The Golden State Warriors made two key changes to win a crucial Game 4 against the Cleveland Cavaliers to tie the NBA Finals at 2-2.
No team has ever come back from a 3-1 deficit in the Finals, so facing a historical disadvantage, the Warriors changed up their strategy for defending LeBron James, and they doubled down on their own offensive strategy.
After three games of letting LeBron pick them apart in isolations, the Warriors switched up their strategy by sending more double teams, forcing the ball out of his hands. After twice losing their original bet that LeBron couldn’t beat them by himself, Golden State began sending two defenders LeBron’s way, betting that his weak supporting cast couldn’t produce enough points to carry the offence.
Despite 28 huge points from Timofey Mozgov, the rest of the Cavs fell off. Matthew Dellavedova, J.R. Smith, and Iman Shumpert combined for just 19 points on 7-35 shooting — 20%. LeBron himself, perhaps as a result of the double teams and a nasty head injury from crashing into the cameras, only scored 20 points on 22 shots.
Not only does doubling LeBron take the ball out of his hands, an effective double team also makes the pass more difficult. Here, James’ pass to Dellavedova is off target, making Dellavedova reach while Stephen Curry recovers in time to contest the shot:
When asked about the Warriors’ defensive adjustment, LeBron said after the game:
“No, they doubled me a little bit more tonight. They kind of made me get a ball up, seeing if some of my teammates can beat those guys. Like I said, we couldn’t make any shots from the outside, but we’ll take those looks again. Those guys, my guys did a great job just stepping into them, trying to make them being confident about them. But when you go 4‑for‑27 from the three‑point line, there’s not much success offensively.”
On the other end, to try and find some breathing room against the Cavaliers’ suddenly stingy defence, the Warriors went extra small in hopes of spreading the floor and creating room for drivers. The Warriors made the key decision to put sixth man Andre Iguodala into the starting lineup, effectively replacing 7-foot Andrew Bogut, shifting 6’7″Draymond Green to center.
For most of the series, Green has struggled, making the Warriors’ pseudo-small-ball offence fail. When Green wasn’t hitting shots, the Cavs’ defence looked like the Warriors’ Thursday night — forcing the ball out of Curry’s hands to teammates who weren’t providing proper support.
In Game 4, Green bounced back, scoring 17 points on 6-11 shooting with seven rebounds and six assists, but the Warriors finally found an offensive flow and the spacing they need.
This is what the Warriors looked like all season, and the reason they’re normally such a devastating offence. When teams game plan to take the ball out of Curry’s hands, Green, a matchup nightmare for most other big men, is a capable playmaker who can attack off the dribble and make plays. With shooters spreading the floor, Green can attack the basket or find open teammates when the defence rotates:
The Warriors played several units with natural power forwards acting as centres, with two of them being especially crucial to their win. One lineup featuring Curry, Shaun Livingston, Klay Thompson, Iguodala, and Green played only four minutes, but outscored the Cavs by 10 in that stretch. A lineup with Curry, Livingston, Iguodala, Harrison Barnes, and 6’10” David Lee played four minutes and outscored the Cavs by four points.
Both of these adjustments go hand-in-hand. The Warriors’ small-ball lineup puts them at risk of being destroyed on rebounds by the Cavs’ aggressive frontcourt. Doubling LeBron gives the Cavs more opportunities to attack the offensive glass when Warriors’ defenders are out of position. Green described after the game how going small, getting their offence on track, and making someone else on the Cavs beat them plays to the Warriors’ advantage:
“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. So he had a good game, but we were able to slow LeBron down a little bit, and we made him have to run the floor with us, and it worked to our favour.”
These types of adjustments have made the Finals a compelling chess match. The Warriors opted to try to revitalize their offence and test the Cavs’ supporting cast in Game 4. If they continue these adjustments in Game 5, it will be interesting to see how the Cavs respond.
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