Steve Kerr just made one of the most inspired, and most courageous, calls I have ever seen in an NBA Finals. Down 2-1 in the series, on the road for Game 4, he benched his $12 million center, inserted a small forward in his place, and went 6-6, 6-7, and 6-6 across the front line.
The full Don Nelson.
Has there ever been a more courageous coaching decision in the Finals? Not just in the context of the moment, with everything that was at stake in the series, but in the context of the franchise of which Steve Kerr is a part? Joe Lacob took control of this franchise vowing to purge all vestiges of Nellieball from its culture. Bye bye Don Nelson, hello rookie coaches he thought he could control. Bye bye stretch-four Anthony Tolliver, hello Lou Amundson. SIZE and REBOUNDING were the new gods. The touchstones of the Warriors’ “culture change.”
When Lacob’s figurehead GM Bob Myers was asked before this season about the possibility of the Warriors playing small, he stated: “We want to play big whenever possible.” When queried about Steve Kerr’s comment that the Warriors could use a stretch-four, Myers said: “I believe that Steve would walk that statement back now if you asked him.” When the subject of the Miami Heat winning two titles playing Nellieball was brought up, Myers responded that that was a special case, strictly having to do with LeBron.
You have to wonder what Joe Lacob and his advisor Jerry West (a notorious disbeliever in smallball) are thinking right now. (I don’t wonder what Bob Myers is thinking. He’s thinking whatever Joe Lacob is thinking.)
Steve Kerr has the biggest balls on the planet. And is a brilliant, dynamic playoff tactician in the Don Nelson mold. This is what Nellie said about him yesterday in The Chronicle (thank you, Scott Ostler):
[F]or him to make that move was really important, as far as I was concerned. I thought it needed to be done and he did it, and it worked….
He’s just such a good young coach. I’m just really proud of him. We’re just so lucky to have him in Golden State, just so lucky to have the guy.
And the Warriors, and NBA basketball, are lucky to have had you too.
The Warriors’ Adjustments: Steve Kerr made all three adjustments I suggested in my Game 4 preview, but in a far more radical way than even I could have hoped for:
1) Nellieball: I’ve written about how it could unlock the full potential of this Warriors roster so often, you don’t need more from me here. But just in a nutshell: It got 5 shooters on the floor, which is what you need against a great defense. It ignited the fast break. Whatever Mozgov got inside, he got right back on the other end, whether by getting beat down court, struggling to get out to Iggy and Barnes behind the line, or struggling to control the Warriors’ resurgent pick and roll. IT BROKE THE BLITZ.
Is it any wonder that Draymond Green’s game returned to its former glory? With Bogut out of the lineup, the Warriors were able to fully break the blitz with 1-5 PNR. Just as he’s done with Bogut out all season long, and just as David Lee did in Game 3, Green masterfully ran the 4 on 3 behind the blitz: Darting into the lane, hitting the open three point shooters, and attacking the basket. Without Bogut clogging the lane, Mozgov was forced to recover to the basket from further out, making it just a little bit tougher to get to Green’s shot, or to get that charging call.
Seven turnovers for the game, against the toughest defense they’ve seen all year. Seven. A hallmark of Don Nelson’s teams. When you are the fastest team on the floor, and the most skilled, when you have the best ball-handlers, when you’re running the court, and the floor is spread and the offense is flowing like fine beverages in feltbot’s household… low turnovers. Go figure.
In the end, Nellieball wore down Mozgov, as it wore down all of the depleted and exhausted Cavs. Setting them up for the long knife, hidden behind the cape.
We’ve seen this before.
Back when We Believed.
2) The LeBron Defense: For the first time this series, the Warriors were pro-active in double teaming LeBron, sending an extra defender as soon as he put the ball on the floor. And didn’t speeding up the Cavs tempo and forcing more threes tie in beautifully with the small ball attack?
3) Unleash the Gunslinger: As Nellie noted, Kerr flattened the defense and allowed Curry to iso Delly up top. Delly is a terrific team defender, but it’s a whole different story trying to guard Curry in isolation. Delly doesn’t have a prayer.
Although I continue to feel that Curry isn’t all there so far in this series. He just seems a step slow, like he’s running in mud or something. And his face is showing less joy, more strain. Is it just that he’s fatigued? Or is he still feeling the after-effects of that nasty fall on his head?
Naw, couldn’t be. He passed the Warriors’ rigorous concussion protocol.
Bogut: He’s hearing it from the press and fans right now, but he’s not going to hear it from me. I’ve come to praise Bogut, not bury him.
He’s injured. I don’t think there’s any doubt. There’s not just the evidence of our eyes, but also a recent profile of Harrison Barnes, in which it was let slip that Jerry West was worried about an unnamed player’s knee. That player is Bogut.
Remember what happened in midseason? Bogut had a major case of inflammation in his knee, which got diagnosed as some obscure medical condition. It knocked him out for a couple of weeks, and I believe he got the notorious Kobe treatment for it. I was actually amazed that he returned to play so well this season. Until now. His injury luck has once again turned sour.
Bogut has never been a favorite player of mine, because of his lack of offense, and what I believe to be his suppression of Stephen Curry’s talents. Just as an example, can you imagine how many assists a game Curry could average playing with Timofey Mozgov? I’m certain it would launch him into the class of Steve Nash and Chris Paul as an assist man, and enable him and the Warriors to bust the constant blitzes that afflict him, without resort to small ball.
But I also have a lot of admiration for Bogut. You don’t attain his level of hoops IQ, of passing, of screen-setting, of defense — of team play — without an intense passion for the game. And I love players who radiate that intelligence and that passion.
I also admire the perseverance he’s had to continually work his way back from injury. And to suffer the slings and arrows of coaches who have a hard time understanding the difference between injury and slacking. With Bogut, it hasn’t been about the money. He loves the game, and he loves winning.
Bogut’s going to get his ring this year. No one can take that away from him. And he’s fully earned it.
Good on ya, Bogues.
Iggy: Has been the hero of the series so far, as Kerr rather hyperbolically said, “our best player” in the first four games. He is both taking the challenge on LeBron and hitting his wide-open shots on the other end. Although, if we’re being completely honest, both accomplishments require qualification.
In the last regular season game in which these two players matched up, you might remember that LeBron worked Iggy from all over the floor. Outside as well as inside. LeBron doesn’t have that option in this series, because he’s got an injury that no one is talking about. He’s got a badly sprained right wrist — sprained in the Hawks series, I believe — that is very obviously killing him.
To see proof of this, rewind the tape of the last game to 5:20 2nd Q: LeBron walks Iggy back into the paint, then turns left shoulder, and throws up a wild LEFT-HAND bank-shot. Who shoots left-handed when turning left shoulder? No one. Yet LeBron has done it several times already this series, and as Mark Jackson noted, it’s been completely unsuccessful every time he’s tried it. So why is he trying it? Because his right wrist is killing him, and he doesn’t trust it. I’m guessing he’s shooting well under 50% on right-hand LAYUPS.
LeBron has never been a great outside shooter, but it is normally a big part of his repertoire. Not in this series. Ever since that awful shot to end Game 1 regulation, he’s been very reluctant to shoot from outside at all. This is, of course, extremely helpful to Iggy’s ability to stay in front of him.
On the other end, Iggy is getting the benefit of being left unguarded due to the Curry blitz. Or of being guarded by Mozgov. In essence, now that he’s in the starting lineup, he’s getting the benefit of the Harrison Barnes role.
And as I mentioned to a friend today, if you’re a wing player, and you can’t score 20 while being guarded by Mozgov, you don’t belong in the league. Fortunately for the Warriors, Iggy has stepped up to do his job, where lesser players have wilted. Let’s hope he keeps hitting.
One of the things that Iggy is undeniably great at is pushing the ball in transition. I was very confident that the Warriors were going to win Game 4 as soon as the opening lineups were announced. But all doubt was erased from my mind at 7:45 1Q, when LeBron bowled Iggy over for a layup.
And two seconds later, Iggy dunked on the entire arena.
Running after a made basket, baby.
Klay Thompson: Klay is having a quiet series in the point totals, but he’s nevertheless had a major, and very underrated, impact.
First off, he’s guarding the point guard, Matthew Dellavodova. Which has allowed Curry to hide and rest against Iman Shumpert.
And secondly, he’s once again drawn the other team’s best defender away from Curry. Iman Shumpert. The Cavs can’t afford to put Shump on Curry, where they want him, because Klay simply lit up JR Smith in Game 1. And that is a huge blessing for Curry, and the Warriors.
I don’t know if you noticed, but Iman Shumpert is a bad, bad man. He is one of the premier lock-down wing defenders in the NBA. He has got Klay completely blanketed, practically unable to get his hands on the ball. And even when he does get the ball, he doesn’t dare dribble it. That’s how great Iman Shumpert is.
Like Nellie I shouted myself hoarse during Game 4. I don’t know about him, but I was shouting
whenever the Warriors grabbed a rebound. And when the Thaiblonde looked at me cross-eyed, I tweeted it. Well, there was a moment in the second half when Klay grabbed the rebound, and took off down the floor, and this is how it went:
Iman Shumpert was standing at half court, waiting to pick Klay up. If you have the power to snap feltbot out of a full-throated Nellieball Delirium Roar, then you are a bad man.
And yes, Klay did stop. At half court.
This might not be Klay Thompson’s series in the box score. But his contribution to the cause has been immeasurable. He’s the guy who is great enough to keep the Shump off of Stephen Curry.
Playoff Barnes: I am shocked that literally no one in the press noticed it when Mark Jackson and Jeff van Gundy ABSOLUTELY KILLED Barnes during the game. They were talking about Andre Iguodala at around 9:30 2Q, about how Iggy didn’t really want to do it when he was asked by Steve Kerr to come off the bench this year. But not only did he agree to do it, he completely bought into his role. And then this happened:
Jackson: [In his recent profile] Harrison Barnes talked about how frustrated he was not starting last year, and HE NEVER BOUGHT IN. It can hurt a basketball team when you don’t buy in…. Guys say they want to win, but the majority want to win on their own terms.
Van Gundy: Yeah, its “I want to win… if I get my own way.” When you have guys who TRULY want to win, you can tell by their actions.
Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzing! Shocked that everyone missed that.
One obvious benefit to the Warriors of Steve Kerr’s lineup change, was the ability to take Barnes off of LeBron. His defensive assignment is now Tristan Thompson. Ron Adams said of Barnes earlier this year: “If you keep things simple for him, he will give you a sophisticated performance.” Well, Barnes’ role literally can’t get any simpler than it is now: Guard the non-shooting Thompson. Make him work for offensive boards. Catch and shoot wide-open threes. That’s it.
Barnes has struggled badly in this series, but I think that’s about to change. He’s been removed from the utter humiliation of guarding LeBron, the Warriors are now playing Nellieball, running and stretching the floor, and he’s more unguarded than ever. Also, the newly configured Warriors have now turned the corner in the series, and are confident and smell blood.
This is the magic elixir for Playoff Barnes. I sense a big performance on its way.
Playoff Livingston: Like Iggy, had a great Game 4. It is not surprising that the Warriors’ move to smallball and pick and roll, with Green and Lee at center, has made Livingston a much better player. He’s now in a system much closer to the one he had in New Jersey, that earned him his big contract: playing with the ball in his hands, surrounded by four scorers. This is the best version of Livingston.
Something I find hilarious: Have you noticed that whenever Livingston makes a play, Jeff van Gundy uses the opportunity to praise Bob Myers for upgrading the Warriors bench? This is the very sly van Gundy’s way of sticking up for his buddy Mark Jackson, without spelling out the obvious truth: Bob Myers absolutely butchered the Warriors bench last season. Love you, JVG.
Something I find obvious: Bob Myers’ acquisition of Livingston has led in no small way to the benching of Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli. As I pointed out before the season started, you can’t play Livingston with non-shooting centers. It destroys the spacing, and great defenses can leverage that to grind a motion offense to a halt. Which is exactly what happened in this series.
When he’s not running the point with the ball in his hands, Livingston essentially turns into a smaller version of Bogut or Ezeli on offense — he occupies the same spaces for Kerr, and performs the same function. Check out 4:00 4th Q: Mozgov is guarding Livingston under the basket, and when he’s drawn away to give help, Livingston is left wide open for the dunk.
David Lee: Lee missed at least three layups that in past years have been automatic for him. I thought he looked either gassed or rusty. I’m not sure he’s capable right now of playing more than the 15 minutes he’s getting, even if Kerr wanted to give them to him.
Pundits on twitter keep bringing up the defense thing as soon as he’s inserted, as in “Cavs going to destroy him in PNR”, and “Kerr’s got him on a short leash.” OK, well, his defensive efficiency was .897 ppp in this game, just as it was in the last. (For reference, the Warriors’ league leading defensive efficiency this season was .980 ppp.) And he was a +4, despite his offensive woes.
Is that giving up more than you get, Greg Papa?
How about just watching him play? Lee has always been a decent defender of bigs like Mozgov and Thompson. What has hurt him in the past is trying to guard stretch-fours, and help defense. Guess what? Playing center, with Green and Iggy around him, that’s simply not an issue.
Speights: I doubt we see more of him in this series, and it’s not about that missed dunk. After the surprise of the first game, Tristan Thompson was able to totally shut down Mo’s pick and pop game. Thompson is long and far quicker than Mo, especially the pleasantly plump Mo we saw after his return from injury. It turns out I was right in my series preview after all: it’s a terrible matchup. The Warriors are much better off with Green and Lee at center.
THE CAVS ADJUSTMENTS:
The Warriors have made their big adjustments. Now it’s the Cavs’ turn to counter-adjust. The biggest adjustment they can make is just to show up ready to play hard. They were clearly in no shape to play Game 4: both Delly and LeBron suffered cramping during the game, and were noticeably low on energy.
It’s somewhat worrisome in this regard that the Cavs kept Game 4 so close for as long as they did: lest you forget, it was a 3 point game, 73-70, with :20 left in the 3rd Q. With an extra day of rest, and three days to think about and game-plan against the new-look Warriors, we can expect the Cavs to be back at full ferocity for Game 5.
Longer Rotation: Nevertheless, it feels increasingly unlikely that the Cavs can persevere in this battle of attrition without somehow lengthening their rotation. Particularly now that the Warriors have deployed the Full Nelson, and are committed to running the Cavs off the court.
I think for the Cavs to truly have a chance in this series, they have to get Mozgov off the court in the fourth quarter, and match up small with the Warriors. Thompson at center, Lebron at four, Shumpert, JR, and Delly/Jones/Miller/Mr. X. The Warriors ran the tiring Cavs off the court in the fourth quarter of Game 4, and I don’t think Blatt can afford to allow that to happen again.
But I also don’t think the short-handed Cavs have enough fresh bodies to play this way. Unless Blatt finds another bench player he can use.
What’s wrong with Shawn Marion? We heard rumors earlier in the series that he was poised to enter the rotation. I’ve heard other rumors that he’s plagued by a calf injury. And I also saw a leaked story that Cavs’ players are now pressuring Blatt to lengthen the rotation. The plot thickens.
Blatt virtually has to gamble now. Mike Miller and Marion are the obvious candidates.
The Offense: It’s obvious to all that the Cavs need to start making their threes. JR Smith in particular — he’s been absolutely wretched. I’m curious to see whether he and Shumpert step up now that it’s clear that the Warriors plan to take the ball out of LeBron’s hands. Their minds should be clear of second-guessing now. LeBron needs them to make shots.
A longer rotation would also obviously help the threes go down. Tired legs make it real tough in the fourth quarter, as we’ve seen from Klay Thompson when he’s guarded superstar point guards.
But I also wonder whether Shumpert and JR can’t do a better job of getting to the rim against the Warriors small units, particularly when Mozgov is out. That’s on David Blatt.
The Defense: Now that Kerr has neutralized Delly’s defense on Curry by unleashing the gunslinger, Blatt may have to come up with a defensive adjustment. And he has one major trick left up his sleeve.
Put Delly on Barnes, where he belongs, and move LeBron to where it really matters. Either Curry or Klay. Instead of shutting down just one of the Warriors stars, as Shumpert is now doing, take a shot at shutting down both.
I’m not sure how possible this is, given the absurd demands on LeBron’s stamina in this series. Right now LeBron is getting much needed rest on defense.
But it’s getting close to the time to find out.
LeBron: The King is coming to play in Game 5. And now he’s seen everything the Warriors got.
He’s one of the highest IQ players in NBA history, as well as the most physically gifted, and he now knows what works and what doesn’t work against this Warriors team. He’s battered, he’s bloody, his crew is whittled down to a tattered few. But he’ll be ready.
Bring it on.