OAKLAND, Calif. — When Golden State Warriors Coach Steve Kerr decided to continue the modern game’s war on centers and practically eliminated the position from the NBA Finals, Cleveland Cavaliers Coach David Blatt was placed in a precarious, almost no-win situation.
With a depleted, ragged roster missing two all-stars, the Cavaliers’ only real strength — aside from LeBron James — was the physical, interior presence of Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson. Those two big men allowed Cleveland to control the boards and play the time-of-possession game that helped bring the Warriors’ fun-and-gun offense to a crawl. Kerr then decided to replace Andrew Bogut with Andre Iguodala, realizing that the Warriors are at their best when five quick, athletic players are on the court to combat Cleveland’s preferred slog by running sprints.
Blatt stuck with his big men in Game 4 and Mozgov scored a game-high 28 points but the Cavaliers lost by 21. He quickly abandoned Mozgov in Game 5, went small by surrounding James with more shooters and the Cavaliers lost by 13 points. Both strategies had their pluses but both ended up inevitably failing because the Cavaliers just don’t have many options — and Blatt is struggling to find a combination that works as they attempt to win the final two games of this series to end Cleveland’s 51-year title drought.
“Did I make a mistake? Listen, when you’re coaching a game, you’ve got to make decisions,” Blatt said after the Cavaliers lost, 104-91, in Game 5 at Oracle Arena. “I felt that the best chance for us to stay in the game and to have a chance to win was to play it the way that we played it. It’s no disrespect to anyone, certainly not to Timo who has done a great job for us.”
The Warriors have the talent and roster diversity to play almost any style, which is a major reason why they were the best team in the league during the regular season. But Kerr has no need for Bogut’s plodding rim protection when the team is better off with Draymond Green spreading the court and serving a purpose in the offense aside from boxing out Thompson. Kerr played Bogut three minutes in Game 4 and benched him entirely in Game 5, going instead with Festus Ezeli for four minutes because he’s faster.
“It’s just not a series for bigs right now the way that everything has unfolded,” Kerr said. “The reality is this is a small series, and it works well for us. We’re comfortable with this style. But you never know how every game is going to unfold, and things could be different in Game 6.”
With Mozgov playing just under 10 minutes in Game 5, the Cavaliers failed to outrebound the Warriors for the first time this series and surrendered some critical offensive rebounds in the fourth quarter. When asked about why he went away from Mozgov, Blatt got a little testy: “And how did it do the game before? What was the score of the game?”
From the time Blatt was hired last June, the Cavaliers have undergone numerous transformations — beginning with James leaving Miami for a second run in Cleveland — and he has managed to adjust on the fly in his first season as an NBA head coach. Calls for Blatt to go deeper into his bench seem misguided because they don’t take into account that the Cavaliers’ run from a 19-20 start to second-best record in the Eastern Conference came after a tight, consistent rotation was established. The seven players who have gotten most of the playing time this series are the ones who earned Blatt’s trust. His players might be fatigued but Blatt knows what kind of effort to expect.
Mike Miller got a shot in Game 3, with his dive to the hardwood providing inspiration for a scrappy win. He got to play again in Game 5 and drilled a three-pointer late in the first half. Shawn Marion is set to retire after rarely playing this season and can’t be expected to serve as a difference maker at age 36, yet Blatt was actually asked if his benching was for reasons that went beyond professional.
“No, of course not. Only professional,” Blatt said. “Shawn’s a tremendous guy and a terrific player. That’s just a professional decision. That’s all.”
Blatt’s remaining healthy reserves are big men Brendan Haywood and Kendrick Perkins and rookie guard Joe Harris. Second-guessing Blatt when his strategies don’t work is easy but to expect him to uncover a miracle solution is unfair. The Cavaliers have been better with Mozgov on the floor this series, and he will likely return to a more prominent role in Game 6 on Tuesday.
“I felt we needed to respond to the last game,” Blatt said. “I thought for the most part our guys did it well and handled it well … Timo will be back and he will not lose his way or lose his head just because he didn’t play a lot. He’ll be back playing like he always can, I’m sure, because he’s got character.”
Blatt had to try something different or risk having the Warriors exploit them in similar fashion and deal with more criticism. The Cavaliers actually led 80-79 before the Warriors closed the game on a 25-11 run that was the result of heavy legs more than a lack of height.
For the Cavaliers to have any chance of defeating the Warriors, James has to give the Cavaliers 35 or more points and come close to a triple double. And the Cavaliers also need a run-down, rag-tag collection of role players to play above their expected capabilities two more times. The margin for error is slim and the slightest mistake could open the flood gates for a Golden State team that has thrived with the kind of small ball tactics that would make former Warriors Coach Don Nelson proud.
Despite the sometimes petty line of questioning after the Game 5 defeat, Blatt is trying. But just like the superhuman efforts of James, it just hasn’t been enough. And now the Warriors have a chance to end the NBA season at Quicken Loans Arena.
“We’ve come this far, and we’ve been very good at home,” James said. “We have to understand why we weren’t good in Game 4. We had a lack of energy. We had a lack of effort in a lot of areas in Game 4, and we can’t repeat that or they’ll raise the trophy for sure.”