points. Their perimeter counterparts on the Cavaliers shot 7-of-35 and combined for 19. It's almost as if one team has far better shooters than the other. It helped the Warriors rhythm that they played closer to their typical pace, whipped the ball around, and passed up "good" for "great" time and again. By excising the centers from their rotation, they were able to put lineups on the floor where all five guys were a threat to shoot, and all five cut run, cut and pass. Going to Shaun Livingston in the fourth quarter was a master stroke by Kerr because even though Livingston doesn't have the shooting range of some of his mates, he's a better passer than Thompson or Barnes. Having him on the floor gave the Warriors three guys with elite floor vision at the same time, and their passing left the exhausted Cavs dizzy and helpless.
With two off days looming, Kerr also borrowed from Blatt by shortening his rotation. He played only seven guys, giving just spot minutes to Bogut and Leandro Barbosa. The only subs who got real run were Livingston and Lee. Everyone on the floor had to be versatile enough to run, pass and to switch on defense, no lumbering allowed. For three quarters the Cavs stayed in the game, but the dam finally burst on them in the fourth. Their guys were exhausted, none of the guards had their legs underneath them on jumpers and they were helpless to do anything but sag their shoulders when Iguodala and Curry found the range. The Warriors didn't force anything all night, gleefully accepting what the Cavs were giving them on defense and turning it over just seven times. They used their speed, trusted their role players to make shots and looked like the Warriors again.
And all it took was for them to imitate the Cavs.
Man, LeBron looked spent out there. After three games where he seemingly used every possession for the Cavs, he finally showed signs of fatigue in Game 4, with Blatt admitting afterward that he thought his whole team was tired after playing their third game in five nights. James surrendered a bunch of first half possessions to Smith and Dellavedola, letting them try to create offense (shockingly, that didn't work) and had a mere 12 field goal attempts in the first half, looking a step slow on drives and not being able to finish as close to the basket as he'd prefer.
A knock to the noggin after a collision with a court-side camera in the second quarter did not help any. It opened up a pair of small cuts to the back of his head, requiring stitches after the game. After a breather at half, James powered his team with 10 points in the third, as he, Mozgov and Thompson were all relentless on the offensive glass, but a Curry three to close out the quarter opened up a six point cushion for the Warriors and they only increased that when James went to the bench to start the fourth. The deficit grew to 10 by the time he returned, but he had no life the rest of the way and neither did any of his teammates.
I don't see any 35-plus scoring explosions in the offing for James unless he starts knocking down outside shots. The Warriors are doubling him in the post now and shading a second defender to the middle of the floor whenever he revs up for drives. If the Cavs are to pull the stunning upset here, they're going to have to out-shoot the Warriors from outside.
Green was awfully reminiscent of Boris Diaw in Games 3-5 of the 2014 Finals tonight, right down to the part where you have to beg him to shoot threes. There were three times where he was wide open on the wing on the pick-and-pop and passed up the shots. Usually that's death for an offense, but the Cavs were so committed to clamping down on Curry and Thompson that Green was able to double-clutch it and then pass it off to Barnes in the corner with no defender within 10 feet of either of them.
Preliminary SportVU #s provided to Grantland: GSW 17-of-35 on uncontested shots; CLE 5-of-24. Could change slightly overnight.— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) June 12, 2015
Yeah, good luck with that, Cavs.
Smith's night went downhill from here.