CLEVELAND -- Earlier in this series, when times were easier and more carefree, Harrison Barnes reflected on the first significant move that Steve Kerr made as coach of the Warriors. When he took Andre Iguodala and David Lee out of the starting lineup and installed Barnes and Draymond Green as his forward combination.
"It was a huge move by Coach Kerr to come in as a first-time coach and flip the script, really," Barnes said. "It's crazy to think about it now. How wild it was at the time, but I guess he saw something that we didn't see. You could easily be in a situation where those guys say, ‘Look we're the vets. You guys are young players. You guys will have your time. This is about us.' They didn't. They were selfless and that's allowed us to grow and develop."
The Warriors' foundation is built on three fundamental principles: positional flexibility on the defensive end, pace on offense and a willingness, if not a demand, to accept both as part and parcel of being on a successful team. Iguodala dealt with his demotion, although he retained a large role as the team's sixth man. Lee handled the loss of any meaningful role like a pro and the Warriors rolled to a 67-win regular season.
The transition was so seamless that the decisions were rarely given their proper due. These were two highly-paid veterans being pushed aside for younger players. That's the kind of move that can play havoc with a team's psyche, especially one like Golden State, who seemed destined for good things but hadn't yet accomplished what they set out to do. That it didn't is a testament to their professionalism and the effectiveness of the moves.
"We have a lot of guys who don't put up huge stats but they affect the game in a way that only real basketball purists would know," Andrew Bogut said last week. "Iguodala's one of them. Draymond Green's put up some big stats but a lot of his games he does things that people don't see. There's a lot of guys on our team who do that. If you can get a bunch of those guys on one team that aren't worried about their stats and getting paid, you end up getting what we have. It's very rare in the NBA."
Steve Kerr is coaching far beyond his years
We talk about the individual and team brilliance of the Warriors all the time, of course, but their head coach deserves plenty of the credit, too.
In that sense, it wasn't a huge shock that Kerr would radically alter his lineup and rotation in Game 4 of the finals after falling behind 2-1 to the Cavaliers. While the difference in the series has been exceptionally miniscule, the Warriors have not been themselves in any of these games.
Most people expected Kerr to do something to change the dynamic, and while he steadfastly denied that he would make any dramatic lineup changes, it wasn't a surprise that he started the game with Iguodala in the lineup. The twist was that Iguodala started in place of Bogut. To put it another way, he lied his ass off.
"So, if I tell the truth, it's the equivalent of me knocking on David Blatt's door and saying, ‘Hey, this is what we're going to do,'" Kerr said. "I could evade the question, which would start this Twitter phenomenon: Who is going to start for the Warriors? Or I could lie. So I lied. Sorry, but I don't think they hand you the trophy based on morality. They give it to you if you win. So, sorry about that."
No apology necessary. Not after the revamped Warriors blew past the Cavs, 103-82, to even the series at two games apiece. Like so many decisions Kerr has made in his first year at the helm, the moves worked like a charm. Asked why he made the move, Kerr answered, "Pace."
Pace is everything for Golden State, and while this wasn't the helter-skelter game in which the Warriors have thrived all season, it was played at a much crisper tempo than previous ones. The Warriors didn't run so much as they moved quickly. They pushed the ball up the court on made shots and misses. They passed in the halfcourt to set up shots and to get the Cavs' defense on the move. They kept Steph Curry on the run instead of allowing the Cavs to double-team him whenever he had the ball. This was an adjustment to get back to some semblance of normalcy for Golden State. In other words, they adjusted back to being themselves.
There was another subtle move in the works: Kerr actually shortened his rotations, giving seven players significant minutes including Lee and Shaun Livingston off the bench. Bogut played only three minutes -- long enough to give three hard fouls, including one that sent LeBron right into a cameraman, opening a huge gash on the top of his head. Festus Ezeli didn't play at all. By using Lee and Livingston, along with the smaller starting five, Golden State had speed and skill at every position. Livingston, in particular, thrived in his expanded role.
Not that there weren't some anxious moments. By going small, the Warriors left themselves at the mercy of Cleveland's huge front line, and sure enough, the Cavs stormed out to a 7-0 lead in the first few minutes. Kerr called a timeout to settle things down, but he stayed the course and soon Golden State had built a sizable lead. That edge nearly evaporated in the third quarter when Timofey Mozgov did whatever he wanted. Still, Kerr stuck with the plan.
"Mozgov's huge, man," said Green who had the unenviable task of bodying up the big man. "(He's) 7'3" and he probably outweighs me by at least 40 pounds, and he's talented. I think he's probably one of the most underrated players in the league. He was great for them tonight. But at the end of the day, you're going to want Mozgov to beat you. You're going to take the chance on Mozgov beating you before you take the chance on LeBron beating you."
That was the other big adjustment. For three games, the Warriors have bet on the idea that LeBron can't beat them by himself. The strategy worked to a certain extent. James has put up huge numbers, but it's required a ton of shots. He's had just enough help to get his team across the finish line, but on this night the limits of Cleveland's thin depth were exposed.
Mozgov and Tristan Thompson scored 40 points and grabbed 23 rebounds. That was collateral damage caused by the lineup change and was expected. James needed 22 shots to get 20 points. The Warriors brought more help to James' primary defender, often Iguodala who has been Golden State's best player in this series, and got the ball out of LeBron's hands. The Cavs perimeter supporting cast shot 7-for-40 and made only three of 23 shots from behind the arc. By contrast, Iguodala, Barnes and Green scored 53 points and shot 18-for-35. Finally, the Warriors depth proved too much for the resilient Cavs.
Things change quickly in this game. Just 48 hours ago, the Warriors were facing a crisis of confidence and faith. They shrugged and said they needed to play harder, which they did. Now it's the Cavs who must scramble for answers. The two days off will help a team that was on fumes after playing three games in five days, but there's only so much they can do with so limited a roster. They do have James, however, and he presented a little reminder of how quickly one's fortunes can change.
"Biggest challenge of my career was being down 3‑2 going into Boston," James said, hearkening back to the 2012 conference finals. "That's probably the biggest challenge of my career. Game 5 at Golden State is not that big when it comes to going to Boston and you lose multiple times in that arena, and the franchise that I was with at the time had never won a playoff game in Boston. Now that's pretty challenging. So I've been through a little bit in my pretty cool career."
Yes he has. He has the power to affect change and alter history all on his own. He will have to utilize every ounce of his ability if he's going to bring the Cavs back to Cleveland with a chance at the championship. We all know James is capable, but now we also know that he'll be doing it against a Golden State team that has recaptured its groove and its spirit.
"If I told my teammates six months ago, or whatever the case may be, that it would be 2‑2 and we had an opportunity to be 2‑2 in the finals going on the road, would you take it?" James asked. "With three games left, I think all of them would accept that, and that's what it's about."