You can watch, analyze and study the nuts and bolts of the game all you want, but the best way for me to take in these finals was to sit back and enjoy. The first game of the series caught me off-guard. I was expecting Golden State to feel in control, to be whirling the ball around the perimeter and stifling Cleveland’s offensive gameplan. Instead, it was LeBron James controlling the pace of the game, slowing the Cavs to nearly 18 seconds per possession, much higher than average (via stats.inpredictable), which limited Golden State’s time on offense. Cavs coach David Blatt designed a defensive strategy that impeded the Warriors deadly attack and the Cavs felt in control the entire way. Even in a game when leads shuttled mostly within a 5 point radius toward either team, it felt like the Cavs were winning by 20. Golden State did not look like Golden State. The team was out of rhythm as Steph passed out of double teams and watched helplessly as his teammates looked lost trying to make a play while he and Klay Thompson were face-guarded off the ball.
In this picture, the Cavs devoted four guys to walling off Steph and Klay. An extreme example but indicative of the kind of attention Cleveland put toward stopping the Splash Brothers. The defensive scheme was masterful. The Cavaliers aggressively hedged Curry pick and rolls and forced the ball out of his hands while at the same time dutifully making sure Thompson couldn’t spring open. Even though Golden State won game 1, the Cavaliers proved they were going to put up a fight.
The Cleveland defense in the first three games seemed to protect the rim and yet still be able to close-out on shooters. A nearly impossible task. The players that did get open looks for Golden State were the guys that the Cavs had dictated would be open. Draymond Green was often left unguarded by the Cavs after Curry double-teams.
His confidence was so rattled by the end of game three that he didn’t take this wide open shot. Plus, the Cavs had Mozgov waiting at the rim to snuff out any drives.
Bogut was also left completely unguarded; same to a lesser extent with Harrison Barnes. All of which was in the hopes of slowing the two guys that make Golden States’ offense go, Steph and Klay. And it worked! By the third quarter of game 3, it felt like the Warriors’ majestic season was crumbling to a tragic halt at the hands of an all-time performance from one of the greatest ever. Lebron truly put up a Herculean effort despite the loss, carrying an inferior supporting cast on his back. To be clear about the true inadequacy of this Cavaliers team without Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, the Cavs shot 50% on shots that Lebron took, assisted, or that came off of Lebron’s misses. On shots not deriving from Lebron, they shot an inept 32%. And yet, in that brief moment in game 3, despite the lack of help James was receiving, it felt inevitable that Cleveland was going to score and that Golden State was going to be stopped. After 2 back-breaking threes from Lebron and J.R. Smith, it seemed the Cavs had taken complete control of the series.
Then, in the fourth quarter something switched. The Warriors made a change by inserting Andre Iguodala and David Lee in the lineup, employing small-ball in an attempt to grasp whatever foothold they could find. Steph Curry made some miraculous shots
And the Warriors nearly came back to win despite being down 17 to start the fourth.
Something had changed with Golden State. Some understanding, some confidence that they were going to get it done had clicked. No longer did they appear uncomfortable and out of their game. Despite the loss, their spacing finally opened up enough cracks in this stellar Cavaliers defense to pry itself out of what was borderline suffocation of their normally brilliant offense. Put simply, the Warriors remembered that they were the best team in the NBA.
Returning to what sparked their comeback at the end of game three, the Warriors started the next game with Iguodala instead of Bogut. Most of what worked for the Cavaliers in the first three games still did. Yet something had shifted, it felt that Golden State had steered control of the series in their favor. They won game four against an exhausted Cavaliers team playing its third game in 5 nights, traveling from Oakland to Cleveland in between. Although the small-ball starting lineup with Iguodala was about even in terms of +/-, it seemed to stir an energy in the Warriors that went beyond the tangible box score.
Then, we saw Curry’s barrage of threes in the fourth quarter of game 5 (another close game until the end mind you).
Curry put Matthew Dellavedova in the mix. In hindsight, Delly’s extraordinary defensive effort was never going to be enough to slow down the league’s MVP (although give him credit because for a second, it appeared it just might). Ultimately, the Cavaliers were just too shorthanded to stay with this Warriors team. Down to six or seven legitimate role players, Cleveland looked visibly gassed in game 4 and never quite seemed to ramp up the energy needed to replicate what they brought to games 1, 2 and 3. Give Cleveland, Lebron, and David Blatt credit, they made it a battle given limited personnel options. Few gave them a chance after losing Love, and even fewer believed after Irving went down. But despite all the predictions of an easy Warriors championship (including the ones we made a few weeks ago), this was a fiercely competitive series.
Blatt proved he was more than competent by implementing the defensive scheme that had the Warriors on their heels. Tristan Thompson was relentless on the offensive glass, Mozgov was a monster in the paint on both ends and Lebron, of course, was the best player on the floor. But Blatt and the Cavs didn’t have many options. They were forced into a singular plan of attack. While on the other hand, Kerr had the pieces available to rejigger his rotation in adjustment to what the Cavs were doing. Kerr removed Bogut, one the most valuable members of the team during the regular season and throughout the playoffs, from the rotation entirely, opting to give more playing time to Iguodala and David Lee, the latter of whom hadn’t played at all in the series until the second half of game 3. Further, Festus Ezeli, who played three minutes in game 5, played crucial minutes and scored 7 straight for Golden State in the late stretches of game 6 to hold Cleveland at bay. The unexpected contributions of two borderline rotation players (one making $15 million and the other making just above the minimum) at the most important time is indicative of how special this Golden State team is.
The front office did a fantastic work assembling this roster. They drafted many of the players from Curry and Thompson, to Barnes, Green, and Ezeli. They also made the right moves when necessary. The David Lee acquisition in 2010 has been torn apart, but at the time was an attempt to reinvigorate a team and fan base that had experienced losing for a long time. The team moved Monta Ellis for an injured Bogut, committing to Curry and Thompson as their backcourt of the future and acquiring a defensive anchor. They also went through with a risky sign-and-trade to acquire Finals MVP Andre Iguodala, giving up a plethora of draft picks to the Jazz for the opportunity.
The coaching staff took the team to new heights. They established a culture of winning and unselfishness in which both Lee and Iguodala (starters their whole careers and former all-stars) accepted bench roles. They fostered commitment to the defensive end and having fun on the other side of the ball, building a beautiful run-n-gun motion offense in the process.
What resulted was the construction of a fun-to-watch team built around unselfishness, depth and versatility. They are a team for everyone in the NBA to try to replicate. And yet the Cavs, with old-school isolation, inspiring and ingeniously constructed defense, and the best player in the world came close to beating them. Success is fleeting and difficult in the NBA, there is no perfect way to build a championship team, and this finals showed that. But hell, this Warriors team was as close as I’ve seen.