For the second time in the playoffs, Steve Kerr had the right answer for his team when they desperately needed it. Game 4 of the NBA Finals was almost a carbon copy of the script from their second round series against the Memphis Grizzlies. After falling behind 2-1 to a bigger and more physical team that controlled tempo by pounding the ball into the post, the Warriors regained momentum by changing a defensive assignment in the starting line-up and speeding up the other team. With the tempo back in their favor, Golden State was able to get out in the open court and take advantage of their edge in perimeter firepower. The scores were almost identical. Golden State 101, Memphis 84. Golden State 103, Cleveland 82.
The adjustment was different in each series but the underlying idea was the same. Against Memphis, Kerr took Andrew Bogut off Marc Gasol and put him on Tony Allen. Since Allen couldn’t shoot 3’s, the Warriors could leave Bogut in the paint and clog up the Memphis post-ups. Just as important, Kerr was trusting Harrison Barnes (6’8 225) and Draymond Green (6’6 240) to hold their own against one of the biggest front-lines in the league. Two rounds later, Barnes and Green had to slide down a spot in the line-up and guard a much bigger player again. The difference was the Warriors took Bogut off the floor and had Andre Iguodala start the game on LeBron James.
If Golden State was going to go down, it almost had to be this way. They became a title contender when they replaced David Lee with Green, going from a three-out team that couldn’t space the floor or switch pick-and-rolls to a four-out team that could. That’s what the Warriors have been about all season - spreading the floor, moving the ball and attacking in space than using their speed to dictate tempo by switching and trapping. Kerr took that identity to its logical conclusion on Thursday, benching his 7’0 C and going five-out with Green at the 5 and four perimeter players around him, none taller than 6’8.
The biggest upside to the move was the amount of space the Warriors' players could operate in on offense. Not only is Bogut unable to stretch the floor, he’s a reluctant scorer who looks primarily to pass when he has the ball in his hands. In the first three games of the series, the Cleveland big men were playing off Bogut and helping in the lane. That allowed them to send extra help at Steph Curry and Klay Thompson and dare Green and Barnes to beat them on the perimeter. The Cavs clogged up the Warriors offense and controlled the tempo of the game.
Without Bogut on the floor, Green had a lot more straight line drives to the front of the rim on the pick-and-roll. His decision-making process was simplified, as the rotating big man had to either leave Barnes (2-5) or Iguodala (4-9) on the three-point line. The Warriors had five perimeter threats on the floor for most of the game so they were able to crisply move the ball to find an open shot. All of a sudden, with everyone playing more in the flow, Cleveland began to pay for their decision to leave the Golden State role players open.
Just like when they switched Lee for Green, switching Bogut for Iguodala improved them on both sides of the ball. Instead of allowing LeBron to get into a rhythm by going up against Barnes at the start of the game, Golden State started Iguodala on him. With Iguodala hounding him and Barnes and Green clogging the paint, LeBron wasn’t able to get as many clean looks at the rim. The small line-up also allowed Golden State to send more guys who could help on LeBron and recover to their men, rather than staying home and letting him go 1-on-1. They were willing to live with contested 3’s from the Cavs role players and it paid off in Game 4, as JR Smith, Iman Shumpert and Matthew Dellavedova combined to go 3-22 from beyond the arc.
From there, everything flowed together. The Cavs taking more 3’s led to more run-outs for the Warriors, who were able to play much freer than earlier in the series. They got the game going uptempo and the score into the 100’s, which isn’t the pace a depleted Cleveland team wants to play. The Cavs had been playing 5-on-4 on defense by ignoring Bogut and Festus Ezeli - the two-defensive minded C’s went from 35 minutes in Game 3 to 3 minutes in Game 4. Size and shot-blocking was out at the C position in Golden State and offense and playmaking ability were in, as David Lee continued his return from the end of the bench with 15 minutes behind Green as a small-ball 5.
With momentum firmly shifted back into Golden State’s favor as the series returns to Oracle, David Blatt will have to make an adjustment headed into Game 5. The problem is that his injury-depleted roster doesn’t leave him with a lot of options. They are playing only seven guys and none of the remaining bench players have shown much of anything in the playoffs. He may try to play Mike Miller or Joe Harris more to boost the offense but at what cost to the defense? The more likely option is to re-shuffle the minutes distribution of the guys he’s already playing in order to alter some of the line-ups he had on the floor.
What he has to figure out is the best response to the Warriors five-out line-up. He has three possible options - play a big line-up with Mozgov and Thompson together or go small with either Thompson or Mozgov as the sole remaining big man.
1. Playing Mozgov and Thompson together allows you to stay big and punish the Warriors lack of size on the glass but it also lets Golden State clog up the lane. That means LeBron forcing up tough shots, very little ball movement and no lanes to cut to the rim.
2. Blatt’s preferred line-up is to go small with Thompson and LeBron in together. That is their most active unit defensively and it allows them to switch every pick-and-roll late in the shot clock. Thompson makes it work on the other end of the floor by attacking the offensive boards but he’s a limited scorer who can’t score outside of the paint, which makes it easy to double off him.
3. I wrote about this after Game 2 - Mozgov is the key guy for Cleveland in this series. He had a monster game in Game 4 - 28 points and 10 boards on 16 shots - and he’s the big man most capable of exploiting a size mismatch on offense. He’s a better finisher cutting off the ball so you want him to operate in as much space as possible around the rim. That means taking Thompson off the floor and playing James Jones as a small-ball 4. Let LeBron and Mozgov play in the two-man game and surround them with three 3-point shooters and something is going to be open on every play. The question for Blatt is whether playing Mozgov and Jones more minutes together will compromise the defense.
Mozgov played 33 minutes in comparison to 38 for Thompson in Game 4. This series is proof that Mozgov catching lobs from LeBron with Draymond Green or David Lee as the biggest guys on defense is a pretty efficient way to get points. And while Mozgov isn’t as good an offensive rebounder, he’s more likely to score the ball if he is put in that position. He could get the Warriors' wing players in foul trouble and maybe force Bogut and Ezeli back on the floor, which would allow the Cavs to get the tempo back where they want it.
In my mind, what it comes down to for Cleveland is they are conceding things on defense regardless of whether or not they use Thompson. If Curry is playing the two-man game in a five-out offense, the Cavs are going to send help and they are going to leave somebody open from 3. All they can do is hope they miss and try to use their size to punish the smaller line-up on the other end of the floor. The most effective offensive line-up in the frontcourt they can use against small-ball is LeBron, Jones, Mozgov.
That, in turn, could open up the game for Cleveland’s three-point shooters. If Jones can keep a man on him and LeBron and Mozgov can draw help in the paint, that should get the ball moving and create more open looks for Smith, Shumpert and Dellavedova. The Warriors are going to play faster and score more points with these small-ball line-ups. The Cavs have to figure out a way to match that production by leveraging even the tiniest advantages they can create on offense and they have to figure out how to punish Golden State and get them back into playing more conventional line-ups.
Cleveland played really well in the first three games of the NBA Finals, but Golden State had a hole card for exactly this situation. If their backs are against the wall, Kerr can flip the switch and change the dynamic of the series by going five-out. It’s a line-up out of a video game and it’s the end-point of the floor spacing revolution - Golden State surrounds the MVP with Klay Thompson (6’7), Harrison Barnes (6’8), Shaun Livingston (6’7), Andre Iguodala (6’6) and Draymond Green (6’6). That’s five guys with two-way ability who can guard multiple positions, score the ball and create open shots for each other. When they are hitting their shots, they are almost impossible to beat.
Beating Golden State means either beating them at their own five-out game or finding the right combination of big men to punish them for their lack of size. No team in the NBA has as many good wings as the Warriors and no one has been able to find the right combination of big men yet. They’ve beaten Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard and the combination of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. They’ve got LeBron on the ropes.
Under Kerr, Golden State has become a philosophical proposition as much as a basketball team. Is there a diminishing margin of return in the NBA playoffs for replacing size with speed and shooting ability? So far the answer to that question has been No.