clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The real power of the Warriors' bold lineup change

New, comments

The Warriors' decision to go small worked beautifully because they were willing to accept trade-offs to enforce their stylistic will on the game.

SB Nation's 2015 NBA Finals Guide

You'll hear two obvious reasons for why the Warriors' inspired decision to start Andre Iguodala in Game 4 and stay small for the rest of the NBA Finals enabled them to win a championships. One is that it increased the pace of the game, which is how the Warriors win. The other is that it caused the Warriors' role players to hit the shots they made all season, but were missing badly in Games 1-3.

These reasons are correct, to a point. It's true that the Warriors played faster and freer. It's true that the role players made shots they hadn't been. It's true that the Warriors reclaimed their identity after having it swiped from them earlier in the series.

But that's just window dressing. This worked so well because Steve Kerr was willing to risk drop-offs in smaller areas to make bigger changes to the game.

The Warriors always wanted to run and flow, but the new alignment of players on the floor created the conditions needed to facilitate that movement. That's the logistical upside of the decision. But more importantly, it forced the Warriors to gain strength from weaknesses. The Warriors decided that if the Cavaliers beat them, it'd be in the way they wanted, not the way the Cavaliers wanted. It was pragmatic, and when you play the same team seven times, pragmatism is powerful.

Kerr knew his decision could inhibit his team in any number of ways. What if the rim protection suffered too much with Draymond Green and David Lee at center? What if this only heightened the Cavaliers' massive advantage on the offense glass? What if the Warriors' role players kept missing the shots the Cavaliers have dared them to take?

Yet none of those issues really mattered as the Warriors cruised to victory. That's because Kerr figured out which disadvantages matter least. This is as important as understanding which advantages matter most.

***

Obviously, the lineup change was made because the Warriors' offense badly needed a jolt. The Warriors tried playing fast in Game 3, but Cleveland slowed their half-court offense down by helping off the screeners and devoting all their attention to stopping Curry and Klay Thompson.

That threw the supporting players out of rhythm. They passed up shots in part because they lacked confidence to make them, but also because their feet weren't set, the pass wasn't arriving at the exact second they expected and they were a step away from their normal shooting spots.

Going small crushed the Cavaliers' game plan because it blurred the line between screener and threat. When Bogut or Festus Ezeli is out there, the Warriors become more traditional. The Cavaliers can plan knowing Green is the primary ball screener for Stephen Curry and players like Iguodala and Barnes will either spot up or cut. That's a slight simplification, but it had enough utility for Cleveland to design a strategy that stripped the Warriors' machine down to its parts.

When Green is at center, that changes. All five players become just as likely to act as the screener as they are the threat.

The role of Iguodala in that sequence was played by Bogut in the past. The Cavaliers don't have to worry that Bogut will surprise them and step back for a three. They do have to worry at least slightly about it in Iguodala's case. With Cleveland's defense stretched elsewhere because everyone's become dangerous, Iguodala has much more space and rhythm to step into his shot.

The Warriors also used multiple players to screen for Curry on the ball. It wasn't just Green. Sometimes, it was Barnes or Iguodala. That pulled Mozgov away from the rim and turned those 4-on-3 advantages into easier 2-on-1s or 3-on-2s. The spacing on this play is perfect, whereas Bogut would have been mucking it up in previous games.

But it's not just that the small lineup made sets like this less predictable. It also stretched the Cavaliers' defensive shell right as the shot clock began running.

Contrary to popular belief, the Warriors actually did get the ball up the floor quickly in Game 3. But in that game, their flow stopped because Bogut and Ezeli couldn't get into the frontcourt fast enough to become threats. The flow never stops when Iguodala, Barnes or Green is the last man up the floor.

The contrast between these two stills from Games 3 and 4 is vitally important.

The ball is in the frontcourt and into the play in four seconds in both stills. So why the talk about increased "pace?"

The problem in the first one is that Bogut wasn't up the floor yet. Since he's not a threat to shoot a three, his man, Timofey Mozgov, could just drop into a one-man zone to stop Golden State's quick-hitter. Any sort of numbers advantage the Warriors created by playing fast was negated by Mozgov.

In the second one, though, Mozgov had to shade to Harrison Barnes because he's a threat to hit a corner three despite his cold shooting. LeBron was stuck shading to his man, too. He had to worry about a swing pass to Iguodala, who could have shot a wing three, drove or initiated an immediate dribble hand-off action with Klay Thompson. That gave the Warriors the space they need to create an advantage in the quick Curry/Green pick and roll.

Here's how both plays ended.

There was no flow in the first sequence. There was continuous flow in the second. That's why Barnes bricked a mid-range jumper on the first play and swished a corner three on the second. It had much less to do with him being open than with him catching in his spot and firing in rhythm.

***

But what about the disadvantages? Turns out they didn't matter because the terms of engagement were totally different.

Technically, the lack of size did hurt Golden State on the glass. Cleveland grabbed 16 offensive rebounds for 20 second chance points in Game 4, and both are sizeable numbers. They were effective on the glass in Games 5 and 6 well.

But the Cavaliers were getting offensive rebounds in Games 1-3 anyway. This way, at least Golden State had the speed on the wings to get out in transition when the Cavaliers couldn't get boards, especially in the fourth quarter. The Warriors figured the trade-off was worth making and they were right.

Better yet, the Warriors' smaller lineup still kept James from punishing them inside because it occasionally necessitated harder double teams. The Warriors still helped cautiously and eventually wore James down as the series progressed, but they increased their pressure enough to force the ball out of James' hands and into the hands of Cleveland's role players more often. Those Cavaliers shot from inopportune places at inopportune times, which meant Cleveland's offensive rebounders couldn't position themselves as predictably. That's why James had only 27 shooting possessions in Game 4(shot attempts + free-throw opportunities) compared to 40 in Game 3 and looked tired in Game 6.

The Warriors were particularly daring in leaving Matthew Dellavedova open. The Warriors often treated Game 3's cult hero like the minimum-contract player he is, particularly on those big/small pick and rolls designed to force Curry to switch onto James. Curry was hedging and quickly darting back to Dellavedova in the first three games so he wouldn't get open. He stayed with James for the rest of the series.

The Warriors left Matthew Dellavedova -- and Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith, to be fair -- on pick and rolls and occasionally doubled off them when James posted up, even if it cleared an easy kickout pass.

The tactic worked for obvious reasons. Fundamentally, it meant James wasn't shooting. More specifically, it meant Cleveland was taking the kind of long jumpers that lead to long rebounds. Even more specifically, it meant the players the Warriors wanted to shoot were shooting.

The Cavaliers also helped by force-feeding Mozgov, Thompson and others inside, which was a bizarre strategy. Mozgov had 28 and 10 in Game 4 ... and I'm sure the Warriors were thrilled. He was never as effective the rest of the series because the Warriors started swarming him with harder double teams. Nobody else could step forward.

***

Every adjustment an NBA team makes has upside and downside. There is no magic wand that solve every problem at once. The key for any coach is to figure out whether the benefit sufficiently outweighs the cost. That was certainly the case in Games 4-6 and it allowed the Warriors to get back into this series.

The Warriors proved that it's not only about what an adjustment adds. It's about accepting what it subtracts

SB Nation presents: The 3-pointer has gone from novelty to necessary