The NBA is filled with some of the best basketball coaches in the world, that's obvious. Men who've played and watched thousands upon thousands of games in their lives, then re-watched them, broken them down frame by frame, devoured scores of manuals and devoted their lives to knowing every conceivable X's and O's theory about the game in general and their teams in particular. And for all their expertise, for all their knowledge that is so far beyond the scope of what dopes like me could possibly imagine, even the best coaches benefit from plain old dumb luck now and again.
Case in point: In 2012, before LeBron James won his first championship, the Heat were floundering in the second round against a game Pacers team. Roy Hibbert was having his way with Miami's pitiful bigs (Udonis Haslem/Joel Anthony/Ronny Turiaf) and to make matters worse, Chris Bosh suffered an abdominal injury that would sideline him for the rest of the series. In complete desperation, Erik Spoelstra turned to small forward Shane Battier, a reserve all season, and turned him into a stretch four, giving him the daunting assignment of guarding the burly David West on the other end. Battier's presence spaced the floor, opened up the lane for James and Dwyane Wade to attack the lane and the Pacers had no counters. Once Bosh returned, Spoelstra used him as a "stretch five," keeping Battier in the starting lineup. Out of nowhere, everyone was a threat to shoot the three and the Heat evolved into the best offense in the league, winning the title that year and the next.
Or what about Steve Kerr, who stumbled into a killer starting lineup before even coaching a single game? Critics have mocked Kerr's predecessor Mark Jackson for not playing the quintet of Andrew Bogut-Draymond Green-Harrison Barnes-Klay Thompson-Stephen Curry a single minute last year, whereas Kerr molded those five into Voltron, basically. Except fate had something to do with Kerr's decision. David Lee, the nominal starting power forward, was injured to begin the year, so Kerr, who's admitted he was planning on sticking with him, tried Green at the four instead. He's been a revelation there and has been very effective at the five too, in a super small lineup. Lee, meanwhile, who's always been a terrible defender, isn't even in the Warriors rotation anymore.
Which brings us to the Cavs. All season long naysayers (such as myself) have discounted them as a non-contender because of their woeful defense, ranked in the 20s for much of the season. Certainly trading for Timofey Mozgov and Iman Shumpert helped turn things around in that regard, but the Cavs still had two defensive liabilities in the lineup in Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, and in the playoffs you're only as strong as your weakest link. (Ask Spurs fans about Tony Parker's defense this season.)
Cavs coach David Blatt may be terribly defensive and insecure, but he's no dummy. He saw the truth about Love early on. For all the hype, for all the empty numbers he put up on terrible Minnesota teams, he's been a guy you can't win with because he's such a defensive nonentity. Blatt took heat for regularly benching Love in fourth quarters during the regular season in favor of the laterally quicker and springier Tristan Thompson, but because Love had injury issues with his back the whole season, Blatt was able to dodge controversy to a degree. He got criticized, but it could've been a lot worse.
When Love suffered a separated shoulder against Boston in the playoffs, common wisdom had it as a fatal blow for the Cavs chances, especially against a deep and rugged Bulls frontline in round two. Instead, it just opened the door for more minutes for Mozgov and Thompson to shut down the paint and dominate the glass at both ends.
It's one thing to get past the bricklaying Bulls, but surely the Cavs would suffer Love's absence against the top-seeded Hawks, right? Before we even got to contemplate the match-ups in that series, Irving went down with a knee injury late in Game 1, and he was either out entirely or severely limited the rest of the way. Blatt had no choice but to play Matthew Dellavedova in his spot and suddenly, the Cavs had a dogged defender at point. Dellavedova is not in Irving's galaxy as a scorer or shooter, but unlike Irving, he makes his man work for everything and doesn't die on screens easily.
By hook or crook, Blatt has found an awesome defense, and it's absolutely confounded the Warriors. Thompson is the rare big quick enough to bother Curry on pick-and-rolls, hedging far out to take away his shot and daring him to drive. Dellavedova follows the reigning MVP all over the floor like a starving puppy, refuses to concede an inch and dares the referees to call eight thousand fouls, playing like a Dookie wet dream even though he technically went to St. Mary's. LeBron reduces Green into someone who yells at the referee a lot and doesn't do much else on offense, while Barnes is mostly a rumor against Shumpert.
Somehow, we have a series after two games.
Please, I beg of you, let's not fall into the trap of recency bias and confuse a dramatic finish for a good game. That was three hours of hot garbage we all just witnessed. The Cavs defended like mad, yes, but they were terrible offensively. Which, I suppose, is to be expected without Irving and Love. James has to literally create every possession for them out of his nether regions, and considering that he's going up against the number one defense in the league, that's not going to work out too well most of the time.
At one point in the fourth quarter a friend texted me about how well the Cavs were playing. They had 71 points at the time, with less than eight minutes to go. They were coming off a third quarter where Cleveland outscored the Warriors 15-14. Just stop it. This was the equivalent of the Ivory Coast women's soccer team against the Ivory Coast women's soccer team plus Alex Morgan. I've seen Big Ten games with more offensive flow.
As bad as the Cavs were, the Warriors were somehow worse. Mind-numbingly worse. Until late in the fourth quarter, Klay Thompson had more field goals than the rest of his teammates combined. (The final tally was 14 for Thompson and 19 for everyone else.)
Curry had one of the worst games of his career (5-of-23, 2-of-15 from three, 6 turnovers), the Warriors got next to nothing offensively from their bench, highlighted by Mo not getting enough Speights between his feet and the ground on a breakaway dunk, and the team had a negative assist-to-turnover ratio.
All that and the Warriors made four more shots than Cleveland and outshot them by 7.6 percent. James had 11 assists and the rest of his teammates combined for three.
That was a bad game.
Mo Speights, No Buckets https://t.co/P4UkuP3ZUm— BuzzFeed Sports (@BuzzFeedSports) June 8, 2015
In the big picture, James was fantastic, obviously. You'd have to be a crazy person to downplay 39 points, 16 rebounds and 11 assists.
LeBron James finished with 39 points, 16 rebounds, 11 assists. Once again, no one has matched all of those numbers in playoffs since 1985.— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) June 8, 2015
He is carrying as big of an individual load in a Finals as any player I can recall, and his passing changed the game from the second quarter on. In fact, James had quite the first half line, 20-6-6 on 7-of-13 shooting. It appeared as though he was going to have one of the best overall games of his illustrious career.
Including playoffs, LeBron has played 1,805 games in his NBA career. Tonight's just the 2nd time he's put up at least 20-6-6 by halftime.— Tom Haberstroh (@tomhaberstroh) June 8, 2015
And then the second half happened.
Now, I'm not trying to hate or offer a lame Skip Bayless impersonation here, I swear I'm not. But I swear it feels like I took some crazy pills when I read all these accounts of how James dominated.
He shot 4-of-21 in the second half and overtime.
That is not good, anyway you slice it. I dare venture to say that the Cavs will not win any more ballgames this season when James shoots 4-of-21 in a half.
Blatt has done a lot of smart things this postseason, but benching Mozgov for the last 18:50 was not one of them. I understand that Thompson's defense is important, critical even, but he was -18 in 16 first half minutes in a half the Cavs led by two, which is very hard to do. Thompson finished -21, was 0-of-5 from the field and the Warriors almost stole the game late in part because "Hack-a-Thompson" worked. Mozgov, meanwhile, was Cleveland's second-leading scorer despite playing only 29 minutes with 17 points, he grabbed 11 boards and finished +11.
Kerr may have dictated his counterpart's decision by playing small down the stretch, but by benching his second-best remaining player Blatt is playing into the Warriors hands.
J.R. Smith was Golden State's second-best player, and probably their MVP in the fourth quarter.
I'll leave you with this.
I might regret this but I think Cleveland wins tonight on the sheer will of LeBron.— Travis Hale (@LubbockElitist) June 8, 2015
@LubbockElitist I will bet you all the money— Michael Erler (@MichaelErlerSBN) June 8, 2015
I will take a check. https://t.co/1OcjWMvUJh— Travis Hale (@LubbockElitist) June 8, 2015
Joke's on him, I've got like four bucks in my checking account.