Michael Walton II writes about the Chicago Bulls and the NBA for We Are Regal Radio.
Michael is a student, freelance writer and high school basketball scout based in Chicago. He’s previously been published in TrueStar Magazine, the Redeye Chicago and thelyricallab.com.
Part of the reason this current NBA Finals is one of most intriguing in recent memory is the presence of not one, but two rookie NBA coaches.
The battle between the League’s MVP (Stephen Curry) and the best player alive (LeBron James) certainly takes center stage, but the constantly progressing series of chess move made by David Blatt and Steve Kerr has shifted the momentum back-and-forth in what has been a truly entertaining series, as its ratings have proved.
Personally, I think Blatt has been rather average as a head coach. However, I applaud him for the excellent lineup decisions he has made in the face of losing a pair of All-Stars in Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving. Tristan Thompson has been an absolute terror on the glass in place of Love, and Matthew Dellavedova has catapulted himself into cult-hero status with his Finals performance against reigning MVP Steph Curry. Blatt was able to patch together an effective starting lineup out of what was left of his squad, while Kerr’s problem lies at the opposite end of the spectrum.
Before last Wednesday’s game the Dubs found themselves down 2-1 after dealing with what was a legendary performance by LeBron James in the first three games. Golden State’s starting lineup had been solidified for some time now, but Kerr needed to show that he wasn’t afraid of change (or a little ZenMaster-like trickery).
The Cavs had initially taken control of this series by forcing Golden State to play their game. The pace slowed down, which allowed Cleveland to set its defense and cut down on some of the transition baskets that make Kerr’s team so effective. In response, Kerr went to a super-small lineup to provide pristine spacing on offense.
Featuring Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green, the Warriors are an extremely mobile unit that features no player taller than 6-feet-8-inches. This got the Dubs into a lot of trouble on the boards, but the spacing did open up some better looks from the perimeter. This resulted in one of the better first quarters this squad has had in Game 4 with them dropping 31 points.
Game 4 was a pretty accurate picture of what I thought this series would eventually become. I still expect this series to go seven games because of the players involved, but fatigue was sure to become a factor sooner than later. That fatigue factor is what has weakened a Cavs team that already was operating with on a paper-thin seven-man rotation. This series isn’t over by any means, but Game 4 showed what will decide this series going forward.
Davids vs Goliaths
The initial thing to look for at the start of Sunday’s Game 5 is the starting lineup for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Yes, it is true that it was Kerr and the Warriors who made the first big lineup change in this series, but at this point that doesn’t matter. The players that start the game do set the tone, but even if Andrew Bogut gets his starting job back Kerr has shown that he is willing to play small for an entire game. That puts the pressure on Blatt to make a decision.
Throughout Game 4, Thompson and Timofey Mozgov absolutely destroyed the Warriors in the paint. They combined for 40 points and 23 rebounds, but their play was not supported with any perimeter presence whatsoever. The Cavaliers shot around 20.6 percent on uncontested looks in Game 4 according to NBA.com.
If you are going to miss wide-open shots you have absolutely no chance against these Golden State Warriors.
The Cavs had a decent amount of possessions where they threw the ball into the post to Mozgov or Thompson. Though the casual fan would see that as a victory for Cleveland, it isn’t. It is nice to exploit height advantages but only when they make sense. Neither Mozgov or Thompson is a traditional post-up big. So when one of the players receives a post entry it simply means Kerr has succeeded in taking the Cavs out of their comfort zone.
Mozgov and Thompson will continue to dominate the backboards when Kerr elects to go small, but without some offensive punch from the perimeter, their effectiveness will be a moot point.
No Guarding Great Guards?
First off, the ZenMaster has to give a shout out to Peoria and Springfield, Ill. for bringing us Shaun Livingston and Andre Iguodala.
The radical decision to stop using Bogut in favor of Iggy was a great one because Kerr was simply playing to the Dubs’ most obvious strength: guard depth.
Golden State started three guards in Game 4: Iggy, Curry, and Klay Thompson. This forced the Cavs into very weird cross matches. The biggest mismatch came every time Blatt tried to hide Mozgov on Iguodala. Mozgov knows he is at his best when defending near the paint area. This meant Iggy was able to feast on jump shots (he hit four 3-pointers). And when Mozgov did venture outside of the paint Iguodala was able to cleanly drive past him, which gets the Warriors moving the ball around the perimeter, which is when they are the most dangerous.
The Warriors wore out Dellavedova, whose “Rudy” act finally came to a realistic ending. Not only did he give up baskets to Steph Curry, but he was occasionally and woefully brutalized in the post by Livingston.
The sad part of this series is that the Cleveland Cavaliers are simply starting to run out of options. At this point if players like J.R. “I’ll never be on a championship team” Smith and Iman “dun-dun-dun” Shumpert (both players are shooting below 30 percent from the field) don’t step up, the Cavs will be fighting more of an uphill battle than they already are.
Blatt has overused players who are not used to extended playing time, and even LeBron James has shown flashes of being tired, and therefore human. The Cavaliers knew if they were going to win this series it would be because of the play of James. And in Game 4 of this NBA Finals series James missed 15 of his 22 shot attempts.
Expect Cleveland to bounce back again — James specifically is notorious for having his teams play at an elite level following a loss in the postseason, but I’m sure that Kerr and company will be prepared.
This series has been great, with an abundance of changes, but I am sticking with my original prediction: Golden State Warriors in seven.
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