In the end, the NBA Finals weren’t too much different from the regular season. The Golden State Warriors were just too good - too much speed, too much shooting, too much playmaking and too much defense. For as well as the Cleveland Cavaliers played in the first few games of the series, the outcome was never really in doubt once Steve Kerr went small in Game 4, benching Andrew Bogut for Andre Iguodala. The Warriors won the next three games, two in Cleveland, by an average of 13 points.
It was the same calculus Golden State used all season. It didn’t matter how much size the other team had if they could spread the floor, move the ball and make them defend in space. They were willing to give up points on post-ups and offensive rebounds because they could get them back on turnovers and 3’s. Kerr benched Lee, an All-Star power forward, before the start of the season and Bogut, a former No. 1 overall pick and an All-Defensive center, in the biggest games of the season. The 2015 Warriors are the end-point of the small-ball revolution - they just won a championship playing Nellie Ball.
The line-up Kerr used to close out Game 6 was straight out of Don Nelson’s playbook. In the fourth quarter, the Warriors had Steph Curry (6’3), Klay Thompson (6’7), Shaun Livingston (6’7), Andre Iguodala (6’6) and Draymond Green (6’6) on the floor. That’s four guys who can shoot 3’s, four guys who can defend multiple positions, four guys who can run point and five guys who can put the ball on the floor and make plays off the dribble. Who cares what position they play or how much size they have? Those were the five most well-rounded players on the roster.
When the Warriors had one of their big men in the game, they were always giving up something. Bogut was great on defense but he didn’t have to be guarded on offense. Lee generated crucial ball movement in the pick-and-roll but he had no chance of defending in space. Festus Ezeli had a strong showing in an 11-minute stint in Game 6 but he struggles to make plays with the ball in his hands. Cleveland could park their big men in the paint, clog up the Golden State offense and control the tempo of the game.
After scoring 108 in a Game 1 win, the Warriors slipped to 93 and 95 in their Game 2 and 3 losses. Taking Bogut out of the line-up in Game 4 and playing smaller players opened up their offense and allowed them to play at a faster pace. Kerr’s move left David Blatt with an unappealing choice - force his big men to defend smaller players on the three-point line or play smaller units that would be less capable of stopping the Warriors and controlling the pace. Blatt never found an effective counter, which is why Games 4-6 were much less competitive than Games 1-3.
The most effective strategy the Cavs came up with was just keeping their big men in the paint and giving up open shots to the Warriors secondary shooters. They came into this series wanting to force the perimeter guys who weren’t the Splash Brothers to beat them and that didn’t change whether or not more of them were on the floor at the same time. What changed is that going five out meant the Golden State perimeter players had more space to play in.
All of a sudden, when Green took the ball to the rim, he didn’t have a 7’0 clogging up the lane in no man’s land. When the second big man came to help, he was helping off a perimeter guy who was spotting up 25+ feet from the basket. When Iguodala didn’t want to shoot the 3, he had 5-6 feet of space to either step in for a closer shot or generate momentum to attack the paint. The Cavs' defense had a much smaller margin for error because the Warriors could run offense through any of the five spots on the floor and they could create enough space for any of them to attack off the dribble. There was nowhere to hide a poor perimeter defender.
Playing small meant the Warriors could generate open shots and 1-on-1 match-ups on the perimeter against slower defenders for their secondary playmakers - Iguodala and Green. Iguodala had 25 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists in Game 6 and Green had 16 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists. It was classic Don Nelson basketball - Golden State was playing smaller lineups to create mismatches and daring Cleveland to make them pay for their lack of size on the other end.
The key stat on Tuesday was assist-to-turnovers. Golden State had twice as many assists (28 to 14) and almost half as many turnovers (9 to 16). When everyone is playing in space, the game becomes real simple. If the defender plays tight, drive the ball. If he plays off, shoot the ball. If they send an extra defender, move the ball. Once the defense starts rotating, keep the ball moving until it finds the open man. From there just play on instincts.
The Warriors didn’t defend Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson on the perimeter so when they were both in the game there was absolutely zero space for the Cavs offense to operate. With Iguodala at the 4 and Green at the 5, there was no one for the Cavs to attack in the two-man game and force the defense to send help. They ended up putting Curry in a lot of pick-and-rolls but it’s not like Matthew Dellavedova scares you as the roll man. Golden State sucked the life out of the Cleveland offense and they forced them to try to score by either by posting the ball in heavy traffic or having LeBron attack the rim with three guys on him. That’s where all the turnovers and shot clock violations came from.
The Cavs were playing three-out basketball and the Warriors were playing five-out basketball and the difference in space each team had on offense was night and day. No Lee or Bogut meant there was no one for Mozgov and Thompson to guard. Conversely, it would have been a lot easier for LeBron to score if Thompson and Mozgov’s men weren’t sitting in the paint. They didn’t have enough wing depth to play five-out basketball for large stretches of the game but LeBron at the 5 (used sparingly in Game 5) would have been an interesting counter to the Warriors move.
The series came down to the Warriors having more players who could beat you off the dribble and make plays than the Cavs. That’s the logic of playing small and Golden State took that idea to its logical conclusion in the NBA Finals. This is one of the fastest and most dynamic teams to ever win an NBA Finals in large part because it’s one of the smallest. Bigger teams can still win a championship but they are going to have to be able to play like the Warriors in the process. In the modern NBA, teams with 7’0 who can’t shoot the ball and move their feet on the perimeter are vulnerable to smaller teams that can spread them out.
Instead of a league where big teams dictate the action against smaller ones, the NBA is becoming a league where faster teams dictate the action against slower ones. It’s all about being able to defend at a high level and shoot at a high level from every spot in the floor. What made the Warriors and the Spurs so good over the last two seasons was that there were almost no weak spots on either side of the ball for other teams to attack. They could play five good defensive players and five good offensive players at the same time for most of the game.
Running the spread pick-and-roll out of a five-out line-up simplifies the game, which is really the way it was meant to be played. Forget sets and play calls - have one guy dribble around another and everyone else move off the ball to get open. The game is better when the ball is moving around the floor than when it’s sticking in one spot. Basketball is a team sport where individual players can dominate but no one player should be bigger than the game. LeBron being the best basketball player in the world doesn’t mean anything if he’s going up against the best team.