The Golden State Warriors came up with a critical Game 5 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers to take a 3-2 series lead in the NBA Finals.
In Game 5, the Warriors’ series-changing adjustment — a super small-ball lineup — forced the Cavaliers into matching up with them, and it changed the tone of the game.
After 7’1″ center Timofey Mozgov dominated with 28 points and 10 rebounds in a Game 4 loss, Cavs coach David Blatt benched Mozgov for most of Game 5. Despite his size advantage, Mozgov couldn’t keep up with 6’7″ Draymond Green at center, and Blatt made the decision to go small, moving 6’9″ Tristan Thompson to center and LeBron James to power forward for a majority of the game.
Mozgov started, but only played nine minutes and scored zero points. LeBron delivered another 40-point triple-double and Thompson played well 19 points and 11 rebounds, but the adjustment didn’t have quite the intended effect.
While the game was close until late in the fourth quarter, the Cavs’ offence never quite took off, and by the end of the game James and Thompson looked notably fatigued from playing huge minutes. Cleveland only scored 91 points, and in the second half, their offensive rating plummeted to 88.4 while the Warriors’ shot up to 107.9 — nearly a 20-point difference.
Moving Mozgov to the bench also took away one of the Cavs’ greatest strengths over the Warriors: their size and rebounding advantage. For the entire series, the Cavs have out-rebounded the Warriors and given themselves more scoring opportunities by grabbing offensive boards. The Cavs were winning games partly because they were forcing their size on the Warriors and grinding out possessions, which doesn’t suit the Warriors’ style of play. In Game 5, however, the Warriors out-rebounded the Cavs by six. In the fourth quarter, Golden State up with several key offensive rebounds that ran time off clock that the Cavs needed to try to mount a comeback.
Cavs coach David Blatt was asked about the adjustment after the game and seemed defensive about the decision to sit Mozgov:
Q. Steve Kerr just told us this is not a series for big guys. And going again to the Timofey Mozgov thing, are you going to stay playing not big basketball, or after the circumstances and the result of the game, are you trying to do something different? Because it didn’t pay much result tonight, if you think?
COACH BLATT: And how did it do the game before?
Q. He was the best scorer, but you didn’t use him tonight.
COACH BLATT: What was the score of the game?
Q. You guys lost the game again.
COACH BLATT: Yeah, by more.
Q. Can could you explain why you didn’t use him? 28 points last game, and no points tonight?
COACH BLATT: I thought I was pretty clear I thought that was our best chance to win the game, and we were definitely in the game with a chance to win. So that’s the way we played it. So I thought I was pretty clear with that.
The lineup experiment didn’t fail the Cavs, but it did make their weaknesses more pronounced. Though they matched up better with the Warriors in terms of speed, sitting Mozgov took away their size advantage, gave them fewer rebounds, and made a short rotation even shorter.
Blatt faces a tough task in trying to keep up with the Warriors’ adjustments. Facing elimination in Game 6, it will be interesting to see whether Blatt decides to keep Mozgov in the game and battle the Warriors’ strength (speed and spacing on offence) with the Cavaliers’ own (size and rebounding) or if he thinks the first three quarters of Game 5 were enough proof the Cavs can win by going small against the Warriors.
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