CLEVELAND—What's a spread offense to do when it finds itself in unfamiliar territory, bottled up, bogged down and lifeless? Spread out some more.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr helped free his team's attack from its shackles by downsizing his Game 4 starting lineup and sticking with the smaller approach. The unexpected move, which wasn't revealed until minutes before tip-off, sent center Andrew Bogut, a 2014 All-Defensive selection, to the bench in favor of small forward Andre Iguodala, who hadn't started a game all season. Asked multiple times by reporters in recent days whether he planned to change his traditional starting lineup, Kerr showed he understood the power of prevarication for a coach, even though he's only in his first year on the job.
"I lied," Kerr admitted after Game 4. "Sorry, but I don't think they hand you the trophy based on morality. They give it to you if you win."
And win the Warriors did, scoring the first convincing victory of these tight Finals by blowing out the Cavaliers 103–82 on Thursday to square the series at two games apiece.
To be clear, Kerr's fib initially looked like it might blow up in his face. Egged on by a strong Quicken Loans Arena crowd, Cleveland stormed to a 7-0 lead, forcing Golden State to call timeout less than three minutes into the game. But the Warriors settled in from there and played, by far, their best basketball of the series, returning to the free-flowing, hot-shooting, space-creating style that powered their 67-win regular season. For so much of these Finals, Cleveland has succeeded in robbing Golden State of the easy points it needs to thrive—the layups and dunks in transition, cheap points in the paint against a defense that's spread too thin, and wide open three-pointers created by drive-and-kicks.
"We did it for pace and floor spacing and just to get the tempo going," Kerr said of his lineup adjustment.
The variety of those points proved crucial in rebuilding the Warriors' confidence, which seemed shaken after three straight choppy performances against a shorthanded Cavaliers team. Barnes, who didn't hit a shot in Game 3, rode an early three-pointer to 14 points. Iguodala, the one Warriors player that has consistently played at a high level in the Finals, also put up 22 points, sprinting ahead for transition dunks on multiple occasions, generating some of those fast-break points that have proven so elusive against the slow-down Cavaliers. Curry, who has been far short of his MVP form, finished with 22 points and looked much more comfortable getting into his shots. And Green, upset by the poor quality of his play this series and chided by his own family members for "crying" to the officials too often, bounced back with a strong all-around performance, finishing with 17 points, seven rebounds and six assists.
The space for all of these things to take place was suddenly abundant because Bogut, and his pivot counterpart Timofey Mozgov, were no longer taking up space in the paint and the basket area. Mozgov struggled to find a defensive matchup against Golden State's five-out approach because, no matter what, the 7'1" center was stuck guarding a player with three-point range and the ability to attack him off the dribble.
"I always want to stay in the paint and protect the paint," Mozgov said, acknowledging Game 4's changing dynamic. "I need to learn how to play with a small lineup if coach [David Blatt] wants me on the court."
The Warriors' decision to downsize, like any other lineup change, involved a calculated survey of the potential positive and negative impacts. Here, Golden State's desire to improve its flow, spacing and energy by spreading out would require sacrifices when it came to its interior defense and rebounding, and it would require breaking up an excellent starting lineup that posted an absurd +19.6 net rating in 813 minutes together this season. Facing a 2-1 deficit in a series that had been played on the Cavaliers' terms, the Warriors were more willing than usual to take a risk and, frankly, more desperate.
There was also a circular poetry to the move, as Iguodala's willingness to come off the bench this year without raising a fuss helped set a selfless tone. Kerr has repeatedly praised Iguodala and David Lee for their professional responses to early-season demotions, and both players have come full circle to make major contributions in the Finals.
Handed the thankless task of pounding with LeBron James since Game 1, the 31-year-old Iguodala, a 2010 All-Star who averaged nearly 20 points per game earlier in his career, has reached back into the past to pull out some much-needed scoring. Iguodala connected on a series of back-breaking jumpers throughout Game 4, knocking down shots from mid-range and beyond-the-arc as he capitalized on Cleveland's over-extended defense.
"[Iguodala has] been our best player through four games," Kerr said. "He guards LeBron pretty much every possession that he's out there, and his offense has been terrific. .... He's our most experienced player and he's one of the smartest players I've ever been around. The guy is brilliant at both ends. He sees the game. "
Within six minutes after Kerr's first timeout, Golden State had made up its seven-point deficit and had taken its first lead since Game 2. More importantly, after the Warriors' starting frontcourt struggled to contribute in Game 3, all five members of the new-look starting five scored in the opening period. By the end of the first period, the Warriors had 31 points, their highest-scoring first quarter and their second-highest scoring quarter in this series.
The starting lineup change was really just the beginning of a busy night for Kerr. Bogut was basically dumped out of the rotation, playing just two minutes. Reserve center Festus Ezeli received a DNP-CD for the first time this series. Instead of turning to his centers, Kerr used Lee, a Game 3 standout, in heavy doses in an attempt to keep his five-man units as mobile and tempo-friendly as possible. He also leaned more heavily on Stephen Curry, Iguodala and Klay Thompson, ensuring that Cleveland had to face true firepower for 48 minutes.
The sum of these moves was a smoother, happier, more comfortable Warriors team that hit 12 three-pointers (eight more than the Cavaliers) and registered a healthy 24 assists on 36 field goals. Two nights after heads were hanging and shoulders were slumping, Golden State's cocky swagger was back: Green pounded his chest, Iguodala yapped in the direction of the courtside seats, and the mild-mannered Curry even shoved Matthew Dellavedova as the two teams exited the court after the first quarter.
"I told you guys the other day that we've been soft, and it's all my fault," Green said. "This is just a street fight ... I think if we played as hard as we were playing the last couple of games, we would have won probably 67 regular-season games, but we would have lost the Finals 4‑1. That's what we had to change."
These benefits clearly outweighed the predictable drawbacks, which included conceding 28 points to Mozgov (five more than his previous career-high) and getting hammered on the glass 17-6 in the third quarter. For Golden State, the calculus was simple: if its offense didn't get going, it wasn't going to win the series. And, if its offense did get going, Cleveland's plodding, James-centric approach would have trouble keeping up, especially given its host of injury problems.
That's exactly how Game 4 played out. Blatt, who stuck to a tight seven-man rotation before garbage time, admitted that his team looked tired. James said that he was "gassed" at the end of the third period. Dellavedova was unable to duplicate his 20-point effort from Game 3, and Cleveland's other perimeter options (Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith) were ice cold from outside.
"Defensively we were still very good," said James, who finished with 20 points (on 7-for-22 shooting), 12 rebounds and eight assists. "Offensively we were terrible. Sometimes your offense just doesn't show up, and there is no way we go 4‑for‑27 from the three‑point line and expect to win."
Without meaningful scoring balance and with James continuing to struggle with his shooting efficiency, Mozgov's ability to exploit his size advantage inside was rendered moot. Kerr's decision to trade some of his defense for offense wound up looking a lot less risky in practice than it might have looked on paper. After holding off one serious Cleveland push in the third, Golden State won the fourth quarter 27-12 to cruise to the 21-point victory.
"You're going to want Mozgov to beat you," Green said. "You're going to take the chance on Mozgov beating you before you take the chance on LeBron beating you. He had a good game, but we were able to slow LeBron down a little bit, and we made [Mozgov] have to run the floor with us, and it worked to our favor."
The tricky thing for Cleveland going forward, in Game 5 and beyond, is that its incredibly short rotation doesn't really allow for the luxury of major counter-adjustments.
"As far as lineup changes, we don't have many different lineup changes we can actually go to," James conceded.
Blatt is already playing his most capable perimeter players, and his only real decision is whether to leave Mozgov on the court, and deal with the mismatches, or to cut Mozgov's minutes and try to fight small-ball fire with small-ball fire. If he sticks with Mozgov, Blatt will need to hope Barnes or Iguodala goes cold from outside while his own bigs dominate the glass for four quarters, helping to slow down the Warriors. If he cuts Mozgov's minutes, Blatt needs a breakout shooting performance (or two, or three) from his wings or the Cavaliers will be at risk of being outgunned.
Game 4 also showed that Cleveland's deliberate style of play is a lot less effective when the Cavaliers are trailing than when they are milking a lead. The defeat also revealed that the Cavaliers' margin for error is significantly smaller than the Warriors'. When Golden State has been off in this series, it still forced overtime in Game 2 and mounted a strong comeback late in Game 3. When Cleveland was off in Game 4, things got ugly fast enough that the home crowd began departing before the final buzzer.
Although this series is technically even, and James isn't going anywhere, Golden State seemed to wrench command of the Finals away from Cleveland for the first time in Game 4. Indeed, Thursday night felt like a return to normalcy: the deeper, more versatile, more potent Warriors finally exerted those advantages to devastating effect. That must make James, in particular, more than a little nervous. Remember, it was the Spurs' decision to downsize against the Heat that proved to be the critical turning point in the 2014 Finals. San Antonio scored three straight blistering wins after promoting Boris Diaw into its starting lineup, and Miami—which had similar depth issues as this Cleveland team—was left in the dust.
Will the Warriors' downsizing prove to have similar series-sealing consequences? Will it wind up being a chess move that shifts the balance between two competitive teams, much like Golden State's unconventional decision to switch Bogut onto Grizzlies guard Tony Allen in the second round? Or, will this go down as just another volley once James gets a chance to respond, with an extra day of rest, in Sunday's Game 5?
For now, know this: Kerr's little white lie was anything but harmless, as it wounded the Cavaliers, and wounded them deeply.