Dominating without scoring
Jesus Gomez makes the case that Draymond Green has been the Finals MVP. I think I agree but I reserve the right to change my mind.
CLEVELAND -- It was early in the fourth quarter of Game 4 and the Warriors were clinging to a one-point lead. At stake was a commanding 3-1 lead in the Finals and a chance to close this series out at home, where they have been almost unbeatable for the better part of two seasons.
As he has throughout much of this series, Andre Iguodala was matched up with LeBron James on the wing. Iguodala patiently waited through a Kevin Love screen and then raced over the top just as LeBron was ready to make his move. He angled James to the baseline where help was coming from the unlikely presence of James Michael McAdoo, a 6-8 forward who hadn’t even been active for the first three games of the series.
With nowhere to go, James swung the ball back to Love who was open at the 3-point arc. Before Love could load up a shot, Iguodala dashed back to run him off the line. Instead of flying into a wild contest, Iguodala stayed low and in position. Love drove with Iguodala matching him stride for stride. LeBron was lurking on the baseline, but after sealing off Love’s drive, Iguodala recovered and defended James again, stripping the ball and leading a break the other way.
It was an incredible sequence, one of the greatest displays of individual and team defense one will ever see. It was as much a signature moment in the Warriors Game 4 victory as any of the Splash Brothers shooting heroics. We often view the Warriors through the lens of their incredible offense and incomparable shotmaking, but it’s on defense where they are winning this series. When the Warriors are at their best, one feeds into the other and they become a flying collection of unguardable wraiths all blessed with skill and savvy.
"Basketball is at its best when you have athletes in space making plays," Shane Battier said to me before Game 3. "It’s the same for soccer, you have great athletes in space making plays and that’s when the game becomes beautiful. You have spacing and skill and coaching. It’s all synergetic. You don’t have to be a basketball fan to appreciate that. You can be a person who appreciates movement. It’s almost like a ballet at that point."
This series has been a brutalist ballet. Play has been rough and physical, the kind of action that the Warriors’ critics insist they couldn’t survive in a different era and a different age. What they miss are the defensive demands of their aesthetically-pleasing offensive style. Golden State is fully capable of mucking things up and getting down in the grime when the situation calls for it. They even like it.
The Warriors are here again on the brink of a championship because they are willing and able to play the kind of defense that the moment demands. They are here because they have players like Iguodala and Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes and Shaun Livingston and even McAdoo, who can defend their asses off at multiple positions. That’s the true value of their versatility: when they play on a string on one end of the floor, they can take advantage of speed and athletic mismatches on the other.
"Interchangeability and versatility unlocks so many styles of play for your team," Battier said. "It’s not the end all be all, but it helps you handle adversity so much better. It presents so many different matchup problems for the other team because they have to worry about so many different things. You can have long and athletic guys but if they’re dummies then you’re in trouble. What the Warriors have is amazing versatility, but also versatility in their basketball IQ."
No one exemplifies that more than Iguodala, a player described by those around the team as "the adult in the room." He’s their conscience, the one who Steve Kerr can point to whenever he asks for something from one of his players. Who would dare complain about shots or roles when Iguodala successfully transitioned to a reserve spot a year after signing a big free agent deal?
"We have a very unique team," Iguodala said. "We have a lot of solid basketball players. We have some really good shooters, great shooters. We have some very skilled big men. We have some skilled wing players who can play multiple positions, and I just happen to be one of the guys that can try to fulfill any void a team needs on any given night."
What he has done primarily during this series is defend LeBron, but Iguodala is only the main character in a much larger plot as outlined by our Mike Prada. Call it the LeBron Rules, a series of tactics and schemes that sends waves of defenders at LeBron whenever he has the ball. Their goal is to not only stop James from going off himself, but also to choke off his passing lanes and force the Cavs into a stagnant series of one-on-one isolation plays.
Outside of Game 3 when they were curiously absent, the Warriors have turned in a dominating defensive performance during the Finals. The key configuration in this has been the Lineup of Death and the Cavs have yet to find an effective counter. Their offense-heavy answer couldn’t keep up defensively and having multiple weak defenders on the floor plays right into Golden State’s hands.
"That’s a lineup that keeps coaches up at night thinking, ‘How can I defend that and what lineups do I play against that?’" Battier said. "It’s proven to be an unsolvable riddle."
Used judiciously by Kerr throughout the Finals, it’s been 14 points better per 100 possessions than the Cavs. Part of Kerr’s reasoning for rationing their minutes is a fear of getting pounded on the offensive glass and the Cavs have feasted at times on the boards. Another factor is the physical demands it places on players like Iguodala, Barnes and Green. Few know better than Battier what that entails. One of the great role players of the modern era, he won two titles with the Heat playing out of position at power forward. It was a job he took on willingly and one that aided LeBron in pursuit of his Finals breakthrough.
"You have to be willing to take the punishment and that’s what I did," Battier said. "I knew for us to be at our best that LeBron couldn’t exhaust himself, fatigue himself, by banging with David West and LaMarcus Aldridge and Zach Randolph and Carlos Boozer. That’s probably one of the reasons why I retired before I could have but I took a lot of punishment physically to keep my guys fresh. But it was in the name of sacrifice for the team and judging by the success we had I think it was worth it."
What used to be viewed as glamourless grunt work has gained cache in recent years. A few weeks earlier at the annual draft combine in Chicago, player after player spoke about their versatility and their willingness to defend multiple positions. We will always have point guards and bigs, but today’s players are unencumbered by arbitrary labels. As Kerr put it, "Guys who used to be dismissed as tweeners are now celebrated as positionless players."
Battier hears that and smiles.
"When I first came in the league you were slotted into a position and you did what you were slotted to do and there wasn’t much room to expand your role," he said. "Today’s game with the offensive schemes and the defensive schemes, it really allows to have a lot more creativity as a basketball player."
The Warriors are the revolution realized. Look up and down their roster and you will see players who at one time or another or in different situation would have slipped through the cracks and had their contributions minimized. Curry isn’t really a point guard. Green is an undersized four who plays center. Even Barnes, a prototypical wing on paper, has been a force as a smallball four. Iguodala is merely the epitome of all those experiences.
They have thrived because of their talents and a smart coaching staff that recognized their diverse abilities and turned them into an unguardable strength. Their style is beautiful and balletic, but their substance is found in their commitment to defense and it’s their defense that has them on the brink of defending their championship.
We’re facing an elimination game and there is still no consensus for Finals MVP. Here’s the working shortlist heading into Game 5.
Draymond Green: I’ve gone back and forth between Green and Andre Iguodala and I give Dray the slight nod because of his offense in Game 2 and his terrific all-around performance in Game 1 when he went for 16-11-8. Green has been locked in defensively throughout the series and there is no Death Lineup without Draymond at the five. Of course if he gets suspended, then all bets are off.
Andre Iguodala: I’ve had a handful of philosophical disagreements with smart basketball people who favored Iggy and I can see their point. As friend of the Shootaround John Schuhmann noted, at +54 Iguodala is far and away the plus/minus leader through four games. We need contextual stats to dig into Iguodala’s value because the counting numbers don’t capture it all. We also need the eye test to observe all the times he’s made the pass that makes the pass and then executed a flawless switch on the other end. There’s no argument from me if he wins again.
Steph Curry: The two-time MVP finally went off in Game 4 and now that his numbers (21-5-5, .613 True Shooting Percentage) have stabilized there’s a renewed groundswell of support for his candidacy. If he shoots the lights out again in Game 5, you can bet he will receive serious consideration. Curry’s impact goes far beyond his own stats. He’s a big reason why Shaun Livingston (Game 1) and Green (Game 2) had their huge scoring nights earlier in the series. What downgrades Steph’s chances has been his wandering defensive effort.
LeBron James: James is averaging 25 points, 11 rebounds and 8 assists and it’s still not enough to win this series or quiet his critics. Expectations for him have always been off the charts but we’re coming to a point where we have to contextualize his performance with his advancing age. Can LeBron still carry to a team to the Finals? Obviously. Can he carry this team to a championship? That is less sure and it might be time for the Cavs to remake this team to complement the next phase of his career.
Klay Thompson: The other Splash Brother has been solid on both ends of the floor, although he has yet to have a one of those transcendent shooting nights. Just as the attention on Curry spreads the offensive wealth around, so too does the presence of Thompson aid the Warriors’ other players. Kyrie Irving has the edge in counting numbers, but much of his production is a byproduct of Golden State’s brilliant defensive scheme that practically invites him to go one-on-one.
Jesus Gomez makes the case that Draymond Green has been the Finals MVP. I think I agree but I reserve the right to change my mind.
The working assumption is that the Cavs will look to trade Kevin Love in the offseason and Tom Ziller explores the many possibilities.
Mike Prada examines the Warriors’ LeBron Rules and finds them to be extremely effective.
"Ain’t no X and O adjustment they made. They punked us. That was the adjustment. I was like, what adjustment can they make? I didn’t think there was an adjustment they could make other than to play harder than us, and that’s what they did. Coach can be as great as they want to be, can come up with the best game plan they want to come up with. If you got outworked and got outplayed you just got outworked and outplayed and there’s no adjustment to that. Ain’t no X and no O going to win this series for either team. I can assure you that."-- Draymond Green.
Reaction: God bless Draymond Green, who remains an off-day treat for desperate reporters covering this thing. Just press record and let him go.
"I don't think anyone was prepared for me returning and understanding what the situation was going to entail. I mean, that's everyone here. You know, they had gone through some losing seasons in my previous stint before I came back, so they knew they were getting a pretty good basketball player and a great leader and a good person, and someone that was going to command excellence. But I don't know if they understood the day-to-day process of being in this situation was going to entail."-- LeBron James.
Reaction: It’s really wild that we’re two years into LeBron’s second run with the Cavs and it still feels like there’s an adjustment process happening. And this is a team that’s reached the Finals in both years. We can debate MVPs and what have you, but no one changes a franchise’s dynamic like LeBron.
"If you don't think we can win, don't get on the plane. I just think we've got to come back anyway, so we might as well come back and play. We've got to come back to Cleveland, don't we?"-- Ty Lue.
Reaction: Well, the Cavs do anyway. It will be interesting to see how they come out in Game 5 and whether they’re able to withstand what should be an emotional onslaught from Oracle.
"Everything was great. We were doing great. And, ‘Boy, what are the Cavs going to do? Are they going to get swept?’ They're a great team. They win a game, now it's our lineup changes, and, ‘Oh, my God, Steph Curry can't play well, and what's Klay going to do?’ When you go through the playoffs, you understand this is all part of it. And as a player, you have to feel that."-- Steve Kerr between Games 3 and 4.
Reaction: The pendulum swings have been wild this year, for two reasons. One, the amount of time between games and two, the sheer amount of blowouts. This has been a really weird year.
"Yeah, one team's scoring a whole lot more than the other team. That seems to be the trend."-- Andre Iguodala on the spate of blowouts.
Reaction: Strong take, Dre.