There has been a steady stream of stories about the Golden State Warriors' lineup change since their 103-82 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 4 of the 2015 NBA Finals on Thursday night.
And, as detailed ad nausea by this point, the lineup change — coupled with effectively benching bigs Andrew Bogut, Festus Ezeli and Marreese Speights — certainly helped the Warriors bounce back from a rather disheartening performance in their Game 3 loss. And major props to Warriors coach Steve Kerr for listening to 28-year-old assistant Nick U'Ren, something you could imagine other NBA coaches past and present not doing, to find the right idea to get the team back on track in this series.
Nevertheless, J.R. Smith made an interesting comment in an article by Matt Moore of CBS Sports yesterday about the much-celebrated adjustment that we should at least entertain before assuming that the Warriors' Small Ball Death Squad will allow the team to coast to another victory and a 3-2 lead in the series.
"Honestly, I don't really think it did much," Smith said. "They got a few cherry picks where we didn't get back on defense. But other than that, they just made shots. Their non-shooters just made shots."
It's probably oversimplifying things to say it didn't do that much — Zach Lowe of Grantland has already detailed the many ways in which going small threw off the Cavs at length. However, I do think it's fair to say that we might be overstating just how much that lineup adjustment is responsible for winning that game; if you don't want to believe what self-proclaimed liar Steve Kerr said about the issue, then you might want to consider what Harrison Barnes, Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, and Andre Iguodala said even before J.R. Smith: they just flat out played harder and competed on more possessions.
If that sounds a bit too cliche, perhaps Adam Lauridsen put it in more palatable terms for those who believe that intangibles don't don't matter in a basketball era in which we can quantify the significance of the angle of a player's release to their shooting efficiency.
Green, Thompson, Iguodala, Barnes, Livingston, Lee and Bogut were physical — returning every shot the Cavs gave them, diving for every loose balls and playing with the anger they had been talking about for 48 hours. They didn’t whine to the refs on missed calls or drop their heads on missed shots. They kept let go of what they couldn’t control, and owned the things that they could.
That mentality of simply fighting on every possession was visible even from the comfort of watching on TV from the Bay Area. And Coach Nick of BballBreakdown noted a couple of things that pointed to pure energy, fight, and focus in addition to (and perhaps moreso than) tactics being the difference in Game 4.
The two things that stood out to me:
- The Warriors sprinting in transition while Cavs guards — not just Timofey Mozgov — failed to keep up, occasionally not even trying.
- The Warriors were far more active defensively, which is partially a result of a small ball defensive unit with Andre Iguodala setting the tone but also a matter of the team looking more decisive and crisp in their rotations when they did double LeBron James (this is worthy of a separate analysis, but the frequency of the double teams was arguably less important than the fact of keeping LeBron off-balance by mixing up the defensive looks).
This was a team that just looked hungrier than they had all season and that hunger produced outstanding results.
Again, it's not that the lineup adjustment didn't matter, but if they had given up and hung their heads when they got down as they did in Game 3 it might not have mattered. As Matt Moore pointed out in a previous article, that starting small ball lineup of Curry, Thompson, Barnes, Iguodala and Green was not actually as spectacular as they've been made out to be given the slow start to the game; the lineup of Curry, Thompson, Shaun Livingston, Iguodala, and Green — a lineup that played a total of just 27 minutes in nine regular season games — was actually better. What's changing is that they're playing harder with that lineup as they push the tempo. You can make a chicken and egg argument there but that intensity is what really matters here.
This isn't some anti-analytics screed and I'm absolutely not an anti-analytics person — the quantifiable observations people make about basketball are extremely valuable, part of the reason the Warriors' composition is so brilliant to begin with, and indispensable in helping people evaluate decision-making about a game the vast majority of us have not played professionally. But this, the simple consistency of focus, has been one of the most consistent themes in Warriors' losses and close wins. As Marcus Thompson of the Bay Area News Group said last night, it has affected the team at home during the playoffs as well:
The Warriors look more anxious than confident at Oracle. Enticed by the rise of the crowd, they throw too many haymakers. They love taking the emotional 3-point shot to punctuate a run, always seeking the highlight play that turns Oracle into a frenzy. But every time they swing and miss, the Warriors give confidence to the visiting team.
I don't want to go as far as saying small ball doesn't matter either -- I've been hoping the team would go that way permanently since Playoff Harrison Barnes revealed himself in the 2013 playoffs. But right now they need to find a way to keep their focus on point and emotions in check.
And as dominant as this team has been during the regular season and as far as they've come in the post-season, it's really easy to lose sight of two possibly opposing facts about this Warriors team: they have no Finals experience maintaining that consistent level of focus this deep into the offseason and yet we still probably haven't even seen what this team can do at full capacity for a sustained period of time.