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The Evolving NBA Finals Head to Game 5

There are two or three games left in the NBA season as the last two teams are standing and vying for the crown. The complexion of the NBA Finals is much different than what it was a couple days ago, which is the beauty of playoff series. The audience customarily overreacts to what transpires on a game-to-game basis and the changes in overall perception often dictate who we best believe will hoist the trophy.

The Golden State Warriors were in a must-win situation in Game 4 for the simple fact that no team in NBA history has ever been able to rebound from a 3-1 deficit in the Finals. With that in mind, they knew that their sense of urgency needed to be conspicuous on Thursday night, and they surely delivered with a 103-82 victory.

It was the first convincing win of the series in favor of Golden State, and it dramatically shaped our analysis going forward. Coming into this series everyone was cognizant of the notion that the Warriors were far superior to the Cavs. A shelved Kevin Love and a hobbled Kyrie Irving didn’t help matters. And once Irving went down with a knee injury, the disparity in talent between the two teams became even more visible.

Game 4 saw Cleveland march out of the gate with a 7-0 run that led to head coach Steve Kerr to calling an early timeout. It looked like the Cavs were going to dominate this game because once again the Warriors started off cold and Cleveland was feasting off of offensive rebounds. But then the switch had been flipped for Golden State, similar to the one we saw in that semifinals series against the Grizzlies.

We finally got a glimpse of the Warriors we had been accustomed to watching over the course of the season. The run-and-gun, high-octane offense fueled by excellent ball movement and timely shot making resurfaced. We also witnessed the shutdown defense that propelled them to the league’s best defensive rating. It’s simple: When the Dubs play at their highest level, there aren’t too many teams that can compete with them.

Some coaches are hesitant to employ lineup changes during series because of the panic message it might send to the team. But Kerr knew that his team needed a spark, and on Thursday night it came in the form of Andre Iguodala, who many believe to be Golden State’s frontrunner for Finals MVP if they win this series.

As Andrew Bogut’s replacement in the starting lineup, Iguodala finished with 22 points and eight rebounds and was a plus-16 in the game. He jump-started their offense with a couple of breakaway dunks that helped Golden State get some easy points in transition, which is something they’ve been devoid of for the most part in this series. The confidence in his ability to knock down shots was also critical, as he made the Cavs pay for daring him to shoot.

June 9, 2015 - Cleveland, OH, USA - The Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James (23) has the ball stripped by Golden State Warriors defender Klay Thompson, right, during the first quarter in Game 3 of the NBA Finals at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland on Tuesday, June 9, 2015

How will LeBron adjust in Game 5?

LeBron James came into Game 4 averaging north of 40 points per game, absolutely dominating the opposition. But Iguodala was also able to excel on the defensive end, limiting James to just 20 points on 7-of-22 shooting. Many will also attribute the heavy load James has had to carry to his struggles, but AI’s work on him can’t be overlooked.

ESPN commentator Mark Jackson coined the phrase, “Get Iggy with it” and it was for good reason. So far in the Finals, the Warriors are plus-32 in points differential with Iguodala on the floor. In both offensive and defensive efficiency, the Dubs are plus-7 and minus-9 respectively. The Cavs are shooting 45 percent while he’s on the bench, compared to just 35 percent when he’s on the floor (all according to ESPN). His impact has been significant.

Pace has also been huge in this series and is a major reason why Cleveland has been able to hang around and stay competitive. LeBron has controlled every aspect of the game with his high IQ and greatness on both ends. The Cavs know that offense isn’t their strong suit with their second and third best scorers sidelined for the rest of the season, so they’re just looking to slow down the tempo. The game plan is for LeBron to meticulously pick apart their defense, and the team to be ferocious on the boards and irritants on defense.

But the problem with this is that the methodology goes out the window when they trail in games. When the Warriors build large leads, it’s imperative that they quicken the pace. It’s similar to the rush-heavy teams in the NFL. Once you get down a few touchdowns, the rushing attack gets eradicated the quarterback begins to takeover in an attempt to get quick offense.

It’s amazing how much greater Golden State is optically when they make a few of their uncontested shots. All of a sudden, they develop a level of intensity on the defensive end and that stymies the Cavs. The quicker pace and the reversion to small-ball are allowing them to get back into their rhythm.

With a pivotal Game 5 set for Sunday night, we’ll see if the Warriors can feed off that energy in the Oracle Arena. The fans are of course hoping for a victory. But they’re also hoping for their team to return back to Oakland following Game 6 without the Cavs. Can they get it done? Get the popcorn. Get the soda. It’s time to sit back and watch this unfold.

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