The Golden State Warriors survived a classic LeBron James performance and beat the Cleveland Cavaliers 108-100 in overtime of Game 1 of the NBA Finals. It’s a win that feels much more significant than the 1-0 series lead indicates.
The Cavs followed the blueprint for upsetting the Warriors to the letter through 50 minutes. They got 44 points out of LeBron, grabbed offensive rebounds in bundles early, and had the supposedly injured Kyrie Irving looking downright spry.
But in the last three minutes of overtime the Warriors stole the game, and it came after coach Steve Kerr made a gutsy decision to finally pull out the small-ball lineup he hadn’t used all night.
All year the Warriors have been devastating teams by playing a super small team of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes, and Draymond Green. Green, at 6’7″, is the nominal center. This lineup destroys people on offence because all five guys can shoot threes and attack off the dribble, and it’s good enough defensively to hold its own because all five guys can switch on screens and guard multiple positions.
Kerr didn’t use it at all in through the 48 minutes of regulation and the first two minutes of overtime, probably because he feared the Cavs would destroy his team on the offensive boards. But when the game was on the line late, Kerr went small, and it paid off.
The Warriors led 100-98 when they went small with 3:16 left. In their next five possessions they scored eight points to push the lead to 108-98 and put the game away.
The maddening thing about this lineup for opponents is that since everyone can shoot, one defensive lapse leads to a wide-open three pointer, like the one Harrison Barnes drained to make it 105-98 with two minutes left:
To combat this lineup, the Cavs tried to go small(ish) themselves by bringing in James Jones and playing LeBron at the 4. But with Tristan Thompson forced to chase Draymond Green around the court, there’s no one home to protect the rim. Once Iguodala gets by J.R. Smith here, only Jones is between him and the basket. If Andrew Bogut is in the game for the Warriors, the Cavs can park at big man at the rim and take away these sorts of drives:
Golden State got some luck as well during this period. Irving left the game with a leg injury and LeBron, who’d been otherwordly all night, couldn’t drain a couple of threes to narrow the gap. But it was a devastating stretch for the Cavs, not just because they lost a game they could have easily won and wasted LeBron’s 44 points, but because it showed how tough it’s going to be for Cleveland to matchup with this lineup.
After the game, Kerr told reporters he went small to try to disrupt LeBron.
“You have to kind of try to keep doing some different things with LeBron because he’s, I mean, he’s just so talented and can score in so many ways,” he said. “So we just decided to change the look a little bit. Whether that worked or not, I mean, it worked on the scoreboard. He may have missed a couple shots that he had been hitting earlier, but it was just something we did.”
Offensive rebounding has been central to the Cavs’ success in the playoffs. If they are suddenly forced to go small to match up with the Warriors, that means Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson aren’t on the floor at the same time, and the extra possessions Cleveland gets with offensive boards go away. And if Irving is out, what exactly is this small Cavs lineup going to look like?
It will be fascinating to see if Kerr goes back to this extensively in Game 2, or if he tries to keep it traditional. There’s a reason, after all, he refused to use it all night long — over a larger sample size, maybe the big Cavs lineup really would destroy the little Warriors on the boards. But at the very least, both teams now know this wild card is on the table if things are going against Golden State.
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