The Cleveland Cavaliers caught their first real counter-punch of the NBA Finals from the Golden State Warriors in Game 4. It didn’t seem like they quite had the energy to hit back.
For the first time in the series––and all season––Steve Kerr decided to stick Andre Iguodala in the starting lineup in lieu of a healthy-but-struggling Andrew Bogut, and in the two teams’ fourth game in seven days, the move to go small and speed up the tempo worked wonders. The Warriors shredded the Cavaliers and captured a crucial Game 4 in Cleveland, 103-82, to reclaim home-court advantage and even the series at 2-2.
After essentially playing a seven-man rotation during the past week’s games, David Blatt’s team looked pretty gassed, especially LeBron James, who had carried Cleveland’s entire offense during three games with an iso-heavy style. Kerr and his staff made their first real counter to that in Game 4, not only sticking Iguodala in LeBron’s grill from tip-off, but doubling him for the first time all series.
Even though the Cavaliers hung tough for the first three quarters of the game, both moves paid off: James struggled to effectively create for himself, and his teammates failed to capitalize on the opportunities his attention created. James finished just 7-22, 1-4 from three and 5-10 from the line in 40 minutes, while his perimeter teammates Matthew Dellavedova, Iman Shumpert, and J.R. Smith combined to shoot 3-22 on threes.
Without Peak LeBron to lean on or any teammates, not surprisingly, the Cavs couldn’t slow the game down to their preferred slogging tempo, but Golden State’s small lineup had a great deal to do with that as well.
During the first three games of the series, Cleveland had been blitzing Stephen Curry out of pick-and-rolls and daring his teammates, namely Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes, to make quick decisions that could beat their rotations. So far, they’d failed.
Sitting Bogut not only rid the Dubs of a floundering floor presence, the move busted their spacing wide open. Suddenly, the Cavs’ rotations were getting beat by the extra pass to an extra man much further away from the hoop than Bogut. Barnes, Iguodala and Green each hit threes during the first half, and the latter-most player was far more effective as the screen-setter in pick-and-rolls, deciding quickly whether to pass, shoot or put the ball on the floor.
In Game 4, however, Green had an extra shooter for kick-outs with Bogut on the bench, and the slower Mozgov was exposed against the patience of the Warriors’ ball movement. The Cavs’ traps off Curry pick-and-rolls looked a step slow, and the MVP was perhaps the most patient of all, making the correct play all night to get his teammates good chances and pick his own spots smartly. He finished with a quiet 22 points, including an encouraging 4-7 clip from three, and was instrumental in keeping the Warriors’ turnovers to a series-low seven.
Perhaps even worse than Curry’s strong showing were the types of adjustments the Warriors showed in Game 4, showing off their roster flexibility that’s the stuff of nightmares for the depleted Cavs.
This year’s Warriors have guys like David Lee––a savvy former All-Star who was the 11th man a month ago ––who they can run off the bench in special circumstances to help fill a gap or solve a defense, and that’s exactly what he’s done in the last two games, with his play on offense helping flip the script on this series. This year’s Cavaliers have guys like Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love––very, very recent All-Stars and crucial rotation players––watching this series in suits.
By going small and shortening his rotation, Kerr has suddenly made an adjustment that Cleveland might not have the personnel to counter, at least, not when your personnel named LeBron isn’t playing on God Mode. By playing Green and Lee at center, the Warriors were suddenly able to open up their offense and get easier shots both in half-court and in transition. With only seven, maybe eight, guys in Blatt’s rotation at this point, it’ll be very interesting to see how–or if––he adjusts after Game 4.
After all that has happened in the series so far, Cleveland will relish the extra day of rest leading up to Sunday’s game in Golden State, but no question, they needed to win this game at home. Now, with the series tied at 2-2, they face three games remaining, at most, with only one of them in Ohio. That’s a tall order for a team that remains an undermanned underdog.
For as long as LeBron remains a part of this series, obviously, it’s impossible to count the Cavs out. He’s shown us that. As the series drags longer, however, and adjustments prove increasingly important, counting on LeBron as a one-man adjustment will get increasingly difficult.