After the Golden State Warriors made the decision to go small in the NBA Finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers tried to mimic it in Game 5 and were unsuccessful.
Cavs coach David Blatt only played center Timofey Mozgov — who was great in Game 4 — nine minutes in a Game 5 loss, opting for a small-ball unit that wore out in the fourth quarter.
Now, down 3-2 and facing elimination in Game 6, Blatt has a huge decision to make: play Mozgov, or go small again to match the Warriors.
Blatt started Mozgov in Game 5, but quickly pulled him when the seven-foot-one center couldn’t keep up with Warriors’ six-foot-seven, de-facto center Draymond Green. The Warriors push the pace and spread the floor when they go small, and Mozgov simply isn’t nimble enough to keep up with them:
After Game 5, Blatt defended his thinking by saying the game was closer in Game 5, when the Cavs went small to match the Warriors, than in Game 4 when the Cavs stayed “big.”
By going small, the Cavs not only put quicker players better suited to keep up with the Warriors on the floor, they also move LeBron James to power forward where they can put an extra shooter around pick-and-rolls with him and Tristan Thompson.
While the Cavs were able to keep up with the Warriors for three-and-a-half quarters in Game 5, they wore out down the stretch. Due to injuries, Cleveland has basically been playing a seven-man rotation. Though Blatt found more minutes for fringe players like Mike Miller and James Jones in Game 5, James and Thompson absorbed all of the extra frontcourt minutes and looked like they were out of gas by the end of the game.
Additionally, Mozgov has been extremely useful to the Cavaliers on offence. With Mozgov on the floor in the Finals, the Cavs have a 101.3 offensive rating, which is eight points higher than their average in the series. Though LeBron is carrying an unprecedented offensive burden in these Finals, Mozgov has been key to the Cavs offence as a pick-and-roll big man that sucks in defences when he rolls to the basket. He’s also been the Cavs’ best finisher at the rim, shooting nearly 72% in the restricted area in the Finals.
The size disadvantage goes both ways. While Mozgov may struggle to contain Green on defence, his size creates mismatches on offence and on rebounds. The Cavs have been the better rebounding team in the Finals, collecting 50.6% of all misses, but that number shoots up to 56% with Mozgov on the floor. If the Cavs control the boards, it limits the number of possessions the Warriors get.
These Finals have been about each team making adjustments from one game to the next in hopes of finding small advantages in a surprisingly competitive series. With the Cavs facing elimination, Blatt needs to decide whether his best move would be to make an adjustment or stick to his guns.
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